Seven Days in Cape May

“This Cape May trip is going to see my getting the real hang of my camera,” said my wife the Beautiful AP. “Bring on the birds!”

I love Cape May, New Jersey. I’ve been going there for over 55 years; first with my parents, then with them and my children; now with my wife the Beautiful AP, the children and the grandkids.

AP and I dedicated a bench on the promenade to my parents. That bench is a much better tribute than a gravesite. Every time we walk the promenade we can say hello and thank my parents who discovered Cape May for us.

We go at least three times a year; in the winter, for our wedding anniversary and during the summer. This trip was from December 21 to December 27 – seven days!

My least favorite time is summer when the Victorian-themed resort is packed with tourists. Summer with my sons, my daughter-in-law and my grandkids is fun, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the swimming, the boat tours, the horse carriage rides, the various sights my daughter-in-law discovers and, of course, the meals and all, but still, without my family, AP and I would relegate time in Cape May to the fall, winter and spring.

This year the Beautiful AP and I discovered something for which Cape May is famous, birding! Yes, Cape May is a haven for those heavenly winged creatures, whether cute songbirds such as the tufted titmouse and the black-capped chickadee to the carrion eaters such as the turkey vultures, and those ferocious predators such as the osprey. Since we have taken up this hobby, we go on weekly treks through various venues on Long Island, New York but this Christmas we went to Cape May for our normal seven-day vacation with our sights on those birds.

On previous trips we discovered some interesting birding spots, the South Cape May Meadows Conservancy, the three Cape May Lighthouse trails, Sunset Beach where the famous (now infamous) concrete ship ran aground, and the beach just a half block from our hotel, the home to the most aggressive gulls I have ever seen. They’ll take the popcorn right out of your bag—the bag in your hand!

In addition to our favorite birding sites, this trip would have us visit two new areas, Higbee Beach and Cape Island Wildlife Management Area.

The weather those first four days was quite nice, daytime temperatures in the 40s. The last three days were brutal with a monstrous cold front enveloping the entire east coast. One town in New York State had over 100 inches of snow. Luckily, we had none.

We went birding only once those last three days—just down the block to the beach—and we stayed outside (freezing!) for a half an hour before hurrying back to the hotel for a hot drink!

When we arrived on December 21, we took a leisurely walk through town, had some cappuccino at Buon Giorno and bought candy at the Original Fudge Kitchen. We stayed at the Virginia Hotel, a boutique bread-and-breakfast, our favorite place to stay in the winter season.

The first birding day, December 22 at Higbee Beach was telling. We only saw a couple of Sanderlings scooting across the sand by the waves. AP was not able to get off a shot (a camera shot, that is!)

Off in the distance was a large flock of something or other; too far for me to tell what kind of birds they were. That was that. No other birds. And for those of you who are interested, no, Higbee Beach is not a nude beach—that is a misnomer as a bunch of people in the past decided to doff their clothes and lounge around the sand showing bodies that should have been covered. Am I the only one who thinks most people look far better in clothes than out of them?

On this winter’s day, the deserted Higbee Beach was a washout. We walked back to the car.

“Let’s go to Sunset Beach,” I said. “There are always birds there.”

“I just want to get one good picture to prove I’ve learned something about this new camera,” she said.

“We will; we will,” I said confidently. “This is just our first day.”

“I don’t want this to be a lost trip…photographically.”

Sunset Beach is at the end of Sunset Road, maybe two miles outside of Cape May proper. Over the decades the wreck of the concrete ship has deteriorated markedly. Only the hull remains and some twisted metal. Still it is a natural for birds, mostly gulls, to cover the wreck with themselves and their poop. The waves smash against the hull, an awesome sight, but I have no idea how many more decades this maritime carcass has left. If you ever get to Cape May, this is a must-see sight.

Of course, we were primarily looking for birds that AP could photograph. And so? Not a single damn gull on the wreck; not one! I have never seen so few gulls –meaning none — whenever we’ve come to this beach.

Thankfully, in a few minutes we saw a variety of birds floating in the water and cavorting on rocks, among them a ruddy turnstone.

The Beautiful AP snapped away. “Nothing, nothing,” she moaned. “I can’t get a clear picture, they are backlit and I don’t know how to compensate for that.”

I should mention that AP is new to photography and that her new twenty-five zillion-dollar camera has yet to be mastered. Part of our birding on this trip was to have her practice getting pictures and, just as important, for her to get used to the camera.

AP walked slowly to me. “This whole thing is a bust so far.”

And then they appeared, turkey vultures, half hawk in their magnificent aerial gliding with a large wing span but with the face of a vulture. Now I am convinced that all vultures look like the sound of the word “vulture.” Their faces are not pretty. They are vulturish, ugly and deserve the name. I love seeing them riding the airwaves.

These creatures can dominate a Cape May sky and suddenly today they did. First one came over a beach cabin….

