Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Monday, July 27, 2009
On Sunday, Pamela and I decided to join a Mass Audubon Seabird and Whale Watch trip starting out of Newburyport, MA and heading out towards Jeffrey's Ledge. We were socked in by fog for a good part of the trip, so seabird counts were a bit low. We did have plenty of immature and sub-adult gannets though, as well as a few adults - many of which were following a trawler along with hundreds of gulls. These are certainly far from my best photos I've taken, but they're the best I've got yet for these members of the booby family.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Earlier this summer, I was in a local antique shop poking around, when I came across an old, heavily stickered, steamer trunk with a sign on it reading "$25 - includes contents." I quizzed the clerk about it, and it seems that it had only recently come into their possession, but was locked-up tight and no key was supplied. The business was going to be closing up due to the economy, so they were more interested in simply selling it than working on finding out what was inside. A quick assessment and I was confident that not only was the trunk in excellent shape and worth the asking price, but that it had also probably been last used about one hundred years ago. Romantic notions of what I might find quickly passed my mind, and without any attempt to bargain, I purchased the trunk and brought it home (much to my wife's despair - the last thing she felt we needed was more stuff in our attic or basement.)
It remained in our attic, mostly forgotten about until this past weekend when we were doing some summer cleaning, and when I picked-up the trunk to move it, I lost my footing and dropped it on one corner. Lo and behold - the locked latches sprung open! Sometimes you have to believe that certain things in life are pre-destined - and for me this was one of those moments. Like a child on Christmas morning, I excitedly went through the items inside. The trunk had belonged to an amateur naturalist named Heathcliff P. Sharpe. Like myself, he seemed particularly interested in the avian world, but was open to any experiences the natural world put in his path. (Unlike me, he seems to have had the means to travel to satisfy his desire to see and learn about as much of the natural world as he could.) Amongst the treasures enclosed - clothes appropriate for safari, a Dopp kit, a rusting pistol, carefully-wrapped jars with long dead insects, and an old pair of field glasses, with a star-burst shaped crack in the right ocular (which I fear might have happened when I dropped the trunk) - there was a leather-bound journal, with pages of notes, as well as folded letters, telegrams, and other correspondences from friends around the world that kept him well aware of what each was seeing in their corner of the planet. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share a bit of what I've encountered in that journal with you.
On the frontispiece, in a thin handwriting likened to that seen on crumbling exhibit tags of museum specimens that haven't been touched in decades (or longer), was an inscription that only strengthened my feelings of kinship to this gentleman naturalist:
"I am not a man of many words, and in fact, those that I do write are read by few with much approval. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to make note of my experiences in this journal. Where others words may best describe those events that I cannot do justice to, I shall transcribe their lines for posterity, and to aid my own memory when it might fail in future years. -H"
For many years, it seems, Heathcliff was quite content to ramble around the United States. I can only assume that his interest began in New York, where one summer, while escaping a work-a-day life with his friend Mike, they encountered several fledgling birds - an experience that I like to believe was the real impetus to learn more. Within the year, he was travelling to see as much as he could often along the worn trails of our nation in the company of friends, such as one dear friend he only refers to affectionately as "Bev"who was able to show him his first American Bald Eagle. Some time later, while spending time with the Ridger, he would get get additional looks - as well as some wonderful mementos of the experience.
I do not know how he became acquainted with the artist Vicky Henderson, but it is clear that a correspondence had developed and she was well aware of his interest in birds. So much so that she telegraphed him to tell of a wonderful experience she had in Tennessee, and entreating him to do the same.
From Tennessee, he ventured east to North Carolina, where he met a young lady named Catherine at a cotillion ball, who was obviously quite smitten with him, and it seems safe to assume that he felt similar feelings towards her, since there were quite a few letters from her adorned with the typical endearments of the time. Alas, her family felt that she was too young to leave the nest and go adventuring quite yet.
A regular exchange of letters between them grew to be the norm, and Catherine was always sure to let Heathcliff know when she was able to share in his passion for birds - like the time she was able to visit her friend Cindy in Michigan, and she was introduced to the beautiful song of the Wood Thrush.
