WHEN YOUR EASTER OUTFIT IS BIRDING GEAR…

Hold on to your Hat Jeanette Hooban at Cape May Hawk Watch Platform Easter 2017

“HOLD ONTO YOUR HAT!” – Intrepid Jeanette Hooban on Easter

Hawk Watch Platform, Cape May, New Jersey

Over the weekend, yours truly set off for New Jersey’s two birding meccas, –Cape May and ‘The Brig’/Forsythe Wildlife Refuge.  As usual, she was running away from Holidays that used to be magical, in quest of winged rarities.  This memorable journey unfolded after Intrepid Jeanette Hooban declared [some months ago], “Carolyn, Easter is YOURS!”

Cape May Hawk Watch Platform aster 2017

HAWK WATCH PLATFORM:  Support these courageous and generous donors, without whose work and words, people could still be slaughtering rare birds by the thousands, all along Sunset Boulevard.

The Climate Change that ‘doesn’t exist’ had other ideas.  Gale-winds had flags snapping almost to the tearing point.  Out of the SOUTH — the direction in which migrants need to be flying.  They may as well have faced a wall.

Wild Wind & Flags Cape May Easter 2017

NOTE THOSE WIND-WHIPPED FLAGS

Jeanette and I learned that only swans, osprey and a smattering of gulls were strong enough either day to surmount the mistral-like onslaught.

Mute Swan in Territorializing Posture Cape May Easter 2017

MUTE SWAN INSTITUTES TERRITORIALIZING POSTURE

We were given three oystercatchers at the Meadows at Cape May — walking around, seeking the ideal spot for the scrape they consider a nest.  Territorialzing was inevitable and amazingly raucous.  Get that verb though, “walking.”  At the Brig, –on the side of the renovated road, opposite Atlantic City–,  a pair of oystercatchers walked around on the pale gravelly substrate, nesting on their minds.  These could have been the pair I watched feeding one young a summer ago, in that same place, where Sandy had devoured the road.

There were a few great egrets in stunning breeding plumage.  They, also, were walking.  Terns wheeled and plunged.  A yellowlegs (I can’t tell greater from lesser unless they’re side-by-side) and some willets also tried to feed in low water, –feed on foot, not on wings.

So, right now, your NJ WILDBEAUTY Cape May activity report is being replaced this time by this poem.  It was written when the Dodge Poetry Festival was still held at Waterloo Village.  Joy Harjo, a feisty, eloquent Native American, magnificently conveyed her splendid multi-level poem, “She Had Some Horses.”

 

“SHE SAW SOME BIRDS”

                                                           (Hearing Joy Harjo at the  Dodge Poetry Festival)

 

she saw some birds who

were little and magical

and easily mistaken

— one for the other —

warbling in underbrush

and sporting, at the last moment

a red kiss

or a brassy crown or a

gold coin on a dark

rump, — and tiny, so tiny

really almost

invisible

 

she saw some birds who

were too high on a tree-

limb or a thermal

or above slate seas

and twisting — this

way and that –, hiding

their field marks

 

they could have been

peregrine or immature golden

against the noon sun but

no one can quite

make this call

 

she saw some birds

with distinctive bellies

plastered flat against

dark trunks which they were

excavating high and deep

where no one can climb

or raid or even — at the very

least — identify

 

she heard some birds

in the wide marsh

as the sun slipped

away from her and even

worse, from her birds

 

who had concealed

themselves among sere rushes

which they exactly matched

so she could not see but only

hear their rattle or click or whine

and wonder if this was her

rail, her shy bittern

 

the ones who so skillfully lose

themselves in the sedges as

she so longs to do in such

a setting,… everywhere

 

CAROLYN FOOTE EDELMANN

 

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CAPE MAY BIRDING WEEKEND PRELIMINARIES – Intrepids at Hawk Watch Platform

Birding, –whether its interval involves weeks, weekends, or stolen moments before sundown–, guarantees the unexpected.

Below is a potpourri of impressions from the Intrepids’ Cape May week, in extraordinarily hot October.

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Sunrise, Cape May, October 2016

Above, Carolyn Yoder watches for the Cape May skimmer flock, at sun’s arrival, on our empty beach.