“AP! AP!” I cried. “Look! Look!” I pointed.

She looked and a second turkey vulture came soaring behind the first one. Then four more came aloft behind those two.

“Get these birds,” I said. “They will make up for a bad day.”

But a half hour later, after some three-hundred photos, the entire birding experience stunk. Nothing worthwhile. Yes, we did get to see our feathery delights but the camera caught nothing but backlit blobs both in the water and in the air and also on the tops of houses and trinket stores and telephone poles.

So much for birding on day one.

On birding day two, December 23, we went to another new area, Cape Island Wildlife Management Area, which is in North Cape May. As we parked, an older man in camouflage with his pit bull was getting ready to take a hike. The pit bull was unleashed and the snarling creature didn’t look friendly. In fact, the old man in camouflage didn’t look friendly either. I wondered if the guy had bodies in barrels in his basement. Perhaps meals for his dog?

“Let’s wait in the car until those two take off,” said the Beautiful AP. I did not disagree.

When the man and beast went into the woods using the path to the left, we took the path on the right.

“With our luck we’ll meet each other midway if this is like a track,” I said. “Or maybe the dog will have eaten someone by then and it will be okay.”

So we started our birding. Occasional songbirds flitted by but we could barely see them; that’s how fast they flit. High above were turkey vultures but they constantly seemed to be in the sun in such a way that they were barely visible.

In the small pond were some ducks. “One thing is guaranteed. The ducks are always on the other side of the pond, making them impossible to photograph. It’s a law of nature,” said AP.

Suddenly all the ducks scooted under the foliage on the other side of the pond, which made them impossible to photograph.

After an hour and a half of trudging through this venue we gave up. The walk was nice; the birding rotten.

Two days; two strikes against us.

Now it was Christmas Eve. We were getting into the car. “What’s your favorite birding place so far in Cape May?” I asked her.

“The lighthouse all the way,” she said.

“I agree,” I said and waited.

“Why don’t we go to the lighthouse?” said AP after some thought.

We drove down Sunset Road, turned left onto Lighthouse Road, and parked at the entrance to the woods. There are three paths in these woods. The longest of which covers the other two paths and is 2.5 miles of forest, streams, lakes, marshes and at the end stretch, the ocean on one side of the path and a long lake on the other side. Towering over the expanse of these woods is the Cape May Lighthouse.

About a quarter of a mile into the woods we saw a couple of songbirds zip by and dive into the bushes. AP laughed; she hadn’t even been able to get the camera up to her eyes. Songbirds are beautiful and totally annoying.

The first mile of the walk was starting to feel as bad as the previous two days. Then we hit our first lake and there were some ducks and, across the lake, was a great blue heron, standing as still as a statue.

AP had her camera click, click, clicking away like mad.

“I swear these birds could be statues put in place by jokers. It is amazing how still they can be,” I said.

Above us were a couple of dozen turkey vultures but they were so high up it was hard to get them into focus. A few gulls would fly by as well. The ducks were flapping in the water, maybe mating, and putting their butts into the air so they could eat whatever was on the bottom of the lake.

“Okay, I took enough,” she said and we then walked on. Shortly after we hit a stream and standing absolutely still on the side was another great blue heron with his neck all the way extended. AP shot many photos of this one but the angles through the brush made clear viewpoints difficult. He took off after a while. These birds look great in the air.

So we walked some more and finally came to the end of the line, the path between the ocean and the lake. This lead us back to the lighthouse.

Then we saw it, in the lake, pure white and slowly walking in the water along the shore, looking for food he could snatch, the great egret. Both AP and I said, “Oh, my God!”

“You should be able to get great pictures of this one,” I said.

“The bushes might be in the way as we walk on this side of the lake,” she said lifting her camera. The bushes were not in our way. The egret was right over there, waiting to be photographed.

So we slowly walked on our side of the lake, AP snapping photos continuously. On his side of the lake, the egret walked and stalked his prey, occasionally shooting his head into the water to catch a fish or frog or other small mammal. Sometimes you could see the food going down his gullet. Instead of standing still as most herons will, this guy just slowly walked the shore area and fed quite a lot.

“I may have gotten some good ones; it could save the whole trip!” joyed AP.

“I am sure you did!” I agreed.

Back at the room, AP went through the over 450 photos she took on our walk. Most were quickly discarded. She had a few decent ones of the first of the great blue herons. Then we got to the great egret.

“Oh, boy, I have some very good photos,” she said.

“Thank God!” I said. “Christmas is saved!”

Yes, indeed it was. AP takes her hobbies seriously and even though she is a complete novice in photography, I just know she wants to buck Ansel Adams for the top spot in photographic history.

We went out the day after Christmas but it was hellishly cold!

Naturally we engaged in all our other favorite Cape May winter activities. We socialized with two friends, Martine and Tom, had great dinners, and went on walks along the promenade and on the beach. We ate. We talked. We napped…and ate some more. Our favorite restaurant is the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia; we are addicted to the Almond-Orange French toast at the Mad Batter.