Without the young lady with whom he had begun a romance, he consoled himself with friends - and birds. And where better to do so than the great state of Texas. Letters of introduction had been sent in advance of his arrival in order to be sure that Heathcliff would enjoy the best of Texas hospitality and bird life. His first host was to be a true southern gentleman and family man, with whom he had shared some correspondence, and a growing passion for photography, which was becoming more prevalent in those days. Kyle brought him to the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary for a bird and photography tour, and his first glimpses at the extravagant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Later while attending an opening of Oak Point Park and Nature Preserve, his attention was directed to the resident Belted Kingfishers by another local naturalist, Amber Coakley. And another day he also happened upon another young man about the same age, and together he and Jason, spent the day fishin', and watching a Great Blue Heron do a little fishin' (and a lot of showing off).
It was about this time that Heathcliff received a letter from his dear Catherine, letting him know that her family was visiting friends in Oregon, and that she had discovered, with the aid of her friend Elizabeth, Chipping Sparrow nests and nestlings. Another day's outing with another Neophyte Naturalist in the Willamette Valley seems to show that her passion for natural world was more than just a passing interest due to her love's passion for it.
Heathcliff needed little more that to pack up his things and head towards the Pacific Northwest. The trip overland was a long one, and although not wishing to stop until he could be in the arms of his dearest, he found that he must stop - and chose to do so in northern California by spending some time with noted bluebird enthusiast Larry Jordan, and learned about the threats to local cavity nesters, including Western Bluebirds, and was given the opportunity to peek in on 5 day old nestlings.
Upon arriving in Oregon, he only found this postcard waiting for him - it seemed that he and Catherine, although obviously of similar mindsets and interests, might be destined for different lives.
While Catherine traveled across Canada, first noting odd acting gulls with cousin Susannah and then studying Eastern Kingbirds and their young, and admiring the art of cousin Jocelyn, Heathcliff decided to take himself abroad, and booked passage on a ship destined for Panama.
Upon setting foot on dry land, he advertised for a local guide, as he desperately wished too see some of the avian jewels that Central America is known for - hummingbirds. Jan Axel was more than accommodating, in showing Heathcliff as much as he could. He then continued south taking a tour with an outfitter fittingly know as Wings
While relaxing in Ecuador, taking stock of his life, and deciding what to do next, the post arrived with several letters and also a package from an old school chum, David. It had been posted from Kenya a few months back, and had finally caught up with him. It contained a quick note and a stack of photos:
One of the letters confirmed that a space had opened up on a tour that he had enquired about some months earlier, but had been told that it was full.
The last was a letter from his beloved Catherine, with hope that there might be a future for them yet.
Invigorated by the new prospects, he immediately dispatched letters to Catherine and to his solicitor and made plans to travel to England to catch up with the tour company. Upon arriving in London, and settling into his lodgings for the night, he decided to get out to a local park in hopes of spotting some old world species. There were plenty of House Sparrows to be seen, and quite a few corvids, but the smaller birds gave him a run for the money. Whilst trying to puzzle out some of the birds, he ran into a gentleman named Ian who was photographing them, and although helpful with many of the local species, the warblers remained confusing.
The next day, Heathcliff joined the party at the touring company's offices and set off for his next adventure. They took a ferry across the channel, then boarded a train to take them across the continent. A mix up with the boarding passes found the group bustling towards Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, with it's small population, the trains do not run nearly as often there, and they found themselves in an unplanned location for a few days - so the group birded this area. Completely unprepared for this eventuality, Heathcliff was thoroughly at a loss for where they were, and what they were seeing. Thankfully, another in the group - an impressive young man named Corey who seemed to be part of a network of birders, was diligent in recording the events, and published them in a periodical - the pertinent pages of which had been torn out and pasted into the journal. A few days later, and they were all back on the train, and heading towards Italy. The number and variety of birds was almost overwhelming, and he was almost thankful to see a familiar little sparrow - that is, until Rick, an extremely astute member of the group, pointed out that these Italian Sparrows might indeed be a separate species from their cousins.
At this point Heathcliff was starting to feel a bit out of his league, but continued to take every opportunity to learn from the experience of both the tour, and the local people. He was thrilled by the exotic locations to which they traveled, as well as by the food and culture of the people they met. In Madras, he was particularly struck by a young lady named Ambika who was in Pallikaranai marsh, and helping to point out a rare duck in the area, discussing the differences between it and it's local relations, as well as spying Black-winged Stilts, Pied Avocets, and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas.
