Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

 

They are high among the woodland giants; at the top terraces of massive trees, and in spindly ones; in those middle terraces that can support the weight of human beings and bears, in dugout crevices and holes, they look out at the forest floor and up into the canopy of leaves; and in bushes and even on the ground scooting about. They are there. You can hear them.

Now listen, listen: birds, birds of every size and type, singing their distinct songs of love; males and, yes, even females, looking to mate, to reproduce, to continue their lines as far into the future as those lines stretched so far into the past.

Birds. Some are nature’s beautiful angels and some are cold-eyed hunters and killers; all singing their songs to attract mates and after mating, to discuss daily living.

We hear their songs as chirps, whistles, and trills; hoots, honks, whinnies and squawks; caws and cackles. Each bird looking to distinguish itself so others of its kind will hunger for them, so others will know they are there.

For human birders the second step in recognizing who hoots who is learning the birds’ songs. There are some birders in our South Shore Audubon Society (on Long Island, New York), who can connect – like that! – with just about whichever bird is making whatever song. Birds listen to bird song but we listen too.

I do not have the ear as of yet. I recognize several songs but most of the charm of the 5 AM cacophony is lost on me. My wife the Beautiful AP isn’t much better at it than I am. Still, we haven’t been at this birding very long and sooner or later we’ll be able to identify some of those singers.

Our guide Joe, a former college biology professor, will stop the troop and point “up there” and “out there,” and say, “What bird is calling?” Slim-as-slim Michael, as new a birder as I am, will answer and he is almost always correct.

While tuning in to the songs of birds, I now hear trills from my mate:

“Scrape your plate and load it in the dishwasher.”

“Don’t come home with a plastic bag! There are canvas bags in the trunk.”

“If you can put your lips on a coffee cup and a wine glass, why do you need a plastic straw for a drinking glass?”

The birds are far more sonorous than this non-feathered creature who chirps to me daily—but the main thing is I’m beginning to listen.

 

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!; I Am a Dice Controller and I Am a Card Counter. All of Frank’s books are available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and at bookstores.

 

Life, Death and DeBare

 

 

June 3rd was the last Sunday of the South Shore Audubon Society’s Sunday bird walks until these pick up again in late August. We were at the Massapequa Preserve, a beautiful area of woods and lakes and streams with magnificent birds everywhere.

There was also a bicycle event of some kind taking place while we were bird watching and as the bikes whizzed past the 28 of us ambling along the small paths Paul and my wife the Beautiful AP’s voices rang out to the rest of us, “Bike coming! Here comes a bike!” Other voices would lift as well. Those bikes were scary. Indeed.

Paul was somewhat annoyed, “These bikes are supposed to have bells that they ring as they come up to pedestrians. That’s the law. They can kill us. They must have bells!”

He was right, of course; those bikes could kill us. The paths were not very wide. Some of the riders seemed to enjoy almost hitting one or two of us as they whizzed by. (“How many birders did you get today Tim?” “I got me a few, maybe even killed a couple.” “They are really weird people,” said Ben in his multi-colored helmet.)

Perhaps the most illuminating of the events of that day were the two families of Canada geese, both with a “husband” and “wife” ushering their young from the fast-moving stream. Although the geese were not afraid of us, mom and pop kept a close eye on their goslings and us gapers.

I love birding; it’s fun getting out into nature, watching the beauty of beings that can fly. I even like the rabbits and chip monks and the plants and trees and water and the occasional fish you see and…

I am thinking about death and not just death by bicycle.

A former teaching colleague of mine, Mike DeBare, just passed away shortly before this bird walk. Passed to where? Passed to what? Passed to anything at all? Are we actually passing through something or does death just stop us at the dead end which is really nothing, nothing at all?

I liked DeBare. We’d talk now and then, especially if we were on hall duty together. He seemed like a good guy; he was certainly a good teacher; his students liked him, which is a good sign of a good teacher.