AP can name a number of special moments we had on this trip to Cape May and one of them is discovering that she got some great shots of the great egret. For me, that was my favorite moment and you can figure out why.

A happy wife—come on, you know the quote—means a happy life.

 

 

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The World Outside My Windows

 

My office is in the back of my house. It faces my neighbor next door (to my left) and the neighbor behind me. I live in a corner property so I do not have a neighbor to my right.

My office is three fourths windows so I have a great view of these two houses’ backyards, as well as my own, and also of my deck and side yard and yards in the distance. I have to say that working here is delightful as I can look up from my computer and see massive trees, innumerable bushes, and various fences.

Still, the highlight of my day is when I see the various birds and animals that frequent our properties.

I have three totally squirrel-proof bird feeders (called Sky Cafés) in my backyard. In all seasons these feeders attract hundreds of birds and dozens of different types too. I have my binoculars next to me!

Here are just some birds I’ve seen (when she can my wife, the Beautiful AP watches the birds with me – I charge a small fee for that):

Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Tufted Tit Mice, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches, House Sparrows, Starlings, Goldfinches, Wrens, Song Sparrows (other Sparrows too), Robins, Grackles, Crows, Purple Finches, Mockingbirds, the occasional Gull and New York’s ubiquitous Pigeons. We still haven’t seen a Hummingbird.

Years ago we saw an owl way up in a towering tree about three hundred feet in the distance. It was there for several weeks and then disappeared. It is conceivable that it was a Great Horned Owl, the number one aerial predator. At the time we saw it, I had no idea of the various owls. I have since learned that there are lots and lots of owls. This guy (gal) was pretty big.

Right now at the snow-capped feeders (it has snowed three times this week with a fourth slated for tomorrow night – I’ve fallen out of love with snow) are a brilliant red , his plainer Mrs. Cardinal, a bunch of Mourning Doves, a slew of various types of Sparrows, a Blue Jay sitting on a fence looking at the feeder and, I imagine, figuring out which one he wants. When he lands on a feeder most of the other birds head for the air. Blue Jays are fierce birds.

And there are animals too. Yes, the squirrels are everywhere, up and down the trees, racing along the fences, burying nuts (and whatever else they bury) and even mating (really fast coitus). The squirrels come in different sizes, from young ones to big, fat older ones.

The food from the feeder will fall to the ground and the squirrels and birds will chow down on that. We have grey squirrels, black squirrels (these are beautiful!), and rust-colored squirrels (these are somewhat rare) and, one sighting only, of a white squirrel. I wonder if the white one was an albino.

We have lizards (little ones that live under the deck) and chipmunks.

We have possums (they come out at night); a family of raccoons (these mostly come out at night to devour the acorns – I did see one during the day climbing way up a tree); mice (annoying little things that occasionally show up in my house in the fall), and cats – both domestic and feral.

Now those cats can be a problem. They are truly hunters. The feral ones are sleek, fast and sneaky; the domestic ones are fatter, attempt to be sneaky, and sit out in the sun in full view of all the birds. I never see the sleek feral ones lounging in the sun. They may do that – I am guessing they do – but in private areas where no one can see them.

The only bird I saw killed by one of the feral cats was a Blue Jay that was on the ground munching away at the fallen seeds. He let his guard down. The feral cat was behind a bush coldly eyeing his prey, still as a statue, and then zoom! The cat leapt on the bird and tore it apart, feathers flying in the air and onto the ground. All the birds at the feeder, and the birds and squirrels under the feeders, flew or fled fast. None wanted to mess with the cat.

A word to the concerned: Feral and domestic cats kill over a billion birds a year. If you have a cat, keep it indoors. The feral cats have to be neutered (those females!) so their numbers decrease. And do not under any circumstances leave food out for the mob of cats that will descend on it. If you do, you are a willing participant in the slaughter of birds.

Over the years cats have replaced cats. The same ones will come around for a while and then new ones take their place. This holds for both domestic cats and the feral ones. Do they die? Go to other hunting grounds? Maybe both. Occasionally I will see a dead cat smeared on the road.

My office gives me a front-row seat for suburban nature. It can be beautiful and ugly just as is nature in the raw.

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!, I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and at bookstores.

Cute and Unafraid

 

I am having trouble with the Beautiful AP and this has been going on for the past 32 years, 25 of which we’ve been married.

I am not ashamed to admit it. I cannot handle her. I cannot get her to be obedient. Even at the first of our weddings (we married each other three times, one wedding of which we were our own ministers) I wanted her to say, “Love, honor and obey.” She wouldn’t. Instead she changed “obey” to “cherish.”

When she heads for work she says things like, “Now, Scobe, I want you to put the laundry in the dryer and when it is dry I want you to put it in the basket and bring it to the bedroom. Make sure you do the dishes in the dishwasher and put them away. Also, bring in the recycling bins. Make sure your spot in the living room is neat and clean. And…”

“You know I am writing all day,” I whine.