When the tour of India was over, Heathcliff steamed to Sri Lanka to meet up with the guide that the tour company recommended, Amila Salgado. A few others joined him at this time, and Amila quickly showed that he was a top-notch guide, spotting not only birds, but also a variety of mammals, all during monsoon. The only real down-side of the trip to Sri Lanka, was that Heathcliff was soundly thrashed by Amila at Scrabble. Nevertheless, he was obviously feeling on top of the world, and the following journal entry certainly showed it:
"I am the luckiest man in the world. I have had the opportunity to travel across a good deal of this planet, meeting wonderful people and seeing the marvels of nature. The only thing I could wish for is to have my love by my side. Soon I shall be marrying the young woman who captured my heart, and together we shall set off to see the rest of the world, and continue to marvel at nature's beauty."
While preparing to return to the United States, another letter arrived from his love:
Nathan's most recent article about birding with his new son was enclosed.
Oddly enough, the correspondence with his "little bird" seems to have ended there!
The next entry in the journal is several years later and finds a more experienced Heathcliff in Australia, birding with a chum named Duncan who is celebrating his 75th birthday, and seeing some real stunners like Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, and a lovely Red-capped Robin.
Surprised by the ending of this tale? I could say that there seems to be several pages torn from the journal... but I suppose the only way you'll know is if IATB is ever hosted here again...
(and how much and what kind of feedback this generates!)
On a serious note, thanks to all who supplied well-wishes and encouragement for my first time hosting IATB, and especially to all the wonderful bloggers who provided their submissions. I hope you don't take any offense to any liberties I might have taken to keep the story in some vague order.
Oh - and finally, if you wish to see other editions of "I and the Bird" and learn about even more great bloggers and their blogs, visit:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Monday, July 20, 2009
Certainly amongst my favorite of our more local sparrows, I particularly enjoy them in their alternate (breeding) plumage, which I find quite striking for a "little brown job." Not to mention that their distinctive "Poor Sam Peabody" (or "O sweet Canada" depending upon which side of the border you live on) loudly whistled is hard to miss - and often one of the first bird songs that many birders learn.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
I am a little behind in blogging about this event that took place last weekend. About a month ago, I blogged about a BwBTC field trip that Dawn and I coordinated while she and Jeff were here in Massachusetts. On Saturday there was another field trip, which Dawn coordinated with Luke from the Under Clear Skies blog in Connecticut. Luke was a great leader and organized a meeting place and a few destinations that got us a great variety of birds, as well as a great lunch stop.
Some of the highlights of the day included both night herons, Little Blue Heron, the northermost breeding Boat-tailed Grackles, Monk Parakeets, an immature King Eider, and a host of shorebirds.
Rather than simply reiterating what other (better) bloggers have already written about the day, allow me to direct you to some of those who were there:
Luke, our fearless leader, wrote a bit about it here.
Larry, of the Brownstone Birding Blog, had a nice summary (especially of conversations) here.
Dan, from Nature Observances, blogged about it here, and enjoyed it so much he went back (see later posts)
Chris from Tails of Birding was only able to join us for a short time, but got some great pics posted here.
Bev, (one of my favorite birding buds) on her Behind the Bins blog, knocked out a quick post about it here.
DeeJ, of the Oak in the Seed blog, was able to ride up with Bev, and blogged a bit about it here.
Also joining us for the day were Cindy of Living in Brooklyn - Longing for Maine, Laura and Mark from the Interstitial Spaces, and of course, the inimitable Catherine of Birdspot.
Last, but certainly not least, was the driving force, founder and inspiration of the Birders who Blog, Tweet, and Chirp, the energizer bunny of birders: Dawn of Dawn's Bloggy Blog. Not only does she organize these wonderful social events - she blogs it better than anyone! She has posted THREE times about it, with wonderful photos, movies, and a great summary of the day.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
I gotta' tell you, these meetings are great, and if you have an opportunity to join, I really recommend that you do so. How do you find out about them? (Or better yet, organize one yourself)
One good way is to check out the new website devoted to Birders who Blog Tweet and Chirp.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
In my humble opinion, I think this is one of the snazziest woodpeckers (and maybe even of all the birds) that we have here in the United States. With it's suffuse tans, soft greys, a bold black patch on the chest, white rump, spotting on front, barring on back, the wishbone shaped brilliant red nuchal patch on the back of the head, and of course (at least in the east) the brilliant golden yellow underwings - it's no woner that this gorgeous bird was the "spark bird" for Roger Tory Peterson and countless other birders.
Friday, July 10, 2009
If you missed part one, you can read it here.
After spending three nights at the Claybrook Mountain Lodge, and being treated like royalty by our hosts, Greg & Pat Drummond who fed us amazing meals, provided warm comfortable lodgings, and guided us to local spots for great birding (even in the rain), it was time to pack up again, and head to Rangeley, ME.
