Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, March 16, 2013

My State of Birding

The other day I was looking at the New Jersey bird list and found a reference to a "Morris Plains Pacific loon." Morris Plains is a small borough in northern New Jersey.

I didn't know which was more startling, a Pacific loon from the west found in New Jersey or a Pacific loon found at all in MY TOWN.

My photo of the Pacific loon, Morris Plains, NJ
 The loon, a juvenile, had been in the area for five days by then - as of today it is still being seen (and a second one was found even more recently at Lake Parsippany a few miles away!).

I was angry as hell that I'd missed it all that time but quickly caught up the next day by getting MH away from his books and papers and grabbing our binoculars and cameras to rush to the pond where it had been found, in an otherwise ugly office park at the edge of our town, literally five minutes away.

We saw the loon, we took our pictures (semi-decent because even with a long lens the bird was still too far for me) and even got to see that ringnecked ducks, redbreasted mergansers and hooded mergansers were in the pond, with a lovely redtailed hawk in the clear blue, chased by two less-than-happy American crows.

Another photo I took.
A good day, I thought. It's not often an unusual bird is found in my "backyard" and easy to see during a workday break. Oh, the joy of working from home.

Then, that evening, I was checking the list again and came upon a post that amazed me.

It was from a Bayonne (NJ) birder who posts regularly. Something set him off, however. A gyrfalcon had been found at Gilgo Beach off Fire Island in NY and, I'm gathering by his post, the bird chasers had gotten out of hand.

In "The state of birders/birding" he wrote:

It seems that the current atmosphere favors the "birder" and not the "birdwatcher." With RTD (real-time data), listers (chasers) seem more numerous than "birdwatchers." This concerns me because then it is sport (the extreme) and not science (the desire). Obviously, most fall somewhere in between.

Well, he's right about that. Many are the times I've complained about people who take the fun of birding much too seriously, traveling miles just for a glimpse, lugging gun-like lenses and trampling the environment in the process. In its extreme, it's the plot of the movie "The Big Year."

At the office park we met one woman who had driven two hours north from Gloucester County in south Jersey. (This wasn't odd to us as we've been known to drive two hours south for the same reason. But we always combine that with other things, such as visiting a bookstore.) Another woman there said that on a whim she decided to throw her dog in the car and drive over -- from Delaware.

Talk about a loon!

So yes, there are nutcases out there who time their movements to those of the birds.

But here is where Mr. Bayonne got me mad.

This all goes back to grade school. As far as I can tell, most lurk and wait for the "real birders" to "find" and report birds that they then "chase." Boil it down and these are the people that copied homework back in the day.

Now wait a minute, buster. I don't LURK.

Those "real birders" must not need money because they are reporting odd birds in far-flung areas every day. MH and I can only do any real birding on the weekends because during the week we have a little thing called WORK to do.

That's why I go to the list, to see what's out there so during my precious free weekend time I am not going off half-cocked. It gives me an idea, and then it's up to me to interest MH in joining me on the drive.

I don't cotton to being called a homework copier.

I don't put myself in the same league as those who read the list, learn of a gyrfalcon 500 miles away and then go nuts trying to get to it, find it and take a picture of it for his or her Flickr page. As MH likes to say, it's supposed to be a hobby.

Most times, whether I go with MH or alone, I don't find anything worthy of such frenzy, even if I wanted to report it. (I read the list but I am not a subscriber; only subscribers can report.) Most times I go out and find birds and am happy to see them, especially familiar ones I haven't seen for a while, such as the brown creeper or the bluebird. If someone else reports to the list about a flock of redhead ducks on nearby Lake Parsippany, as one did the other week, I plan my time and energy accordingly.

During weekdays I must content myself with the wonders of my own backyard.

Redtail picture by RE Berg-Andersson
For instance, the redtailed hawk above decided to just hang out for a while one day, and then it came for short periods during the next two days. Redtails are buteos. They like to eat squirrels, among other small mammals, so the ones in my yard disappeared as soon as this hawk flew in. The feeder birds knew they'd be left alone because it wasn't hunting, just sitting. However, the 200 grackles that were about to divebomb the feeders quickly took off from the surrounding trees.

...time to get out and find your own birds...might be the most fun you ever had;) he concluded.

Oh, I will, boy-o, I will indeed, as I do almost every weekend.

And when I do find an unusual bird - like the greater shearwater along a New Jersey beach or the sedge wren found in the wet grass of Somerset County's Lord Sterling Park, both seen a few years ago - I ain't gonna be reporting that news to anyone for the very reason that pissed you off about the gyrfalcon: the resulting overkill by zealous birders.

On that, Mr. Bayonne and I agree.