“You can take a few minutes off to do a few little things,” she says and heads out to her beloved library job.

But she is not in charge of everything in our house. We have two parrots, Augustus and Mr. Squeaky. They control her. From the moment we all wake up at 5 AM to the moment they go to sleep (Augustus at 4 PM, Mr. Squeaky at 8 PM), the Beautiful AP is the servant of those damn birds—and the master of me!

How is that possible? She cleans their cages every single day; feeds them in the morning; hugs and coos to them when we all watch television together; kisses them; sings to them and puts up with all sorts of crap (literally) every day.

For decades I have pondered one of life’s fundamental questions: how do I make her my servant? Then I had a brilliant idea; I’d ask the birds for the secret of their success. Obviously, they must be doing something right.

“Guys,” I said to them. “Please give me your secret for becoming the master of the Beautiful AP.”

Of course, I know my parrots cannot talk but I can read their faces. All parrot owners will attest that while the bird’s face doesn’t change, it expresses so, so much. Yes, parrot owners know what the bird is saying. I know what Augustus and Mr. Squeaky are saying to me.

I posed my burning question to the birds. Augustus tilted his head. He is so cute when he does that. You see. I am cute when I do this, right? I can melt people’s hearts when I tilt my head and look at them with my head to the side. So AP sees this and she is in love with me.

I jumped in: “Cute? Got it. But how is it you can control her?

Augustus again titled his beautiful head. It’s simple. I let her know that I am in charge. You know that I am called the “stealth pooper” in our home. But there is nothing stealth about it. I poop wherever I want; on furniture, draperies, that nice 65-inch television where I aim it so the poop drips right down the screen. I poop on AP’s shoulder and even on her head. This lets her know I am the boss. I am cute but I am unafraid to stake my ground. That is my power.

Cute, but unafraid. Hmmm.

I have to say, there might have been a time in my life when I was cute but those days are long, long gone. Now I look in a mirror; a horrifying sight looks back at me.

I turned to Mr. Squeaky, but before I could ask him his secret, he tilted his head and said, Cute, but unafraid. What more do you need?

I mulled this over. Cuteness allows you control. I thought of infants, with diapers full of stinking poop and urine, and the mother changing the kid. “Oogie, oogie, baby is so cute!” As she wipes the kid’s awfully smelling butt clean. “Ooohhh, you smell so bad, you beautiful child.” The child giggles. Mom is in paroxysms of love.

Sometime during the day the infant will vomit on the mother. “Is my little oogie, oogie, throwing up on me? Oh, let it all out my pretty little one.”

Squeaky tilted his head, Now think of humans who are not so cute as a baby doing the exact same thing. They are not in control; they are despised.

So, I thought of really, really old people; those who poop and pee in their pants or in their adult diapers and how their health aids feel about cleaning them up.

The old person’s wrinkled and sagging face is not cute like the baby’s face. Lack of cuteness forces them to pay the aid to take care of them. My parrots pay no one. We treat them to everything!

Finally, I asked Squeaky, “What do you do to show superiority?”

Mr. Squeaky tilted his head (he is so cute!). Do you see that sharp point at the end of my beak? Everyone sees that point. I can hurt you if I want to. I am cute and dangerous. Being unafraid is important; it means you have power. Fear is weakness. Unafraid is power.

I learned my lesson.

I am not cute. If I tilt my head the only thing that happens is my jowls fall down in the tilted direction. I certainly cannot poop on my wife’s head as she comes back from work. I can’t bite her. Unfortunately, I am not unafraid.

So, excuse me, I have to do the laundry now before she gets home.

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

 

The Battle of the Birds

 

We have two birds, Augustus, a Quaker parrot of about 22 years and Mister Squeaky, a Green-Cheeked Conure of about six years. Mister Squeaky was named by his original owners and I have often dropped the Mister part. I don’t think Squeaky is quite at the age or stage where he should be called Mister.

Each bird has his own cage. Yes, they are both males since neither has laid an egg although Squeaky has laid every item on top of and inside his cage. He also lays his cage itself, top and inside. Even in the middle of the night you can hear him going-at-it inside his cage. For sure, he is an amazing bird. He is the horniest creature I have ever run across. You can read an article titled “The Four-Hour Erection” on this web site about Squeaky’s sexual proclivities.

These birds are at war. It is not a biting, bloody, rip-into-their-feathery-bodies’ war. It is a property war of attrition; who can gain the most of the other bird’s territory in a day.

Here’s how it goes. Their cages are next to each other. Both birds are out of their cages most of the time. Every other day we put a bath on top of Squeaky’s cage which he uses with delight. He looks somewhat like a drenched ragamuffin when finished with his ablutions. But Augustus, who used to bathe in his French-white CorningWare “tub” in the kitchen, has recently decided that he would take over Squeaky’s bath and CorningWare be damned.

