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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Garret Mountain Warblers

Photo by Poronto Source

"Birdwatching" sounds so innocent and uncomplicated but I have a roller coaster relationship with it. When I was a kid, I birdwatched every chance I got. I'd get home from school or work, tear off my clothes, put on a big, cotton man's shirt, probably one of my brothers', cut off shorts, no socks, no shoes, barefoot, grab my brother Joe's binoculars and run down to the woods just three houses away from me.

Near the Wanaque River I climbed rocky balds, strode through grasses, squeezed mooshy swamps around my toes and sometimes stepped into something soft that swallowed me up to my knees – it felt like quicksand – and baked under the treeless sun of a dried out quarry that looked more like a desert than New Jersey. I noticed even then that while I always fell off the horse in gym class, surrounded, as I was, by kids with whom I did not fit in, in the woods I never so much as slipped while crossing fallen log bridges, slick with moss. I stood silent in filtered shafts of sunlight beneath stands of big, tall deciduous trees. I was obsessive and I racked up quite a list of bird species in that little patch of woods.  

When I was in Peace Corps in Central Africa and Nepal I was, of course, in prime birdwatching habitat, but I couldn't bring myself to do it except casually. Africa wasn't safe – people were constantly threatening to rape, kidnap or kill me, and no, that's not hyperbole – and Nepal was just so poor. I never really understood how trekkers can do what they do – put on thousands of dollars of boots and camera lenses and state-of-the-art ergonomic backpacks and walk through villages where children die of hunger. I'm not criticizing; I'm just saying I didn't have the heart to do much serious birdwatching.

Birds were everywhere in Central Africa and Nepal, though, so I couldn't help but see hamerkops and hornbills, blue plantain eaters and lammergeier.

I came back to the states and went to grad school, paying my way as I went by working at everything from carpentry to telephone interviewing. That sucked up so much time that I didn't birdwatch much except during spare hours on weekends.

After I was told I had cancer I began devoting more time to birdwatching. Mortality tends to prod you to do what you enjoy while you can.

I subscribed to an email list of birders. I had always been a solo birdwatcher; it actually never occurred to me that some people do it with others.

The email list educated me and frightened me. A percentage of the people, and given that this was the internet I have no idea how many, were mean to the point of being unhinged.

An enthusiastic beginner, just starting out, posted a message saying that she thought she had seen a golden eagle. A golden eagle in the place and at the time that she claimed to have seen one would be very rare. Rather than gently educating this newbie, a list member tore her to shreds verbally. It was a long, high decibel, rageful post.

It gets worse. One birder broke into another birder's car and stole his field guide.

I hate to admit this but I learned from that list to be nervous around birdwatchers. Again, I've pretty much always birdwatched alone, so I don't have enough positive experience of birdwatching with others to counter-balance the absolute freak-out that that list caused me to feel. There is an undercurrent of rage and aggression, or maybe arrogance and cliquishness, or maybe petty competition, or maybe aloof not-in-touch-with-humanness in the birder world that I don't understand at all.

On the other hand through that list I did meet and birdwatch with another birder who is one of the nicest, smartest, and most pleasant and even-tempered people I've ever met. So … who knows.

It's May. To birdwatchers, May = warblers.

Birdwatchers receive pleasure from seeing a variety of birds, seeing a large number of birds, seeing colorful birds, and seeing new species. The May warbler migration spreads the banquet table with a feast of all these features.

Problem. Warblers are coquettish little sprites who love nothing more than to break your heart.

In late April, birdwatchers look up and dream of the wave that is about to break against the treetops. At that time, the trees are all bare of leaves and what birds there are are very visible. You see the occasional palm warbler, an early migrant, with no leaves obscuring your vision. Too, the palm warbler habitually pumps its tail up and down, so it is quite easy to identify. In late April, no leaves on the trees yet, that tail pumping with poke-you-in-the-eye obviousness, you think, how hard can this be?

Warblers arrive with the new foliage. Most of them like treetops. They are tiny and they move quickly. Birdwatchers in May stand around under trees, craning their necks, staring upward till their shoulders ache, ignoring the gnats flying into their eyes and the mosquitoes biting their ankles, trying to catch a glimpse of five inches of rapidly moving feathers. Warblers come in blue, green, yellow, red, black, white, brown, orange, with stripes, chinstraps, wing bars, eye-rings and eye and tail stripes. We need to see a critical mass of these signs for an accurate identification. As soon as we are almost sure what species we are looking at, the little flirt flits away never to be seen again, taking with it that key rump coloration we needed for a firm ID. Warbler watching is full of rewards and frustrations.

Garret Mountain in Paterson and West Paterson, NJ, is a "migrant trap." It is an oasis of woodland surrounded by urban areas. Migrating birds stopover here as they travel the Atlantic Flyway. Birdwatchers flock to Garret Mountain in May in order to witness the warbler migration.