Below, note birdless sky at the Cape May Bird Observatory Hawk Watch Platrorm, in the face of implacable winds out of the southeast:

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Ready for Action, neglected scope and camera at Cape May Hawk Watch Platform in Hot October 2016

 

“…Home are the wanderers, home from the sea…” For a series of idyllic days, Jeanette Hooban, Carolyn Yoder and I woke and slept to the sound of waves.  Except for our superb dinner at the Ebbitts Room of the Virginia Hotel, we never left the (perfectly restored charm-ful Victorian) house without binoculars in hand.

 

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Timelessness Central, Cape May Dwelling

 

Extraordinary fellowship was the hallmark of our days and night.  Especially as Carolyn Yoder. read aloud of Whitman and of Yeats, on this beckoning porch, in pitch darkness seasoned with moonrise.

 

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Dunes and Sea from Timeless Porch of Restored Victorian Cape May Residence

 

As for birding itself…   Well, let’s just say that 21st-Century people tend not to realize the crucial factor of wind-direction, –for birders, to be sure; but even more-so, for the birds.  Fall migrants need tail winds straight and strong, out of the northwest, surging them southward.  Our four southeast-buffeted days brought glorious sunrises, sunsets, and even a delightful dip in the Delaware Bay.     Birding?  Let’s put it down to quality over quantity   –that lone whimbrel on the Skimmer’s Back-Bay Birding pontoon Cape May saltmarsh expedition, above all.

 

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Jeanette Prepares for her Dip in Delaware Bay, at Higbee Beach

 

When the keenest birder abandoned his scope and camera (see above) and the raptor workshop began to speak of optics rather than birds, we took ourselves elsewhere.  We headed for Higbee Beach, scoping it out for our final morning’s dawn.  We planned to discover which warblers (especially) had chosen to rest among dunes and shrubs, rather than take on Delaware Bay.  Basically, this Intrepid Expedition convinced us that planning and birding do not go hand-in-hand.

 

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Migrant Human Crossing Delaware Bay — well, not exactly crossing…

 

I joined Jeanette, somewhat unexpectedly, attired in my shorts and shirt, when waves suddenly removed sands from beneath my feet.  The water was divine — cool as perfectly chilled champagne, and as invigorating.  My favorite part was looking up at sky through the Bay, (neither of us had ever entered it before).  I pretend I can still taste remnant salt on my sunburnt cheeks.

We had a little competition for that body of water:

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Ferry (Cape May – Lewes, Delaware) Entering the Bay

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HIgbee Beach, Where We Would Have Spent our Last Morning, Had not FOG and Windlessness Rendered Even the Atlantic Ocean Invisible

 

We have new respect, –the three of us–, for wind direction.  Those inescapable currents act like giant policemen’s hands, holding up all in flight, causing everything from slowing to fall-outs in bird-centric Cape May.

(As I work on this blog, we are experiencing serious south-westerly wind, so fierce that it is gusting ‘my’ goldfinches right off their thistle socks.  This wind is of no use to migrants, either.  Nor to all the other obsessive birders down there for Cape May Birding Weekend, in its full swing at this moment…)

 

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Cape May Bird Observatory’s Hawk Watch Platform Sponsors

Our first day on the Platform, we had an American bald eagle implacably chasing a migrant osprey over the tree line, most likely the osprey’s breakfast.  The ‘spotters’ told us, “eagles usually win.”

Humans on the Hawk Watch Platform had time to memorize the wisdom of our brilliant ornithological mentor, Pete Dunne, meticulously and wittily differentiating sharp-shins from Cooper’s hawks.

My i.d. skills were especially honed on this journey because a dear friend, –who prefers to remain anonymous–, loaned me HER priceless Swarovski optics for the duration.  Miracles were witnessed through them, not all of them at ‘The Point.’

 

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Carolyn Yoder and Jeanette Hooban Walk Away from a Lake Full of Swans

 

A good deal of time was spent studying mute swans in coordinated pairs, on the lake below the platform, and on the lake reflecting Cape May Light.  This land is mercifully preserved, and assiduously maintained, despite dire storms, –so that birds, pollinators, native wildflowers, and humans may thrive there.