Now we know Augustus has done this because he is a monstrous pooper and leaves his “calling cards” (oh, yes, multiple poops) in Squeaky’s bath water. Squeaky leaves no poop at all.

We used to call Augustus the stealth pooper but there is nothing stealth about him. Everything in the house – chairs, tables, drain-board next to the sink, bed, bathroom, books – in short, everything everywhere in the house is an occasion for him to let it rip, including your shoulder (which usually drips down your back) and on top of your head.

Augustus befouls Squeaky’s bath and he takes his precious time about it. Squeaky might bathe for a couple of minutes but Augustus can be in there up to 10 or 15 minutes. As he does his dirties, he eyes Squeaky. “Take that you little runt!” his expression says. (Even though a parrot’s face never changes, it does. Oh, yes it does. In some mystical way, you know exactly what that face is saying.)

When Squeaky sees the poop floating in his bath’s water, does he get upset? “Hey, you miserable senior citizen, do your dumping somewhere else!” No. Instead, he jumps right onto Augustus’ cage, climbs down the bars, goes inside and eats Augustus’ food. Now, we feed both birds the exact same diet. What’s in Augustus’ cage is also in Squeaky’s cage.

Yesterday each bird was in the other bird’s cage devouring his opponent’s food.

Augustus’ cage is somewhat taller than Squeaky’s. Parrots tend to prefer being at the topmost area of the cage – which I guess is a substitute for a tree – and we felt that since Augustus was the far more senior bird that he should have the taller cage and the advantages that height affords.

Now on top of each of their cages are toys and perches. When Squeaky sees Augustus heading back to home base, Squeaky will swiftly climb to the top of Augustus’ cage and take prime position on the perch. Augustus comes over, eyes Squeaky and gets on the perch too. Thankfully the perch is long enough to accommodate the both of them.

But here is the rub. The perch arcs in the middle and that is the highest point on top of the cage. Augustus slowly moves to that point which is where Squeaky at first sits. Squeaky is smaller than Augustus and he slowly moves from that spot.

Squeaky does not give up his hunt for the higher position. He just flies up to the top of the curtains and takes position there. Augustus is not interested in going way up there, not at his advanced age, anyway. After a bath and a meal and getting Squeaky to move, the poor old guy is tired; he then climbs down his cage and goes inside for one of his many daily naps. While he naps, Squeaky comes down and resumes the prime position on top of Augustus’ perch.

This war continues all day. Who will win it? I think because of Augustus’ age, Squeaky has the advantage, but old Augustus will keep fighting to the very end—of the afternoon, that is. Until bedtime. Then without realizing it Augustus adopts the words of Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think about it tomorrow. For tomorrow is another day.”

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

 

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge

 

The South Shore Audubon Society has Sunday birding walks at various locations on Long Island and Queens.

One of my favorite places is The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at 175-10 Cross Bay Blvd, Broad Channel, NY 11693.

This place is beautiful. There are woods in some areas and a 1.5 mile path around a lake and next to the Bay – lake on one side of the path; bay on the other. It is spectacular walking that path.

Off in the distance you can see the wonderful skyline of Manhattan; on the other side in the distance are the beach-front buildings of Long Beach. It is nature and civilization juxtaposed.

Even if you are not a birder, the walk alone is excellent. You will, of course, see many different types of birds flitting about from branch to branch and the great predators soaring into the skies. The “soarers” are usually hawks and falcons, the rulers of the air. Little birds fly in the air; the predators (known as raptors) own the air.

Last Sunday we saw a beautiful peregrine falcon sitting in a tree, near her nest. This falcon can fly up to (hold your breath) 200 miles-per-hour as it makes its descent to kill its prey. I saw this once at Jones Beach. It was dazzling, jaw dropping. Think of driving 65 miles-per-hour and having this bird pass you as if you are parked.

The park is easy to find. Just take exit 17S off the Belt Parkway and go about two miles. The park will be on your right. Here is the website of the New York Audubon Society: http://www.nycaudubon.org/queens-birding/jamaica-bay-wildlife-refuge.

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic; I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

The Great Horned Owl in Our Backyard!

 

It was early morning, maybe 5:30, and I was working on an article for this web site when I heard it. “Who! Who!”

My wife the Beautiful AP came into the office. “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Who! Who!…Who! Who! Who!”

“Wow, it sounds like an owl,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah,” I agreed. “It does.”

Our office is in the back of the house and it is three-quarters windows. The “who, who” seemed to be coming from the corner of the room nearest to my desk. AP’s desk is in the center of the room; behind her back are the cages of our two parrots that were not yet uncovered from their night’s rest.

“Who! Who!” came the sound again.

“Oh, man,” I said. “Now that is definitely an owl. It sounds like it is right outside this window in front of me.”

“Who! Who!…Who! Who!”