I can’t count up on my fingers and toes the number of my former colleagues who have passed because the number of dead far surpasses the number of my digits. Most were my age or younger; some somewhat older, some were close friends, some favored colleagues; and some of these passed colleagues, I really didn’t know well or at all.

I am more aware of death now than ever before in my life. It waits for me like a bike speeding by me along the path on which I am walking.

 

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!; I Am a Dice Controller and I Am a Card Counter. All of Frank’s books are available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and at bookstores.

The Incredible Fading Man

 

This Sunday my wife the Beautiful AP and I went on a bird walk at Hempstead Plains, a venue near Hofstra University and Nassau Community College on Long Island.

I didn’t like the place. You had to walk through small thickets, in and out of powerful vines that would catch your ankles and not let go, and the occasional really thorny thorny plants. The grass was wet; the walking was dirty. I was miserable.

We saw a bird here or there but I had to keep my head down to see where I was going so I wouldn’t fall on my face. Thus, I didn’t look up too much.

The place has a combination of rare local plants—something called Gerardi something or other which seems to be impossible to transplant elsewhere and is therefore on the endangered list and an invasive species called “those yellow flowers” which they have tried to kill by cutting, mowing and burning but the damn plant is taking over the Hempstead Plains.

The volunteer at the place told us to look out for ticks. How the hell do you do that, short of bringing a microscope and constantly checking the ground, the plants, your body and maybe everyone else’s body that might be swarming with these vile creatures?

Thankfully, when the walk was finished I stood by the administration building (a bunch of recycled shipping containers made to look like a building) and I stated emphatically out to the world at large that “I will never come here again” (unless, of course, my wife says I have to).

There were four people standing near me. What I took for a mother (or teacher or both) and three kids, two girls and a boy, maybe ages 15 to 20. They were about to go on their walk. I thought I’d have some fun with them. I mean what the heck! I’m a funny guy and maybe I could get a laugh out of them. One of our South Shore Audubon Society members, Bill, was near us as well.

I said to them as a group, “I saw the most amazing bird today.” I paused to make sure that they were hanging on my words and then I hit them with the punchline, “Rodan!” Bada-bing, folks! “Rodan!”

All four of them looked quizzically at me.

“What is that?” asked one of the girls.

“Rodan,” I nodded. “Rodan. You know, Rodan.”

“Never heard of that bird,” said the mother.

The boy shook his head. “What kind of bird is that?”

“Come on, man, Rodan,” I said.

“Never heard of it,” said the other girl. “What’s its Latin name?”

“You folks don’t know Rodan?”

They shook their heads.

“Rodan destroyed Tokyo,” I said. They just looked at me.

“When did that happen?” asked the first girl.

“I wasn’t aware that Tokyo was ever destroyed,” said the mother.

Bill stepped in to save me. “He’s talking about a science fiction film from Japan in the 1950s. Rodan was a giant bird.”

The four of them looked at me. I think they were wondering if this crazy man really thought he had seen this giant bird during his walk through Hempstead Plains.

I smiled wanly and turned my attention to something else—actually I pretended to turn my attention to something else. I was actually wondering if I am that far behind culturally? I thought every kid knew the great Japanese monsters that destroyed Tokyo. How could these four be so ignorant?

It wasn’t them. It was me. My reference points are my own life’s events and memories. I actually don’t know most of the current modern singers or songs or movie stars. I am out of sync with modern times.

Yes, more fool me, I’m fading: Rodan, for crying out loud, Rodan!

Frank’s latest books are Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!; I Am a Dice Controller and I Am a Card Counter. All of Frank’s books are available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and at bookstores.

Bird Walking and Talking

 

When I tell my friends that I am now a “birder” or, as people used to say, a “bird watcher,” they think I have lost my mind. My wife’s friends think what she is doing is simply wonderful. They will congratulate her on her enthusiasm and love of nature.

My friends? Here’s what they say: “Aren’t those bird people all crazy tree huggers? Aren’t they nuts? Why would you want anything to do with them? Are you nuts?”