 

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Feisty Butterfly on Cape May Point Boardwalk

 

The leitmotif of our pre-Birding-Weekend days was the bell-like muffled chatter of yellow-rumped warblers in and out of high tide plant and vines.  In normal years, we wouldn’t have been able to see the ivory blossoms of high tide plant for nectaring monarchs.  Amazingly enough, we may have been granted a higher proportion of lepidopterae than birds, for most of our time on the platform.

 

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Jeanette Discovering the Gadwall, confirmed by official Hawk Watch Platform Spotter, from Cape May Bird Observatory

 

Fellowship is high among today’s birders.  The second day, Jeanette was convinced that head shape and neck design meant a bird other than black duck.  Here she is, her discovery being confirmed and identified.  Queries are welcomed and richly answered.

But even Pete Dunne noted, “When talk turns to Cape May restaurants, we know the wind is wrong on the Platform.”  I teased him that a talk on such topics would be his next article.  Pete shook his head…  “Done that!,” he noted, turning to watch a sharp-shinned hawk twisting in high erroneous gusts.

Birders tend to have many teachers, over our years of (unending) apprenticeship:  But there is no one from whom I more joyously and thoroughly learn birding essentials than Pete Dunne.  Every aspect of Cape May Point echoes his work there, since he essentially founded Cape May Bird Observatory, standing on a picnic table and counting raptors decades ago.  Pete dared declare that Cape May had the highest seasonal concentrations of migrating raptors along the East Coast/Atlantic Flyway.

 

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Raptor I.D. Flag at the Point

 

Many of us first learned of Pete in his New York Times columns on nature in general; birds, birders and birding in particular.  But I must not overlook his long list of books, among which two favorites are Featherquest and Tales of a Low-Rent Birder.

The subtly witty Pete is the Ur-speaker at birding events.  He remains the ideal guide on a day devoted to avian creatures – whether on a boat on the Maurice River or on a rather odd bus in Philadelphia, riding from the Heinz Refuge to the shaded, bird-rich grave sites of America’s earliest ornithologists, Alexander Wilson and George Ord.  It would seem that birder-feuds are less virulent now than in their day — Ord is known for fiery resentment of colleagues, John James Audubon and Thomas Say.

 

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From Far and Near

 

The miracle of Pete Dunne is that he does not hold his encyclopedic knowledge ‘close to the chest.’  Quite the contrary — there is no more dedicated, determined teacher.  As Guide, he not only wants everyone ‘on’ the bird.  Pete sees to it that you take home field marks, silhouette nuances, and nearly-nonsense jingles so that you can do all this without him.

 

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Habitat-Protectors of the Future

 

As I tell Pete most times when I’m privileged to be with him, “All of us take you with us, every time we pick up our binoculars.”

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Pete Dunne on the Hawk Watch Platform from Internet

 

 

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Carolyn Watches Birdwatchers at the Platform

CAPE MAY CALLING

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Beach Walk to the Light, Cape May

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that The Intrepids are prone to stealing the last glimmers of summer, by going away toward the end of October.  Jeanette is determined to wade, even to swim.  With any luck, newly prospering humpback whales and/or clusters of minke whales will migrate alongside our beachwalks, beginning Monday.

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Storm at Sea, Cape May

This October flight pattern  stranded me up in the Berkshires, while Sandy roared his/her impossible way throughout those distant mountains. Next-door North Adams lost power for days.  Somehow Williamstown was spared. I spent that week marooned, but warm, unlike my Princeton neighbors.  My days were spent reading thick books and watching a weather station of mere words typed — not even a commentator, not a picture, not even of Mantaloking’s destructions.

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Stormy Williamstown

For there was no way for me to come home from my three-day runaway to wild beauty of the mountainous type for nearly a week.  Driving back roads home, trees were down on all sides, and I never knew what literally lay ahead.  But nowhere on that interminable route was as ruined as Princeton.  Police cars spun blinding lights on the tarmac of familiar gas stations, for people were at each others’ throats over necessities.  It had been rather blessed, being stranded between the Berkshires, Green Mountains, the nearby Catskills.  That kind town took me to heart as a refugee.  That multi-houred drive home brought me not surcease, but power outage at home, after all that.  Tasha O’Neill and Alan McIlroy took me in, wrapped me in wool, gave me a warm supper in their twinkling greenhouse.  To this day, I rue my blase assertion, in a cafe about 2/3 of the way to Williamstown, hearing the owners talk of the coming storm: “Oh, don’t be silly.  There aren’t hurricanes in mountains.”

