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.

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.]

Found: The Great Horned Owl!

If you read my article “The Hunt for the Great Horned Owl” you’d recall that my wife the Beautiful AP, my son Mike and I spent three days in Cape May during Christmas trying to locate one of the great apex predators, the Great Horned Owl. I wanted to find this amazing creature so that I could go back to the South Shore Audubon Society (which is on Long Island) and tell the members that not only had we seen this bird but I was now no longer just a birdbrain in the society.

I wanted to strut around like a birding big shot.

Such wasn’t to happen. The Great Horned Owl didn’t make an appearance.

But yesterday at Hempstead Lake State Park on Long Island, one month after the defeat in Cape May, on our Sunday bird walk with the South Shore Audubon Society we got to see this awesome predator. Olga, a wonderful photographer with a keen eye, spotted one. What’s ironic is that the Beautiful AP and I didn’t expect to see any birds because the day was foggy and dreary. “Do birds come out in this crummy weather?” I asked. Evidently they do.

The 15 members stood in awe, photographing and exclaiming what a magnificent bird the Great Horned Owl is. The Beautiful AP shot dozens of blurry photographs with her new camera (AP has taken up photography) but one stood out (see below). At one point this usually nocturnal bird let loose and flew over our heads. The Great Horned Owl is large and strong!

So we saw it, watched it for quite a while and then continued on our birding expedition. We saw a variety of birds but the Great Horned Owl was the hit of the day!

Photo by A.P. Scoblete

[Read Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! On sale at Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

 

 

 

 

 

Look! A Big Bird with a Bright Orange Breast!

 

My fourth bird-watching expedition was to Hempstead Lake State Park on Long Island, New York. It was a lot of fun — even though I did make something of an ass of myself (something I am getting really good at).

The birding group composed of maybe 20 men and women, some quite old (some maybe dead), some quite smart and some I haven’t figured out yet; all bedecked in their bird watching gear of brown clothes with binoculars hanging from their necks, was an enthusiastic lot.

My wife the Beautiful AP and I were the rank amateurs in every way. Using our brand-new 8 x 42 powered binoculars every time someone said something such as “Look over there (pointing), a tan-breasted marmalade rotund chick flyer!” I’d put the binocs (being cool that’s what I now call them – binocs) to my eyes and try to focus on the bird – mostly where my fellow birders were pointing.

Inevitably I got branches and tree limbs or ground or marsh grass but I could never find the bird. The magnification of the binocs was great. I mean I could really see the stupid leaves of the stupid trees.

Maybe human eyesight and binoc sight are on a different level?

The bird walk took two hours and at the end of hour number one I had seen some birds. But usually only for a few seconds because those rotten birds could fly. Just as my binocs were honing in on them; off they would go! Pfft! That’s more annoying than someone talking during a movie.

All I was doing was basically tramping through the woods, over the tree roots that were above the ground. (“Please God; don’t let me break my ankle.”) I was sweating like a pig (do pigs sweat?) and fearful I would rub up against some poison ivy which seemed to be growing everywhere.

We came to the lake; a nice lake that was a little low on water since Long Island was not getting much rain. I binoced-in on a bunch that were lazing their way along the shore. Oh, yeah!

Other than huffing and puffing, I had not contributed anything to the bird-walk of our South Shore Audubon team except stuff like “I don’t see anything.” Or, “Is that poison ivy here?” “A yellow tufted what?” “The darn thing flew away!”

Then I saw them! Three Seagulls. Right at lakeside. “Look over there,” I shouted. “Seagulls! Three of them.” I pointed at them as if I were a pro.

Then a woman’s voice from the behind me said, “To a true birder there are no such thing as Seagulls. We just call them gulls. Seagulls don’t exist.”

(Oh, for crying out loud! Lady did you have to ruin my moment?)

My default is usually to say something funny in moments such as these and I went right to my default. I pointed to the “gulls” and said, “See, gulls!” There wasn’t a single laugh; not one stinking laugh. I thought “see, gulls” was funny. I was alone in the world on that one.

My other great moment came about 10 minutes later. I was scouring the lakeshore, trying to find some birds I could point to and make up for my “see, gulls” comment. I didn’t want to be on the outs with my new birding brethren. I had to redeem myself.

Then I saw it. A big bird with a bright orange breast; it was magnificent. “Everyone! Everyone! Across the lake. (I pointed triumphantly.) Over there. A big bird with a bright orange breast!”

Binoculars, far more powerful ones than those I had, held by birders far more experienced than I am, trained on the bird. (Oh, yeah; oh, yeah! Take that “see gull” lady!)

