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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Meetings with Remarkable Birders at Garret Mountain, Paterson, NJ, May 2016

Melina Gioffre Fuda
Thursday, May 19, I got up at 3:30 a.m. I had things to do later in the day and I planned to devote one hour to birdwatching on Garret Mountain.

I didn't leave Garret Mountain until 12:30 p.m. I had been there for six and a half hours.

It's a small park. The trail that loops the top is only two miles.

I just couldn't stop oooo-ing and aaaa-ing. Each particle of light on each leaf seemed a miracle it would be a crime not to witness and celebrate and allow to change me – to humble me, to cleanse me, to make me more at peace, grateful, part-of-it-all. To remind me who I am.

I arrived at six. The sky was gray. I was wearing a down vest, an unusual garment in late May. I heard no birds. I walked down Wilson Ave to the area where I saw a female rose-breasted grosbeak the other day. I really wanted to see the male. A busy little Carolina wren all but pecked at my sneakers. Cool to see her so close.

Never saw the male grosbeak. I hear them, but with my hearing problem I can't locate sound. This breaks at my heart, as, before the incident, I was really good at locating birds by sound. I was bulldog determined. I would stand in the same spot, practically running an intravenous to the mosquitos, never leaving till I found the bird.

I saw a blue-gray gnatcatcher on the nest. The Cornell Lab All-About-Birds page for the blue-gray gnatcatcher informs us that

  • they don't eat a lot of gnats

  • they sometimes build as many as seven nests a season, because they are parasitized by cowbirds and mites and many predators eat their young

  • they build their nests from lichens and hold them together with spider webs.

They are, simply, adorable, as close to fairies as I ever hope to meet; I can't imagine that real fairies would be any improvement on blue-gray gnatcatchers.

I also saw a robin, a titmouse, and two blue jays on their nests. Blue jays are so obstreperous it was moving to witness their more tender, parental side. Actually for all I know they were telling their kids, "It's a dog-eat-dog world! Get out there and succeed! Don't be a wimp and don't make me ashamed!" Probably.

But of course I was lusting after warblers. I saw plenty, but not the cerulean I hoped to see. They are becoming rarer and rarer. :-(

I also wanted to see a Kentucky warbler, because I thought I had seen one the other day but it was a mere nanosecond flash between leaves in a treetop, and I'm very scrupulous and noting all field markings before a bird disappears.

Birdwatching really educates me about my own mind, how it works and how much information I can store. Warbler identification is all about stripes, bars, and washes, in yellow, black, brown, blue, green, and red. To identify a given bird, you must remember the number and placement and color of any given property. While you are looking at the bird, you are certain. That was a line through the eye.

You put your binoculars down, and turn to your field guide, and suddenly you are not so certain. Was that a line through the eye, or was it a triangle shape around the cheek? Was it feathers, or a mere shadow on the bird's face?

And yes, in the seconds it takes you to lower your binos and pick up your field guide, you do forget. These fine points probably meant very little to our primitive brains. I've lived in remote villages in Africa and Asia and no one I knew could name more than ten or so wild birds. The differentiation between one species and another meant next to nothing to my neighbors. For them it was all about, "We eat that. We don't eat that."

One autumn, I trekked through Muktinath, Nepal, at 12,000 feet in the Himalayas, one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites to Buddhists and Hindus. The ground was littered with common crane carcasses. Local boys had been amusing themselves with bolas, a rope with a weight at both ends. They tossed them at the migrating cranes' long necks, and choked them. Hated people that day. Hated, hated.

I wanted to see a Kentucky warbler again so I could be sure of the identification. I wanted to see a cerulean because they are blue, my favorite color, of the sky, my favorite element.

Birds laugh at such desires. And then they ice the cake by mocking us.

For years I had futilely been trying to see a yellow-billed cuckoo. They are a totem bird to me, and if I ever manage to find a publisher for God through Binoculars, you will discover why they are a totem bird to me.

As I hankered, yearned, and panted after cerulean and Kentucky warblers, a yellow-billed cuckoo, a normally secretive, skulking bird, all but landed on my face.

This was no retiring Geisha, a fan of leaves splayed across her countenance. This was a diva cuckoo. She stretched. She preened. She stared at me with strumpet like abandon.