I checked the weather report yesterday; NOAA predicted rain. I slept in. Around seven a.m. I realized that it was not raining and unlikely to. I thought it late to set out but figured, what the heck, nothing to lose.

I went to Garret and sure enough it was packed with people in jeans, sweatshirts, hiking shoes and binoculars and large lenses. Again, because of the dark experience of the listserve, I was wary. Few of the birders even glanced at me. Phew.

I walk at Garret as often as I can, and I am used to seeing the same birds in the same areas at the same times: the red-tailed hawk on the tower, the rough-winged swallows over the pond, the killdeer working the mudflat near the cattails, the chimney swifts skimming the sheer drop-off of rocks to Route 80 down below.

Today was totally different. Everywhere I looked, I saw warblers, vireos, thrushes, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and mimids. The park is very small; it's really just the top of a hill. You can see houses through the trees. But each little nook and cranny hosted its own convocation. I sat on a cupped mini-ledge hanging over route 80 and watched a house wren, warblers and thrushes swirl around this pocket-sized mini-environment.

As you walk, you attend to each green leaf fluttering in the sun overhead, each moldering leaf under your feet. You hear each tweet, buzz, and trill. You catch sight of a flash like the glow of a fire and you are delighted by that Blackburnian warbler that you see in full sun for mere seconds. Such close attention takes you out of time and place. You are stepping on eternity.

A two-mile loop trail circles the park. It took me three hours to complete the loop. I stopped every few steps to watch brilliantly colored warblers working the treetops. The most amazing sight of the day was a scarlet tanager, its wings closed, dipping and rising, dipping and rising, dipping and rising, over the treetops on the mountaintop, moving like a dolphin underwater.

I ran into a park maintenance man named Chris who chided me for walking on a closed trail. He explained that the trail was closed because workmen had to cut ash trees infected by emerald ash borer, an invasive species from China. Our ash trees have no defense against this species and they are all doomed, pending foresters finding some way to combat the pest. Chris explained that affected ash trees near the trails must be cut down before they fall across the trail. Ash are famous as the wood for baseball bats.

I asked Chris if anyone talks about doing anything about the deer in the park. They are numerous and they are tame. On any given visit, you might easily see twenty deer. They browse the undergrowth, making the park less able to support the many bird and mammal species that require undergrowth.

I am a great fan of Aldo Leopold's piece "Thinking Like a Mountain" that champions the something or someone – either a wolf or a man with a gun – that culls deer populations. I'm also a big fan of a youtube video about the very positive impact that wolves had on rivers in Yellowstone. The wolves culled the deer and the decrease in the number of deer improved life for many species in the park.

Chris said that even the police at Garret Mountain feed the deer. He said that city folk drive to Garret Mountain expressly to hand feed the deer donuts, Big Mac buns and oranges and thus have their encounter with nature.

At times, when I walk around Wayne, a suburban town, I have passed as many as three deer carcasses per mile. One just festered on the side of a very suburban road, on a nicely manicured lawn, for three days, swollen as a fully inflated balloon, before the city workers disposed of it.

I also met a very nice birder who reported seeing a black-billed cuckoo, a bird I did not see. He walked with me back to the spot where he'd seen it. We didn't find it but it was nice to share the trail for a while.

After my three-hour circuit of the two mile trail, of course I had to go around one more time, though I was thirsty and hungry and my back was killing me. It was noon, well past peak birding time, and yet the birds were still throwing themselves against my eyes. I was not walking in that hushed, slow, attentive birdwatcher-step, but merely rushing to get to my car, when a Canada warbler practically flew into my face, as three species of thrushes decorated the forest floor.

Have I died and gone to heaven? I read accounts of near death experiences. People report being greeted by departed loved ones. I don't have any departed loved ones and I won't have a welcoming committee. Maybe I have died and entered paradise and all these species of birds surrounding me are a sign of that. But I realized I still felt creaky and thirsty and that didn't feel like the rejuvenation that near-death experiences promise.

Conventionally a birder ends an account like this with the birds seen that day. I won't do so. I don't like the competitive aspect of birding. The "Did you see the cerulean warbler well if not you didn't see anything you are such a loser. I saw the cerulean and I am better than you."

I will say that I saw more warbler species in one day today than I'd ever seen in one day before.

I'll also say that I didn't see as many as I saw when I was a kid.

Bird population numbers are declining dramatically and visibly. Crashing. Crashing. The canary in the coalmine? Yes. I remember numbers of birds, and numbers of species, that I never encounter any more. Not even on spectacular days like today.

So I donate money to Audubon, World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, National Wildlife, Cornell Labs, and others. And I hope you do, too.

What will really help is elevating the status of women. The better off women are, the fewer children they have. The less educated and more oppressed women are, the more children they have. And so I do my part to educate the public about belief systems that keep women down. What's good for birds is also good for us. 

Photo by Laura Gooch Source
Photo by dbriz Source
photo by dbriz source

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