Look, the birding community is made up of many different types of people; some are progressive, some liberal, and some conservative. It is a decent cross-section of American society obviously awash with those who care about birds and the environment.

I will admit it clearly; I like birders.

The Beautiful AP and I go on bird walks with our South Shore Audubon Society just about every Sunday from late August to the following June.

The talk is usually about birds that we are seeing and hearing – our guide Joe knows his stuff and is happy to teach us. I am, sadly, the birdbrain in the group. Of course, in the real world of birds a birdbrain can be quite intelligent with a host of parrots including the brilliant Kea, the magnificent African Grey, the Macaw, the Cockatoo, the Amazon, along with your backyard birds such Crows, Ravens and Jays – to name just some of the really bright ones. It is true, if I were a bird I would not be on this list.

But not all talk centers on birds, especially when we are walking and not seeing or hearing a specific bird or species. I have a few birders that I enjoy talking with about other stuff, sometimes trivial stuff, and sometimes earth-shaking stuff.

This moment was trivial: We were at my favorite birding place, The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Howard Beach, Queens. The refuge is a study in contrasts. The world of the refuge is nature; lakes, ponds, woods, and a beautiful bay, but off in the distance is the epic city of New York, with skyscrapers trying to scratch the sky. The refuge was only a few miles from Kennedy Airport where planes take off to everywhere in the world.

I was walking with Bob going past the Bay side of the park. Bob is one of my favorites. He has some very funny opinions about the birding population. He thinks “we are like golfers, our scores are not always to be believed.” Birders pride themselves on being honest about the birds they are seeing and cataloguing.

“How much would it take,” I said, “for you to strip naked, call over all the birders here and run into the water up to your neck and then run out letting everyone see you?”

“I don’t know,” he said, seriously thinking about it.

“Ten thousand?” I asked.

“You got it! Ten thousand and I’ll strip, shout to everyone and they can watch me run into and out of the water.”

“How about five thousand?” I asked.

“Then I wouldn’t want to go up to my neck because that water is cold. I’m not one of those polar bear people,” he said.

“You don’t care if everyone laughs at you?”

“I laugh at him,” said his wife. I hadn’t noticed she was standing behind us.

“How about a thousand?” I asked.

“I’ll do it but I will only stand at the shore line. I won’t go in.”

“Will you jump up and down?” I asked.

“This is getting disgusting,” said his wife.

“How much would it be for you?” asked Bob.

“I wouldn’t do it unless the money was really, really big. People would really laugh at me.”

“Who cares?” he said. “At our age what does a little thing matter?”

“Not that,” I said. “It’s because I have gotten really fat. I wouldn’t want anyone to see me. I’ve become the human blob. There is no beauty in me anymore.”

We never did establish a price for me because at that moment a Peregrine falcon was spotted looking at all of us from a nearby tree. Now that is one beautiful bird! It captured our attention and immediately took us from the trivial to the sublime.

The Fastest Things on Wings

 

Hummingbirds are indeed “the fastest things on wings” and although the peregrine falcon can descend to earth at 200 miles an hour, the hummingbird can fly its body length over and over again far faster than can the peregrine. The hummingbird’s wings can beat at 60 to 80 times a second, and some hummingbirds in South America can beat up to 120 times per second.

Still, hummingbirds living in cities and suburban enclaves—though they are accustomed to human beings, with individuals so friendly they can be fed by hand— these tiny birds, some almost as small as a large bee, some somewhat larger than that, face extraordinary dangers. Among such perils are hitting skyscraper windows, blasting into cars, buses and trucks, getting stuck in air conditioning systems, on fire trucks, hitting objects, products and mannequins in stores, falling to earth in exhaustion (sexual torpor) after mating and even in one case getting hit by a golf ball in mid-air.

“Everybody cries about hummingbirds,” states hummingbird rehabber Terry Masear, author of the fascinating book The Fastest Things on Wings. In her experience, bikers, goths, salespeople, laborers, CEOs, grounds keepers, tree cutters, professional and amateur athletes, along with some ludicrously rich Hollywood actors, directors and producers, all tremble in the light of a hummingbird’s approaching demise. They seek Terry out at all hours of the day and night to get the necessary help for the little bird they wish saved. In a single year she will get close to 5,000 calls!