"How could you be thinking of cerulean warblers when you could be looking at my creamy, immaculate breast, my fetching, elegant spotted tail and my rufous-tinted primaries?" she cooed.

And then she completed her show by vocalizing. So maybe she was a male; I don't know. But it was cool to watch a cuckoo call.

Watching sounds come out of bird's throat is mind boggling. Bird sounds are unlike any other sounds I know. They are layered. They are often impossible to describe. There are things going on there that seem to defy location in space and time. You can't plot bird song. It escapes our mind's parameters.

We can read lips because there is some relationship between the sounds we make and the shapes our lips assume.

Not so with birds. They all just get the same basic beak. It opens and symphonies or farts or scary movie soundtracks come out. Same two-part beak. Mind boggling.

Near Lambert Tower, I ran into a white-haired gentleman in a blue sweatshirt adorned with snow geese.

"Anything good?" I asked. I was wearing binos. He was wearing binos. No more words were necessary.

"I just saw two male scarlet tanagers in this bushes here."

"Wow!"

I was immediately envious. You always are. The other birdwatcher, not you, had found the good spot, and was seeing all the good birds, as you strained your neck under one oak tree, trying to use your mojo to psychically will cerulean and Kentucky warblers to fly into view.

Gordon said he has been birding at Garret Mountain since 1963. He said that his hearing was not what it once was, nor his ability to move about quickly, so he had spent much time planted in that one spot against the stone wall, trying to find a worm-eating warbler.

"I see some clumps of leaves hanging from these bushes directly across from me, and in the past I've seen worm-eating warblers pull spiders out of such clumps," Gordon observed.

I nodded.

The other day I ran into a man who had seen a black-billed cuckoo by standing still as Gordon was doing right now. Just plant your boots in one spot and stare and stare and stare. Eventually a bird will fly by you. You might even achieve enlightenment. Worked for Buddha!

I was very glad I had run into Gordon. Before the incident, my hearing had been perfect and my most important sense. I am dyslexic and I learn best by hearing, not seeing. In fact my hiatus from birdwatching was caused partly by how depressed I was about losing so much of my hearing. Believe it or not, a good percentage of birdwatching is really bird-listening.

I was grateful that God had placed Gordon in my path. Gordon was showing me that there is more than one way to bird.

Gordon reminisced about all the birdwatchers he has known at Garret. There was a regular team of about eight people, and only two (?) are still at it. I'm probably misremembering the exact census.

"Do you know Bill Elrick?" I asked, mentioning a name I knew only from the internet.

"Yes," Gordon said. "I got him started. At first he wanted to band birds."

"Wow."

He mentioned Phil DelVecchio.

"He wrote 'Nature and Science' for the Paterson Evening News," I said.

"Yes!" Gordon said.

"He mentioned me in his column once," I said.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I saw a Lawrence's warbler on the Wanaque River."

My sister Antoinette had been so excited. Her little sister was mentioned in the newspaper! She read the column out loud – I can hear her right now. I think that that was one time in my life that I managed to please someone in my family. Very important to me.

A Lawrence's warbler is a hybrid between a blue-winged and a golden-winged warbler. I have not seen a Lawrence's warbler since that summer day on the Wanaque River so many decades ago. A blue-winged warbler calls every summer from the tops of the weeping willows in a low, wet patch at Skylands. Every time I hear the blue-winged's lazy call, bee buzzzz, bee buzzzz, I think of the time I saw a special bird, and my sister was proud of me, and I am lifted up, even if only subconsciously.

Birdwatching means so much to me. That's why it breaks my heart when I encounter dark behavior among birders.

"Is he gone?" I asked Gordon about Phil Delvechhio, trying to find the most delicate way to phrase my question.

"Yes," Gordon said. "It was back in … [I don't remember the year] that Phil called me. He was over ninety years old then. He was driving [to some remote location] to look at a bird."

Here's a salute to Phil DelVecchio from Paterson resident E. A. Smyk:

For 50 years, he wrote a popular weekly column called "Nature and Science" in the Paterson News. To this self-taught scientist, butterflies and stuffed ornithological specimens were not simply dust catchers sitting on the shelves of the Paterson Museum building on Summer Street. Rather, Del Vecchio used the products of the taxidermist's art to feed the wide-eyed imagination of young visitors.