The group that stayed at the Claybrook Mountain Lodge, with our hosts, Pat& Greg (3rd & 4th from left), and Sally (their Great Dane that won everybody's heart).
Before going on, I should mention again that this trip is done annually through the Brookline Bird Club, and our friend Eddie (6th from left, leaning on the sign post) does a lot of research and work every year to keep the trip new and exciting. This is the 12th year that he has done so, although only the first where we spent this much time with the Drummond's.
The second half of the trip was more "traditional" to what has been done in the past. A few people that were on the first part left after Claybrook, and we gained another half dozen or so people for the Rangeley portion. Most of the participants arrange for lodgings in town, either at one of the motels or at an inn, and a group of us rent a house each year. A few hour's scenic drive from Claybrook found us getting settled into our Rangeley digs for the next 4-5 nights. That evening, we had our meet and greet for this part of the trip at the Pine Tree Frostee in town, where everybody introduced themselves and we got instructions for the next day (meeting at 5:30am!)
Over the next several days, we birded some of our traditional spots continuing to look for boreal species in the area. Missing on some (never did catch up with a Black-backed Woodpecker, and that Cape May never did show itself) but scoring spectacularly on others like Gray Jays. While birding on Boy Scout Road, we had a family of Gray Jays (including two fledglings) spend some time with us, which happily accepted some proffered mixed nuts in exchange for some photos.
They were so cooperative, I was also able to get a few videos as well:
One morning Mark & Laura lead a hike up Saddleback Mountain to look for Bicknell's Thrush for anybody who wanted to go. This is the first time I went, and once we started out I was moving at a pretty good pace, but at some point, I definitely was feeling out of shape and decided at the first really horizontal spot that I wasn't going to go any further. We stayed in fog pretty much the entire time, and I wasn't feeling overly optimistic, when I heard a distant thrush. (After I had recovered a bit and wasn't breathing so heavy.) Using the iBird app on my iPhone, I played the song of the Bicknell's, both to remind myself what it sounded like and in an attempt to draw it closer. Indeed, one playing and it popped up near us and gave a few chip calls before disappearing into the foggy trees. I wasn't able to get any photos, but we were able to get in touch with most of the rest of the group, and had the bird come out again for us. Unfortunately, the best hikers of the group were far enough ahead of us slowpokes that they were not able to get back on the bird when they returned. (I believe they did hear a few birds, but never had any sightings) The sun did break through the fog for a few minutes, and allowed me to get a few photos of a singing White-throated Sparrow, which are pretty sharp looking in their breeding plumage.
Less cooperative were other target species like Boreal Chickadee, which we did see, but only one or two of, and only briefly at that.
The weather for this second part of the trip really didn't improve much over the first part, and although it might have slowed us down a little bit (and made photography difficult) we still had a great time. (So much so, that I am having a difficult time just a few days later remembering it all - and those reading this that were on the trip will recognize, that I am jumping all over the place time-wise.) The biggest effect the weather had on the trip was that with all the ran the area had been getting, the Kennebago River where we usually have a canoe/kayak trip each year was running very high and very fast, and was therefore cancelled. There'll always be next year.
One thing I don't want to forget to mention is that every year we have a Boreal Bar-b-que. The food is usually great - standard barbeque burgers & hot dogs, but we have plenty of birders that are talented in the kitchen as well. There is always lots of food, and nobody goes away hungry. And as much as we look forward to the food and social time, the last few years, this has become the time when participant David Hursh challenges us with bird-themed games and puzzles - everything from trivia to anagrams - it really is a blast, and just one more event that makes this trip so special each year.
Unfortunately, it seemed to be over all to soon. On Sunday morning, Pamela and I had packed up and headed out early, anticipating holiday weekend traffic, in order to try to get home in time to relax for a few hours before heading in to work on Monday. We had breakfast and hit the road, and headed back towards Lake Messalonskee, where I was determined to get the kayaks into the water at least once this trip. Luck was with me as the weather was beautiful, and we were able to get out for about an hour and a half. In that time, we had wonderful looks at the Black Terns that breed there:
We also had a pair of Common Loons surface quite close to us while we were there:
In the one week that we spent in Maine, with 6 days in intermittent rain, we still managed to see over 100 species - not a bad vacation!
(Did I forget anything? Probably! But I'll try to add anything I've forgotten in the near future.)