Terry Masear cares for injured hummingbirds in Los Angeles. During the hummingbird season, late April through the summer months, she will save over a thousand birds with her step-by-step rehabilitation techniques. Sadly some will die. These are not casual deaths as Terry, despite her attempts at being “cold-blooded,” often mourns them. Life is precious, even the tiny life of a hummingbird. A tiny life is still big.

As we are learning now, individual birds within a species are not all alike; just as we humans differ from one another, each hummingbird has his or her own personality. Terry recounts instances where hummingbirds react in radically different ways to her rehabilitation techniques. Some are docile, some inquisitive, and some look to mate—even in rehabilitation. Terry states that male hummingbirds are quite horny. I guess that’s the way of the world when it comes to males.

A small percentage of hummingbirds, again predominantly males, are nasty. She recounts one such monster that attacked almost every bird in her aviary. This beast would nail the other birds with his bill, trample them when they were feeding on the ground, and bully them almost non-stop even in the early evenings when hummingbirds typically grow quiescent. In fact, one of Terry’s rehab friends said that such intensely aggressive hummingbirds—were they human—should be shot! Terry does not waste much of her time with such cruel beasts; she lets them meet their fate rather than risk the lives of the other birds.

The book is fascinating, well written and hard to put down. Masear has done a wonderful job!

Frank’s books are available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, e-books and at bookstores.

Bird Breakups

 

Many birds “marry” for life, others for a little while, and some others continually play the fields, bushes, trees and shorelines. Females determine with whom they will mate, so the male birds must be colorful and expert at the sex dances in order to get those women to love them—at least for the few seconds that the actual mating takes place.

Females produce the eggs and do what they must do to propagate their species. Yes, there are some couplings where the males actually help out around the house and some even are house-husbands but usually the males are doing most of the hunting to feed their brood and leave the baby caring to the ladies. Some males just scoot away never to be seen or heard from again.

The March 2018 issue of Scientific American has an interesting article “Bird Breakup” by Jason G. Goldberg on why certain bird couplings go astray and sometimes end in a birdie divorce. Blue herons have a different mate every breeding season—they are the Liz Taylors of birding—while the mallards only have a nine percent divorce rate. The mallards are committed to marriage. The blue herons are committed to mating without commitment.

Why so?

First, most of the birdie divorces occur because of the death of one spouse or a lack of synchronicity in the birds’ migrating patterns. If hubby arrives at the nesting site a few weeks ahead of his wife but his dear wife does not get there within a certain time period, the urge to reproduce is too great for the male to hang in there. After all, the bird’s genes are screaming for reproduction. In short, death, delay or lack of synchronicity can wreak havoc with a bird marriage. A male or female is not going to wait for a delayed or dead spouse to hurry on home because the future awaits.

It is rare that in a bird marriage, one will say, “Go on now, go! Walk out the door. Just turn around now, ‘cause you’re not welcome anymore.” Generally the breakups are due to circumstances outside the bird’s control.

Then there are accidents that can cause problems in a bird’s relationship with his spouse. In New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, according to The New York Post, a lovely red-tailed hawk couple, Christo and Dora, who have raised 10 chicks together, have suddenly encountered true marriage problems.

You see Dora needed to go into rehabilitation and no, even though this is New York City, her stint in rehab had nothing to do with drugs; she had a broken wing.

Red-tailed hawks usually mate for life but with Dora’s disappearance, and presumed death, a new love entered Christo’s picture, Nora, meaning “not Dora,” flew in, wiggled her feathers and enticed Christo to give a second marriage a try.

Christo and Nora started the mating rituals and then – oh, no! – Dora was released back into the park.  Dora saw Nora. Nora saw Dora. Christo saw Dora and Nora. And there was trouble with a capital T!