Del Vecchio died in December 2001 at age 97, but a glimpse of his passion for natural phenomena can be gleaned in this excerpt from his "Nature and Science" column, dated Feb. 26, 1970:

"One night at sunset we went to the highest point of Garret Mountain to look for a new comet … Higher, above the haze and pollution levels, the moon shone with a sparkling radiance; and as the western sky grew dark we witnessed a rare phenomenon for these latitudes, the zodiacal light, a violet triangle against a darkening blue sky, based in the greens, oranges and reds of the setting sun."

In his column, which I read regularly, DelVecchio had mentioned Pete Both's walking the Appalachian Trail.

"Gordon," I asked. "Do you know Pete Both?"

"Yes."

And two male scarlet tanagers landed in the bushes directly across from Gordon.

Holy moley but do they look like living fire.

"Oooo! Aaaa!"

I said goodbye to Gordon and moved on. The sun started to peak through heavy cloud cover, now breaking up. Within a hundred paces or so, I ran into a guy in his thirties, all suited up in spiffy, crisp, fresh-out-of-the-box Burberry beige. I admired his gear. When it comes to outdoor stuff, not cars, I am a gear-head.

"Anything good?" I asked.

"What's good?"

Aha. A coy one.

"A painted bunting," I replied, fantasizing thoroughly. Might as well have said, "Passenger pigeon."

"I saw one!"

"Ah!"

"In Louisiana, last year."

"Oh."

"But I saw a worm-eating warbler, and a Kentucky."

Oh. My. God.

"Listen," I said. "There is a gray-haired gentleman up ahead, leaning on the stone wall under the tower. Can you please tell him about the worm-eating warbler? He is looking for one."

"No problem!"

The man was smiling from ear to ear, with the enthusiasm of a child. He told me that this was his first time at Garret Mountain and that he was thrilled. I realized he had missed the biggest days this spring. I was seeing many fewer birds on this day than I had a few days earlier. I didn't want to spoil anything for him.

I moved on.

From about ten paces away, I could see that the woman standing in front of me was a celebrity. It was Melina Gioffre Fuda, a superb photographer, a true artist. I had never met her or spoken to her. I had stumbled across her photos on Facebook and "friended" her and admired her shots ever since. I knew we'd meet eventually.

The sun was fully out now. Melina was looking through her camera lens at a flycatcher perched on a bare branch.

"Melina," I said.

She looked at me, a bit quizzically. I don't post many photos of myself on Facebook.

"I'm Danusha. Your Facebook friend."

We shook hands. And then we talked, as if we had known each other for fifty years. She is Italian American, I am Polish American, we are both Jersey girls and bird lovers. That is how that is.

I moved on to the ridge trail. It was magic. I could have been in a hobbit forest; I was, in fact, within view of Manhattan. It was so private back there that I managed to do something I had really needed to do all morning, and not trouble anyone. It's biodegradable.

I hiked on through miniature little pockets of basalt and fallen leaves and patches of sky that gave my soul everything it needed: beauty, tranquility, mystery, the splendor of God's creation.

Down at the pond I ran into two birders who appeared to be in the early twenties. The guy was ridiculously handsome. Even as he reported to me all the birds he had seen, with great excitement, I kept thinking, "Do you realize how handsome you are? It's freakish."

And up walked Gordon.

I said to my two young interlocutors, "This is Gordon. He's been birding Garret Mountain for fifty-three years."

They were suitably impressed.

Gordon talked about the diminution of bird populations. He said that back when he was starting out, you'd just get out of your car at Barbour Pond, and not move past that, the birds were so thick and varied.

Gordon is right. Bird population declines are dramatic, depressing, and scary. Just one article here.

But we don't have to be depressed or scared. We can be active.

I don't make much money but I regularly donate to Audubon, Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, World Wildlife Fund. I also publish articles talking about the mistreatment of women. When women are empowered, they have fewer children, later in life, and those children do better, and so does the planet.


We can change the world. One bird at a time. Please donate to the nature organization of your choice today. Thank you. And the blue-gray gnatcatchers thank you – by eating bugs that might pester you. 


Blue-gray gnatcatcher on nest by Steve Proviser
Yellow-billed cuckoo Dan Pancamo 
worm-eating warbler by Bob MacDonnell

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