Otherwise, to Hell with him.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Many of my friends, now in their 50s and 60s, are starting to come to terms with mortality. Their parents are ill or they are infirm or are frail. My friends worry about their parents. Lately they've been dying.

Unfortunately, I am an old hand at this stuff. My father died 20 years ago, my mother 33 and a number of grandparents and other relatives in between.

It has been a long time since I've had to attend a funeral. The other week it was my mother's brother, who was in his early 90s and had been in a locked ward with dementia for the past several years after six years on his own following his wife's death.

The rabbi spoke. The cantor sang. My cousins remembered their father and their children either spoke of their grandfather or sang a song of comfort. Some friends of my cousins were there, one of my uncle's cousins who took the train up from Washington, two relatives through my late aunt, MH and me.

As I sat and listened to the heart-felt words I noticed to my right a large reproduction of an Audubon print of a snowy egret - dark bill, yellow feet. A lovely portrait. Then I looked ahead of me. A small effigy of a bald eagle, talons bared as tho' about to grab a fish from a pond. When I had the chance I looked and realized there were Audubon prints all around the room - flycatchers, wrens, owls.

It almost made me laugh out loud.

At my house the joke is I can't go anywhere without birding. I somehow found a chattering goldfinch on top of a traffic light in the middle of downtown Chicago one summer trip. I watch a commercial and I notice the birds, not the product. I sit at a garden party and follow the flight of a pileated woodpecker overhead in the middle of a converation.

At my uncle's grave, I heard a distant flock of geese. (At my aunt's burial, a redtailed hawk had been up in a nearby tree.)

It was sad attending the small funeral.

But I couldn't help thinking of another recent death, that of my old friend Steve. We had all been young together, friends for over 30 years, had a lot of good, wild times. Lots of stories.

Then he had gone silent, mad at something we allegedly did, refusing to tell intermediaries what that was.

To hell with him, I said. Then, five years later, he suddenly died.

We heard of his passing long after his funeral. He was buried in the family plot in a cemetery at the far end of Cape Cod, one of my favorite birding areas. He died in December, not long after his 56th birthday.

Knowing me, I'd have found a bird somewhere, maybe while at his grave - presuming I'd have seen or heard it through my sobbing. I don't know how much I would've been comforted. This death was too close to home, a reminder of my own mortality, and MH's.

Losing parents is hard. Losing contemporaries, I've learned, is harder.

You can say an old, demented man who has passed on is "at peace." Many people said this of my uncle after his funeral.

But what of a young man who was very much alive, already at peace with his life and with a woman who loved him?

Doesn't seem fair.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Caged Birders

One of the features of the National Wildlife Refuge known as The Great Swamp in northern New Jersey is its tour road. Drivers enter the refuge and quickly leave a paved road for a gravelly run on which they are supposed to travel at 15 miles per hour.

If they are birders like me, they are going far slower and frequently stopping in hopes of hearing or seeing something from the road – a harrier, bluebirds, perhaps an owl.

There are two lots to park in along the way, and serious birders park, get out of their cars and start scanning the skies.

It’s the other type of birder I’m writing about here.

These are the people who drive considerably faster than 15 mph, sending up dust clouds. They like to “look at nature” with their windows up and the heat or air conditioning on in what is their four-wheeled cage.

There are other tour roads where serious birders drive, such as the NWR near Atlantic City known as Brigantine. You can stop along the road and scan birds from the road or your car. Green flies be damned! This is no place for a quick run through “nature.”

Pleasant Plains Rd. tour road, Great Swamp

Then there are birders who can only bird from a car. I met an older woman at one of the Swamp lots who told me it’s hard for her to walk now and so she drives to a spot and sits there with her binoculars. If something flies by she’s happy. She’s had a lot of luck thanks to her patience while others stop and go after mere minutes if they see no action.

Contrast her with a couple I saw recently at the same Swamp lot. I had already pulled up and left my car to scan the area. Redheaded woodpecker sometimes show up in the dead trees far to the left, bald eagles drift on the distant horizon and ducks fly up from the marsh grasses.

A car pulled up containing a boomer couple. The man raised his binoculars and watched the black ducks that would suddenly rise, fly a bit and then put down. It was a cold day and their windows were closed. The woman just sat there. They never left the car.

I, meanwhile, had turned around and found an American kestrel, the smallest of U.S. falcons, sitting on a power wire behind the car. Such a pretty little killer. Another man had left his car and was taking pictures. But the couple in the first car backed out and quickly left the lot. Did they see the falcon? I doubt it.

We all need to get out of our comfort zones. We need to walk around, not just for the beneficial exercise but to experience the world around us. That’s why I bird. What kind of world do you really see from a closed car?

People who experience “nature” looking out the car’s front window might as well be at home watching a big-screen TV.