The two females had no intention of being sister wives. They were on the verge of fighting to the death when Christo helped create two nests far enough away from each other so 0that Dora and Nora didn’t have to bother with one another. But Christo is not a Mormon bird from the old school of polygamy and whether he can handle two wives is yet to be seen. New Yorkers who enjoy the hawks are waiting with baited breath for the end results of this bigamy.

Peregrine falcons that also mate for life will experience devastating angst when their mates die. In the marvelous book Wings for My Flight: The Peregrine Falcons of Chimney Rock, Marcy Cottrell Houle recounts the death of a female falcon whose mate waits and waits for her return.

The male flies and flies miles and miles as he desperately searches for his mate. In his travail he loses significant weight, and when he finally realizes that he has lost his beloved, he mournfully takes up the total care and training of the chicks himself. It is a heartbreaking tale that looks exactly like true love.

Can a bird love? Can a bird feel loss? Decide that for yourselves, but my answer is yes.

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.

The Bookcase: Review of “Wesley the Owl” by Stacey O’Brien

 

Last things first—I cried. Wesley the owl died at the end of the book at the age of 19. I am not ashamed to admit I cried. Thirty years ago I would have been sneering at my tearing but in the last 22 years I have had two parrots as pets (both still alive) and I know the close relationship that a human and a bird (perhaps all pets and people) can have.

My older bird, Augustus, came close to death about five years ago. My wife, the Beautiful AP, and I were shattered. I never thought that could happen to me, my lord, I was sad because of a bird? Yes, I was. Augustus was a part of my family; he is still a part of my family.

Stacey O’Brien has written a masterful tale, Wesley the Owl, of her 19 years with a barn owl who would have died in the wild because he started his life with a broken wing. If owls can’t fly, they die. Stacey had a choice; adopt the owl or know that she had consigned him to oblivion. Stacey is a biologist specializing in wild animal behavior. She adopted the owl.

Of course, she had to figure how to feed it (loads and loads of mice) and take care of it in the confines of an indoor life. Wesley had some very strong ideas about how he wanted to live—one way was without other males coming near his “mate.” Wesley was jealous of “suitors.” In that he was much like the Greek hero Odysseus, after whose return from a 20 year adventure, killed his supposedly widowed wife’s suitors.

Despite the word barn in the owl’s name, it is an outdoor creature that might only very, very occasionally wind up in someone’s barn for some strange reason or other.

Wesley the Owl is a personal tale. Stacey suffered from migraines which became so bad that she would pass out. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, then a stroke and wound up in a wheelchair. She seriously thought of suicide. What held her hand? Let her tell you:

“Wesley had been my constant companion, my teacher, and my friend. I now made the decision to honor this little body with the huge soul, and to see him through to the end. I had promises to keep. It was the one thing I could still do. It’s the Way of the Owl. You commit for life, you finish what you start, you give your unconditional love, and that is enough. I looked into the eyes of the owl, found the word of God there, and decided to live.”

I just gave my two birds kisses. These are birds I love. Stacey loved Wesley. Read the book; I think you will enjoy it.

 

This book review first appeared in the South Shore Audubon Society’s newsletter The Skimmer at http://www.ssaudubon.org/

Frank’s books are available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, e-books and at bookstores.

Save the Best for Last

 

My wife, the Beautiful AP, and I went bird watching recently at the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge in Howard Beach, Queens, New York. This is my favorite place to go for the variety of birds, and for everything else—the marsh, the lakes, the ponds, the bay, the paths, the forest and the magnificent vistas.

You are in beautiful nature yet, through your binoculars off in the distance, you can see the skyline of Manhattan, which is always a spectacular sight. And since this refuge is quite close to Kennedy Airport you get to see hundreds of planes flying into the sky—mankind’s successful attempt to mimic the birds of the air.

Having gotten out of a 10-day post-New Year’s single-digit deep freeze, it was a relief to escape into 40-degree weather, although along the ocean and wetlands, it was still cold and windy.

