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.
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:
“…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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…)
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”