“No, no, it’s to your left on Brendon’s side of the house,” she said gesturing towards our neighbor’ home.

“Who! Who!”

I went around my desk to the window and peeked through the shade. “I don’t see anything in the bushes or on the fence. Nothing on Brendon’s side either.”

We shut off all the lights in the office and both of us scoured the yard.

“Who! Who! Who!”

“Oh, yeah, that damn thing is right here!” I said.

“I’m going out with my camera and binoculars. I might be able to get a good picture,” she said, scurrying to grab her gear. “Wouldn’t that be cool?”

“I remember that owl in the tree about 15 years ago,” I said. “But that was really far away. This thing is right here.” I pointed to the windows.

The Great Horned Owl is an apex predator, a large creature that can even scare hawks. It’s not a creature you want to have hunting you.

AP went outside and I kept looking out the office windows. In about 15 minutes she came back. “Nothing,” she said, disappointed. “I couldn’t even hear it.”

“Really?” I asked. “It cooed a few times while you were out there.”

“I didn’t hear a thing,” she said, perplexed.

We didn’t solve the mystery right then. But when we came back from the pool (we swim most mornings) we heard the owl again.

“We’re never going to find that thing,” I shouted from the kitchen.

“We don’t have to,” she said from the office. “Listen!”

And the owl gave a double hoot, loud like crazy. It sounded as if it were in the house.

“Come in here!” AP called to me.

I came in.

“It’s right there.” She pointed to my computer.

“Huh?”

“It’s the live cam that Paul gave us,” she laughed.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I said.

Paul is one of the members of the South Shore Audubon Society. He runs a monthly book discussion group and often recommends books, videos and websites.

He recommended a Cornell University web site (https://explore.org/livecams/).

The site has all manner of birds and animals with live web cams. I usually keep mine at the Great Horned Owl and check this creature and her babies out every morning. The site was up but the screen was minimized. So when mama owl hooted, well, it sounded as if she were hooting outside our windows.

No live sighting, no great photograph to add to my wife’s portfolio, but one mystery solved.

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

The Bird Needed Gift Boxes

 

“Ma’am, you ordered thirteen dollars’ worth of gift boxes,” said the representative.

“No, I didn’t,” said the woman.

“Yes, you did,” said the representative.

“No, I didn’t,” said the woman.

“No, I didn’t,” said her parrot in her voice.

As recently reported in the New York Post, in London a clever African Grey parrot spent $13 on gift boxes from Amazon.com. That’s right; the parrot mimicked its owner’s voice, activated Alexa and placed the order. (Why? I have no idea! Maybe to send seed to its friends?)

Those in the know in the parrot world are fully aware of the intelligence of parrots and particularly of the African Grey whose greatest individual was the late Alex, the bird who could reason and accurately use basic vocabulary under the tutelage of animal psychologist, Irene Pepperberg.

My parrots—Augustus, a Quaker parrot of about 21 years, and Mr. Squeaky, a green-cheek conure, about five years old— are not as smart as the parrot mentioned above. They can’t order from Amazon.com like the parrot in London or have a vocabulary of over a hundred words, like the legendary Alex.

However, Augustus and Mr. Squeaky can pitch food and cutlery with the aim of Sandy Koufax to get our attention. They can strategically poop on us to convey disdain or give a mild bite to express annoyance.  Actually, only Augustus can regulate his bite. Mr. Squeaky will draw blood every time; but he’s a teenager.

There is a great documentary about the intelligence of parrots and crows titled Beak & Brain: Genius Parrots from Down Under. It can blow you away if you think a bird’s brain is merely a birdbrain.

And if a bunch of gift boxes arrive at your house? Who knows who ordered them?

Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.

 

The Pursuit of the Puffin

On a recent cruise in the North Atlantic (http://frankscoblete.com/my-70th-birthday-cruise/) my wife the Beautiful AP and I wanted to see the huge puffin colony on the Faroe Islands. Supposedly there are millions of puffin nests scattered throughout the islands on the sides of the monstrous mountains jutting out over the sea.

These little birds are beautiful with comical characteristics, including large, colorful beaks. Puffins are generally monogamous birds and build their nests on the sides of the giant mountains.

Puffins make up some of the diet of the Faroe Islanders and Icelanders. I wonder if they taste as good as they look?

“Oh, you probably won’t see many puffins today,” said the receptionist at the hotel where we were meeting our driver and tour guide Thordeval. “The weather is really bad and you are getting a somewhat late start. It is a long drive to that side of the island. You might not see a single one.”

“I thought there were millions of these birds on these islands,” I said.

“Yes, but this weather is not conducive to flying about.” She probably saw the defeated look on my face. “But you might see some, maybe, you know, you might see some.”

The word puffin means “little brother” as some religious folks saw the bird’s black and white colors as similar to monastic robes. Of course, that didn’t stop the islanders from eating these pretty little birds.