We had to sneak into the park; it was closed because of the Federal government’s shutdown. We did a two mile walk on the main path; on our left the salt quarter-frozen bay and on the right the completely frozen freshwater lake.

About a hundred feet into the walk we encountered a young female photographer who was sitting on a bench looking at the bay on the opposite side of which is Far Rockaway.

“Any luck?” asked AP.

“Nothing except some flitters that are too fast to photograph,. They zip into the bushes and vanish,” she said. “Nothing is standing still today. There just isn’t really much to see.”

“Well, good luck,” I said as we walked on.

When we hit the area that had no bushes or trees on either side of the path, the wind whipped us. “So much ice,” said AP, looking over the bay.

“Nothing out there,” I said. Just then high overhead a small flock of Canada geese sailed over our heads. “I wouldn’t want to be a Canada goose,” I said. “Nobody seems to like them.”

“Do you like them?” asked AP.

“Not after stepping in their shit all these years,” I said.

“Remember the ones that were so aggressive at Hall’s Pond? If you didn’t give them something to eat, they attacked you.”

“Even if you fed them,” I said. “They still bit you.”

So we kept walking the path, stopping occasionally to look through our binoculars to see if there was anything to see. There wasn’t. The Manhattan skyline looked great as did the planes soaring into the air, but that was about it.

“Maybe we will see something in the second half of the walk,” said the Beautiful AP. “Maybe the second half will be good.”

“The second half of life’s been good,” I said.

“My first half wasn’t so hot,” said AP.

Indeed, AP’s first 29 years saw her more like a deer caught in a car’s headlights on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. She titled her parents’ marriage “Ozzie and Harriet in the Twilight Zone.”

“I was in the Twilight Zone with them,” she said. “It was a middle-class suburban family in chaos.”

“I had wild ups and downs in my first half of life. I certainly disappointed my father,” I said.

“You didn’t become a major league baseball player,” said AP.

I laughed, “I didn’t become the next Joe DiMaggio. I was nowhere near as good as you had to be to become a professional player, even a minor leaguer. So I didn’t get the fame he wanted for me. I petered out. And then a bad marriage, divorce and damn it wasn’t exactly turning out like It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“If we hadn’t met each other I sometimes wonder if I would ever have left Twilight Zone,” she said.

“Without your support I would never have become a well-known writer,” I said.

“The second half has been the best,” said AP.

“Agreed,” I said. “I’ve always felt bad for the people who look over their early years, say in high school or even in college, and reminisce as if these were the best years of their lives. It is sad that the right now is not their best times.”

“I have no nostalgia about those years. I’d never go back,” said AP.

“Me too. Just as we wouldn’t go back from where we came from on this walk, other than a flock of Canada geese, not a bird in sight, I prefer moving ahead. ‘Let the dead past bury its dead,’ as someone famous once said.”

“So let’s move on with the future of this walk,” said the Beautiful AP.

Right then a sparrow landed on the path in front of us. Our first non-goose! AP focused her camera but the sparrow scooted into the bushes before she could take a picture. The sparrow was not the last. We took a couple of steps and two unidentifiable black birds zipped over our heads. At least they were birds!

At the tail end of our walk all hell broke loose! Or maybe you could say that the heavens’ opened. Suddenly there were a half dozen different birds flying overhead, landing in the denuded trees, walking on the snow on the path searching for water and seeds, and some just stood on the side of the path looking at us. AP took dozens of photos. A couple came over and both the husband and the wife exclaimed, “Look at all the cedar waxwings!”

These birds are small and look like miniature cardinals. They were not skittish and the Beautiful AP got dozens of pictures of them. There were cardinals and robins and sparrows and gulls and, yes, flying overhead and honking like crazy were those Canada Geese. There were some other birds too—I just don’t what kind. It was, I kid you not, like being in an aviary.

When we finished, we snuck out of the Refuge and walked  to the car.  AP summed up our lives and this bird walk stating, “The second half was so much better!”

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.

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.