Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Birding Without Trying

I admit it, I am getting to the age where I have stopped caring about a lot of things. For the purpose of this post I will restrict those things to birding.

There was a point when I didn't think twice - ok, maybe I thought once or twice - about getting up before dawn, eating just enough to keep the stomach growling down and then taking my gear and myself out to one of my favorite spots to look for migrant birds. Usually this was in the spring when the gaily colored warblers and others would be flitting around in trees starting to bud or leaf out and singing territorial songs that would make them a bit easier to find.

In autumn, when the birds are in duller colors and flying south, my bird watching would be less in the forests than at a hawk platform, where you don't have to get up as early and, if you are lucky, you can get to a good spot with a minimum of hard climbing.

Atop rocky Hawk Mtn. (RE Berg-Andersson)
This autumn was the first when I did not have a great desire to go to Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, one of the best places in the east to watch migrating raptors, but one of the harder places to climb to the top. Our first time there was magical - warblers in the forests lower in elevation, almost no crowds for a long time once we joined the counters at the top of the North lookout. Even the trip down the mountain allowed us to find a new bird for us, a Bicknell's thrush.

The second time, a few years later, was harder. No birds of note in the woods on the way up or down, but even if there were the rocky path was treacherous, and I nearly fell several times. I fear falling. People my age who fall break bones and mentally go into a tailspin, as my vibrant 90+ year old friend did after falling and breaking his ankle.

So this year I've restricted my hawk watching to New Jersey's Scott's Mountain, where one drives to the top of the mountain, pulls out her lawn chair and sits with a convivial group of people who have a fine view to the north.

I've also had no desire to rise early and go to the woods. My wood walking has been in the afternoons. Sometimes you get lucky late in the day and the birds are flying about trying to get a last meal before dark, when they will either bed down or take off to the south.

Still, for me to not go outside on the weekend after a week indoors working is anathema. So this past Saturday, MH and I went down the Jersey Shore.

We specifically timed the trip to avoid the "season," when the traffic is horrendous on the highways and on the beach. Unlike a lot of coastal areas in other states, almost all of New Jersey's beaches are regulated to make the towns money, and you can't sit on a beach and look at the water unless you pay for a beach pass, or are staying in a motel. That doesn't include the cost of parking.

We also specifically looked for an area not made famous, or infamous, by Snooki and her cohorts.

There was one more requirement: It had to be close enough to an area where we could do some birding later in the day or if we got restless. But our primary purpose was to sit on the beach and just relax for at least as many hours as it took to drive down.
My chair awaits. Strathmere beach, Sept. 21, 2014 (Margo D. Beller)
It has been a long time since MH and I just sat on a beach -- it was the year after we got married, when we stayed on Cape Cod and discovered the hard way the lotion we'd brought was old and useless. We've sat for short periods on town benches looking at beaches - Mexico Beach on the Florida panhandle comes immediately to mind, as do many areas along the coast of North Carolina - but not in NJ. We either bird or avoid.

I won't keep you in suspense any longer - we found that place in the northern part of Cape May County, about 20 miles from Cape May itself and all its birding temptations. The town is Strathmere, the beach requires no pass and the parking is free. The town is just north of the busier Sea Isle City, which that day was having a huge Irish heritage festival (who knew?), the kind of noisy, booze-fueled thing shore towns throw to draw visitors and just what we wanted to avoid.

We sat on the beach for over three hours. While the rest of the area beyond the dunes was warming to the upper 70s, we sat with a strong wind in our faces and clouds overhead keeping us cool enough where a fleece jacket was not out of place.

We were nearly alone. We had parked along the road, near the temporary toilet - another consideration for when I go birding now - and walked on the stairs up and over the dune to sit just at the high tide line. We had just passed the low tide point and ahead of us was a large flock of sanderlings running to and from the surf, feeding. I put my binoculars in my lap and every so often would pick them up to look at these shorebirds. At one point I looked more closely and realized there were other, smaller birds mixed in with them - semipalmated plovers, semipalmated sandpipers and one least sandpiper.There may have been others but, as I said, I wasn't there to look for birds.

Around us flew herring and Franklin gulls, several types of terns and two ospreys hovering over the same area as human surfcasters and for the same reason - fishing for supper.
After leaving for a late lunch we drove down to Stone Harbor's Wetlands Institute and found tricolored and little blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, great and snowy egrets and a variety of shorebirds in the impoundments. We were looking for birds and were not disappointed.

But sitting on the beach was for me. The birds came without my seeking them. I had a day of few people and the aggravations they cause (aside from having to drive on New Jersey's notorious highways for a few hours each way), with little noise aside from the roar of the wind and surf in my ears.

Is this anti-social behavior a good thing? Maybe not. But for one day I got as close to heaven as I am likely to get while maintaining a pulse.