Thordeval came by in his taxi and we introduced ourselves. The day before this puffin adventure, the Beautiful AP and I had decided to forgo the bus trips that the cruise line sets up in favor of hiring our own guide. These bus trips had been harrowing, but most were also dull, so we jettisoned them. We wanted to see what we wanted to see in the time we had to see them.

Thordeval shook his head as the wind and rain pelted us as we entered his car. “Not the best weather,” he said. “Those birds may be hiding in their nests.”

“Well,” said AP. “Let’s give it a try.”

It was an hour’s drive to the side of the island inhabited by the puffins; a drive often through long tunnels in the mountains. The drive was beautiful and Thordeval explained how the sheep and fishing industries worked. The mountain sides were littered with sheep.

“Who owns these sheep?” asked AP. “There don’t seem to be any farmhouses nearby.”

“All different farmers own them,” said Thordeval. “They bring the sheep to these grazing areas and they are all mixed together.”

“But when winter comes, how do farmers know which sheep are theirs?” I asked.

“They are branded on the ears just in case the dogs usher the sheep to the wrong farmer,” said Thordeval. “Each farmer’s dogs know their sheep and they herd them in winter to that farmer.”

Keep in mind that winter can be dark up to 24 hours a day. Right now we were in July and it was light except for two hours of “dusk.” I couldn’t see spending almost an entire day in darkness. (See the great horror movie 30 Days of Night.)

Thordeval also explained that there was no crime on the island; at the worst, the police have to occasionally deal with fights between lads who have drunk too much in the pubs. “There aren’t many fights either.”

The Faroe Islands have no squirrels either. Or snakes. My backyard seems to have more dangerous animals than exist on these islands.

Thordeval, like many other islanders, loves where he lives. At one point, he tried living in Denmark, but lasted only six months and then returned home. Many of his schoolmates had the same experience.

At times the rain and wind were ferocious on the coastline. The only birds we saw were numerous varieties of gulls flying and soaring about. The scenery was beautiful even in the on-again, off-again rain.

The rain let up as we arrived in puffin territory. We walked down a slippery mountain path; around a small herd of rams, and we checked the sides of the mountains but saw no puffins. We saw more waterfalls and beautiful vistas of mountains and ocean and the ubiquitous gulls.

Suddenly Thordeval pointed to a spot just below us, maybe about 10 feet down. “There are two!”

And there were two, looking out of their nest. Then they left their nest. What beautiful birds! What comical birds! Oh my God, they just kissed and put their necks around each other. And, and, they were looking right at us. They did not seem afraid of us at all. Maybe these two weren’t aware that they could (someday) be a dinner for someone.

AP spent time cooing as she watched them through her binoculars. She took dozens of photographs with her phone. “I don’t think these are going to come out too clear. I wish I had my camera!” Since we always travel with carry-on and never check luggage, AP had decided to leave the camera home. Maybe we could get one good “phone” picture.

We watched these two birds for a good 20 minutes. They watched us too. Finally they went back into their nest; the rain picked up just then, and we headed back up the path, past the rams, and to Thordeval’s car.

A third puffin zipped by, his wings beating so fast he could have been a colossal hummingbird.

On the way back we toured Torshavn National Museum.

Thanks to Thordeval and a happily married pair of puffins, AP and I were very satisfied with our day in the Faroe Islands.

 

 

 

Camera Shy

“They are smart,” said my wife the Beautiful AP. “This can’t be just coincidence.”

I agreed with her. We were talking about Hooded Mergansers but such applies to almost all birds. They are smart.

Too many ornithologists come down on the side of birds just being creatures of instinct with no real intelligence. My wife and I have two parrots and let me tell you, they are both intelligent. In fact, more often than not, they outsmart me. Their goal in a day is to manipulate me; my goal is to be left alone so I can do my work. They often – quite often – win.

I guess you can say that for the Beautiful AP and for me, birds have passed our version of the Turing Test. This test was created by Alan Turing to determine if a being were actually intelligent or just a machine of some kind.

According to Turing, if a machine responds as if it were intelligent, then indeed it is intelligent. Anyway that’s what Turing’s test tries to show. I’ve just extended it to animals and birds. I agree that there are instincts (or unconscious programs) but intelligence is there, in some cases (as in parrots) that intelligence is pretty high. I assume other animals pass the Turing Test too. I am not saying animal/bird intelligence is equivalent to human intelligence; just that those minds are working.

“So why can’t I ever get Hooded Mergansers?” AP whined.

She was right. Every time we saw Hooded Mergansers they were always on the other side of the lake. We’d then walk around the lake – even a far walk – and as soon as we got to where the Hooded Mergansers had been, those rotten birds were now on the side of the lake from where we just came.

This didn’t happen just once or twice but multiple times in multiple places both on Long Island and in Cape May. Come on, they had to know they were busting the Beautiful AP’s chops. Maybe these birds had some kind of psychic connection to each other as in, “That dumb photographer is heading to Cape May from Long Island. Let’s screw around with her as our LI brethren have done. Awk! Awk!” (“Awk! Awk!” is the derisive laugh of birds.)