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Mount Greylock Vista as Storm Nears

Other Octobers brought returns to Williamstown with Jeanette Hooban and Carolyn Yoder, followed by last year’s sentimental journey to Cape Cod.  This year, Jeanette found us a bright (probably modern) Cape May Victorian home to rent, a block from the sands.  This means the three of us can stroll in quest of birds, at this time of key raptor migration, at first light and last.  The weather’s to be good.  The birding spectacular.  A friend came to work today to loan me her Swarovski optics, –a king’s ransom in monetary value, and beyond price in bird details that will be evident for me as they only are with those phenomenal lenses.  Also beyond price in terms of trust and friendship.

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The Faithful Gather on the Cape May Hawk Watch Platform

Carolyn Yoder, my co-author of the book on Stuart Country Day School’s fifty years of excellence, is driving us.  Jeanette found the ideal setting, at a price even I can afford.  [Basically less than a night at a normal hotel…]  Jeanette’s bringing wine.  I’m bringing breakfast muffins from Lawrenceville’s phenomenal Gingered Peach bakery.  Cape May will have a bakery, but it won’t hold a candle to this!  My Cape May Bird Observatory Membership is in good order, so we’ll have access to all the latest migratory information; as well as certain birding sites only available to members in good standing.

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Skimmers Return from the Open Sea

Carolyn’s never been to Cape May.  Jeanette, I think, never overnight.  I’ll be the site-and-restaurant guide.  You all know there is nothing I cherish more than leading enthusiasts to new nature experiences.

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Cape May Irresistible, Even in Winter                 (from Internet)

We’ll do Back Bay birding on the Skimmer (pontoon boat with naturalist staff), and walk Reed’s Beach at leas one dawn when there’ll be warblers collecting and facing the dauntless challenge of Delaware Bay.  The birds, of course, are the true Intrepids.  The hawk watch platform should lend irresistible raptors, as well as the resident peregrine.  There’ll be wild swans on ponds tucked in among the dunes, and a black one has been recently sighted.  We could also find loons in those jewel-like pools.  We hope for squadrons of skimmers zooming in from the sea, and maybe even new whales and late dolphins.

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The Peregrine’s Bunker, near the Hawk Watch Platform

NJWILDBEAUTY readers may remember about the adventures of Tasha O’Neill and Alan McIlroy, last Christmas Day.  I would be groping upward from Cape May; and they downward from Princeton, in fog so thick we could not see the hoods of our cars.  Our destination was the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge near Smithville, otherwise known as Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, where we have a festive Christmas picnic ever year.  Tasha pooh-poohed my dawn proposal to call our off our plans: “There’s so much fog, I can neither see nor hear the sea, and I am inches from it.  We’re not going to get any birds!”  “Carolyn,” insisted wise Tasha, “this isn’t about birds.  It’s about fellowship.”  Of course it was:

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The Christmas Red-Tail at the Brig,                          taken by Tasha O’Neill

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Tasha O’Neill and Al McIlroy in the Christmas Fog at the Brig, 2015

And fellowship will be the core of this journey, beginning Monday for the week. Three friends-of-long standing, who cherish the same things with the same passion, will stretch their wings together in setting new to two of them.  Anything could happen…  but, probably not an October hurricane.  I had remnants of that last weekend at ‘The Brig’, so that birds could not fly and we couldn’t see the sitting ones without open rain-smeared windows, so that wind-driven rain soaked us in the car.  We earned our birders’ stripes that day.  But this coming week will be easier.

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Where the Warblers Meet the Bay — Reed’s Beach, Cape May

And, o, yes.  October is an ‘R’ month.  We are traveling to the home of Cape May Salts, my favorite oysters after Wellfleet.  I told my colleagues at work this afternoon, “We’ll be o.d.’ing on oysters.”

Here’s to adventure!