People who are constantly battered by storms find themselves stir-crazy. This dire condition is particularly offensive to naturalists. When we make plans to bird anyway, observers are known to diagnose us as plain crazy. Be that as it may, two magnificent days unfolded among birds between this week’s most recent snows.
Two friends defied public opinion to set out for Sandy Hook with me on Friday. We carried, and later stuffed ourselves into, gear the equal of anything I ever wore skiing in Aspen and Zermatt.
All that garb wasn’t necessary for our first spectacular birds of that day. Removing coats at the table of Bahrs (seafood restaurant par excellence, Atlantic Highlands, feeding the public since 1917 or before), we picked up our optics before we opened our menus.
“Grebe?,” one questioned. “Diving duck.” Another answered. Waterbirds awash in vivid color whirled and fed, right in the tidally thin Shrewsbury River, practically at our feet. True birders carry their binoculars anywhere a feather might show up. They also take their Sibleys (best bird guide) into restaurants by water. David (Allen Sibley) and sharp eyes noting a variegated beak proved that the first star of Friday’s bird show was a common goldeneye. I had only seen a goldeneye in books. You’re supposed to do a ritual dance when you come upon a life bird such as I did. I left that ritual unperformed. And yes, we did finally order, starting with fresh oysters, three different species from Maine (the tiniest the most savory), two from Connecticut, one from the Chesapeake
We tore our eyes from the goldeneye as a stunning female merganser hove into view. She’s the one who seems to have stuck a wing into a light socket — her red ‘hair’ frizzed into the most radical of “Mohawks”. Her mate’s hair-do (feather-do?) was equally electrifying — only a rich forest green. Right below us, we feasted our eyes on dazzling white splotches among his back feathers, like portholes on the S.S. France. The two mergansers fed ceaselessly in the waning tide. Anne Zeman insisted that the female was actually tired of eating.
Beyond pilings where fishing boats usually moor, a family of merry buffleheads bopped up and down. Black and white, round (hunters called them butterballs) as rubber duckies, they carried on in complex minuets. ‘Buffies’ disappear so suddenly and so completely, you think you imagined them. Then there they are again! Either three cormorants, or one comorant three times, arrowed past, his burnished beak so vivid in that rare sun.
The palette of our lunchtime birds was gold, red, red-orange and red-gold. Beaks and legs vied with immaculate feathers. It was as though someone had tugged all those colors out of the Crayola box, scribbling as hard as he or she could on beaks and feathers and legs; then shone the brightest lantern onto each and every species.
Over into Sandy Hook itself, we would see more birds than cars. That’s a first.
Right by Spermaceti Cove at the entry, where we were supposed to find oystercatchers, we flushed a great blue heron. The three of us, [bundled to the teeth, hardly anything showing, not even our eyes, for they were deep in binoculars], were trekking along the highway verge above the cove. Sandy had chewed up and spit out the boardwalk that always led us to far reaches to find rare birds. We literally heard the concussion of air in wings, as a majestic great blue heron erupted at our approach.
At the hawk watch platform, at North Beach, not a creature was stirring. Forget snowies, — snowy owls which have been sighted at ‘the Hook’ all winter, were nowhere in evidence. Lack of snow there (warmer by the ocean, windier?) may have removed the snowies’ beneficial white camouflage. They would have really stood out, sitting there against pale sands. We strolled a long time toward the water, toward bridges and lighthouses and unwelcome views of Manhattan. We were absolutely alone, among stark dune and wind-buffeted dune grass. Flattened prickly pear looks dessicated beyond hope. It will, indeed, rise again. The most vivid colors waved among bayberries, those cinnamon-stick leftover leaves.
Circling back into the park, we passed all those strange gold former military dwellings, all of them Sandy-battered. Every house had slanted props and vanished porch supports. Haunting, if not haunted, they stared with empty eyes toward the river that had risen to ruin them. Workmen were tending to the second house, and may have completed some sort of buttressing and renewal on the first. It would be a pity to let that strip of history collapse into sand-strewn rubble.
One last chance to park in a small lot to the left, not far beyond the Sandy Hook Light. Hopping out of the car, in yes, welcome sunshine, although lowering sun, we came immediately upon a thrush. All puffed to ward off cold and blustery winds, this bird was so wild, it was as though he had never heard of humans. He hopped and searched among leaves so near we could hear the impact of those tiny claws amidst crispness he matched so perfectly. He stayed a long time, coming nearer and nearer, then flew and returned, to the base of a tree full of cedar waxwings. The dropping sun intensified every carat of gold amidst those feathers. Deciduous trees looked full of Christmas ornaments. Then all the ornaments took off and flew west over the river.
In the car, driving home, we were hard-pressed to name the most significant birds. I didn’t see it then, but writing, it becomes apparent, they were all significant.
In retrospect, the miracle of the birds of Friday was all that gold and red and red-orange — among the ducks, among the yellow-rumps, among those waxwings. Colors we see in fires, –on a hearth or on a beach. Warming hues our snow-strafed hearts require in this winter of discontent. Above all, we walked that day in sun.
The next morning, I met journalist and fellow-poet, Linda Arntzenius, for a hearty diner breakfast, preparatory to an exploration of the Marsh. Formerly called Hamilton/Trenton/Bordentown, it has been rechristened “The Abbott Marshlands”. Right in the heart of Trenton, off South Broad and Sewell Avenue, one drives down a steep driveway and parks by a lake called Spring. Legend has it the Lenni Lenape, who gathered in the Marsh, named that lake because it is spring-fed. Legend also insists that beavers were the first to dam it onto a lake. This Marsh is a freshwater tidal wetland, essential for wildlife in all seasons.
Linda and I have walked its trails before, always marveling at the solitude and extreme beauty, both watery and terrestrial, that awaits in the hearts of all those towns. Beaver lodges just beyond the lake make its storied origin seem real. Twigs perhaps rejected by the beavers in their nightly forays filled water on both sides of the tiny bridge. Wild yam seeds dangled like farthings from their vines, lit again by lowering light, intensifying their coin resemblance.
There was much more snow at the Marsh than at Sandy Hook. And that snow is marble-hard, Michaelangelo material. A trekking pole kept me upright, in whiteness that did not give under our boots. A single turkey vulture float-coasted over us at entry, and mute swans presided in waters to the right of our trail. They were cold, too — preferring to tuck their orange beaks into back wings.
Overhead, fish crows cried “Uh-oh, Uh-oh” as we two-legged intruders made our way in their domain. A robin or two hopped in the midst of the forest – such an unlikely setting that we didn’t recognize the birds at first. Of course, Linda is accustomed to British robins, rounder and brighter and somehow perkier than ours, which added to the momentary mystery.
Again, we were given sun, sun, sun. Again, we were practically the only people there, all afternoon. On the final turn toward Beaver Point, where more lodges awaited, two more mute swans swam about with aplomb. They resembled the swan boats of Boston, wings raised high over their backs.
Swans are very important to Linda, not only because in Great Britain, they belong to the Queen. They have resonance because of her beloved sister, lost to us now. We are both the kind of person who can take comfort in a bird as a messenger from elsewhere.
Who would expect a wetlands in Trenton to provide spiritual renewal?
Well that’s how it is about birds.
Go ahead. Defy anyone who calls it or you crazy.
More urgently, perhaps, than any other winter. Get OUT there. Let nature nurture you. Let her fill you with golden light and feathers in leaves and wild calls overhead and strange fungi decorating severed trees.
Fill you, so you can get through however many storms wait in the wings. (Pun intended.)