Next, we have a couple of Cardinals who come to our three feeders quite often. Cardinals are magnificently colored creatures; red as red can be – the males that is. The females are far plainer, but still quite pretty.

But the Beautiful AP cannot get a picture of this magnificent male bird. He will be on the feeder, beaking his food, when AP positions the camera to capture him in all his glory and then – the stinking bird will scoot over to the other side of the feeder where he can’t be seen.

“Damn! Damn it!” says AP.

The bird now peaks its head around the feeder at her. You can see it looking at her. But as soon as she lifts the camera, Mr. Cardinal scoots around back again. This does not happen with the host of Sparrows, the many Blackbirds, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, Grackles, Mourning Doves, Tufted Tit Mice, and Black Capped Chickadees. These birds just eat and swiftly fly away when a cat crouches to kill them. No, just those miserable male Cardinals play this nerve-wracking game.

When the Cardinal was in a bush or tree, every time she lifted the camera, the damn bird would scoot behind a leaf, a branch, a feeder – anything to hide himself.

No one should ever think a bird’s brain is just a birdbrain.

AP is undeterred. She plans to have an exhibit of her bird photos in less than a year and vows to have great shots of Cardinals, Hooded Mergansers and other smarty-pants birds in the display. If I know my wife, she will prevail.

“’You must do the things you think you cannot do,’” AP said thunderously, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt.

I could be a smarty-pants myself. “’I can resist anything but temptation,’” quoting Oscar Wilde.  Then I poured myself a drink.

[Read Frank Scoblete’s books I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack, I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps and Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! All available from Amazon.com, on Kindle and electronic media, at Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

An Old Hand at Birding

I face the abyss. I am about to turn 70. How is that possible? 70. Seventy?

I would be lying if I said 70 is just a number – it is a number, but one with great meaning; I am at the end lap of life’s race. I can’t pretend that is not so. 70! Time has sped up so that a blink now seems to be the time a year takes, yet I am somewhat slowed. I experience faster and slower simultaneously. I do not put in eight to 10 hours of writing work a day; I am down to three or four.

I still feel I haven’t done all of the things I want to do and I do worry I will not have the time to do them.

The abyss is opening. I see its edges not so far away.

These thoughts weighed heavily on me as my wife the Beautiful AP and I headed for Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge for our weekly South Shore Audubon Society’s Sunday bird walk. Last week we were at the Hempstead Lake State Park. I do love these bird walks.

If you have never been to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge take a trip there. It is a fascinating ocean of nature on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with lakes and bays and birds galore. You also have magnificent views of Manhattan off in the distance. Raw nature entangled in civilization.

We met in the parking lot. There were about 20 of us, led by Joe our birding expert. I noticed there were some new folks at this walk – there are always a few new folks each week – plus the regulars, a truly nice group of people.

At 9 a.m. Joe led us into the park. There is a single path that goes around what used to be a fresh-water lake that has now become salt ever since tropical storm Sandy smashed through the barrier that had kept the salt marsh on its side of the path and the lake on the other.

Today we would be able to walk the one and a half miles around the lake. Estimates are the lake will again be fresh water in about 20 years. Will I see that?

As we walked I noticed her, an older woman, far older than my approaching 70, who would stop and sit every hundred yards or so. There are benches all the around the lake so people can sit and watch the birds on the water, on the marsh grass, in the air and in the branches of the trees.

She sat and eyed everything through her binoculars. As we progressed along the path, I noticed something. This woman’s eyes were sharp. She’d pick out birds none of the rest of us could see and alert us to where they were.

The great fish-devouring ospreys have returned to the Northeast and use the nesting sites set up to protect them from the perils of manmade havoc in their habitat. But the ospreys were not in their nests as we walked; they were in and around the marshlands, basically unnoticeable as they blended with their environment – but she could find them and point out exactly where these beautiful birds were hunting for Sunday brunch. The osprey’s diet is strictly fish and several she had sighted were eating such fish.

She also walked with a great gait, walking stick in hand, from one bench to another bench where she would scour the water-scape and alert us to the unseen birds.

I watched her for the entire 1.5 miles. She had a zest for birding. She had a fine sense of humor (anyone who laughs at my witty remarks has a fine sense of humor) and she knew her birds. She obviously enjoys her life.

Maybe the abyss is not so abysmal? Maybe I should just do the things I want to do and not worry so much about time? Maybe 70 is just a number – one that leads to other numbers. Maybe it isn’t the end of it all.  Maybe, just maybe, seeing this sharp, vibrant person who sees 70 distantly in her rearview mirror, is helping me see 70 through my windshield in a better light.

[Read Frank Scoblete’s books I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack, I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps and Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! All available from Amazon.com, on Kindle and electronic media, at Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]