Then…

The telescope-man’s voice was kind, “Frank, that’s a pile of garbage.” Everyone laughed.

Listen to me; I still think “see, gulls” was funny.

[Read Frank’s new book I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps! Available at Amazon.com, kindle, Barnes and Noble and at bookstores.]

 

The Search for the Great Snowy Owl

 

All the birders (birders are bird watchers but “birder” sounds stronger and classier than bird watcher) were at Jones Beach West Field #2, tromping through the sand and the dunes with one harried lady scolding us: “Do not walk on the grass on the dunes!” We were not listening; instead we tromped all over the grass which was unavoidable since it was under our feet.

The grass is not like the grass on your lawn or on a golf course. Each stalk is about a foot or two high and every couple of inches there it was. You couldn’t help but step on the grass. But this lady, protecting our planet as she had a “Protect Our Planet” shirt on, was adamant. Everyone smiled at her benignly and she finally gave up the fight and stepped on the grass too.

Birders were all over the place – on the dunes, the beach, near the parking lot. Wherever you looked, there was a birder or groups of birders in their birding clothes with binoculars pointed wherever they thought they would see the creature we had all come to Jones Beach to see, the great Snowy Owl.

My group is from the South Shore Audubon Society and we were hunting for that great Snowy Owl also known as Bubo scandiacus. (Bubba scandiacus, if you are from the south.) We hungered to see it as these owls are tough to spot around our area since they hang out in the Arctic, which is a long drive from Long Island, New York. In the fall they migrate to the south. I guess these birds are the real snow birds, not to be confused with NY senior citizens who spend three months in Florida every winter.

Now, birding is not a precise activity. The leaders of our group saw the Snowy Owl just a few days earlier and some photographed it. So, everyone excitedly looked here, there and everywhere to catch a glimpse of this magnificent owl. Alas, after an hour and twenty minutes of climbing, walking and binoculing, Mr. Owl didn’t make an appearance. I have printed a great one from Claire Reilly, a pro photographer, who photographed the bird several days later on Jones Beach.

That night, after our day’s disappointment, my wife the Beautiful AP and I watched a documentary titled Wild Arctic and one beautiful sequence had a fabulous video of this fabulous bird. In the birding world, this sighting doesn’t count. We can’t put it on the list we’re not keeping (see article “The Pelican Brief”). But the documentary was great to watch.

snowyowl

Photo by Claire Reilly

[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]

 

Times, They are a Changin’

If you told me 10 or more years ago that I would become a birder (as in a bird watcher) I would have said you were nuts. Only maniacs want to go out into the forest or parks or bays to look at birds. Seriously now, look at birds? Insane.

But now I am ambling through some of the most beautiful parks and bays on Long Island with dozens of birders, and with my wife the Beautiful AP—and I am a truly happy man, a truly happy birder.

I never knew we had such beauty on Long Island. It’s as if I’ve moved to a whole new locale. In a way, I have. I am now one of those nutty birders out there with my binoculars and my special birding hat and when I see one of these beauties (even ugly birds are beautiful) I get a real charge.

I’ll admit in those long-gone years of my birding disdain I figured incorrectly that all birders were deranged. They must be wackos of the wackiest way to do what they did, so I thought. Having met them, most are smart, interesting and committed people – although one or two or a few are indeed out of their minds. Still, isn’t that true of most groups – a few maniacs interspersed with smart, interesting and committed people?

We go out birding on Sundays at 9 a.m. We’ve been to Francis J. Levy Park, Hempstead Lake State Park, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Jones Beach West End, Mill Pond Park, Massapequa Preserve, Point Lookout Town Park and Lido Preserve, and indeed more are on the upcoming schedule. The Beautiful AP and I are even contemplating going to Costa Rica on a birding expedition.

I’ve seen all sorts of birds on these walks; colorful songbirds, wading birds and a variety of those awesome predators of the skies—hawks! One was sitting atop of a tree munching (this is indelicate) on another bird. An amazing sight! This was at Jones Beach West End.

I do not know the names of all the birds I’ve seen. Yes, there are birders who are experts and they identify the birds and easily describe their behaviors, calls, plumage changes and migratory patterns. I listen and try to learn, but I am a slow learner in this field.

Sundays have become “date days” for the Beautiful AP and me. We go birding then go out for a romantic lunch. Yes, a decade or more ago, I would have called this a cheap date. But times have changed. Now with my wife at my side, I happily clad myself in garb laden with pockets and strap on a water bottle and binoculars over that, to tread through mud and bush to spy on winged creatures—and I am ever surprised by what I see.

Great Blue Heron by Rich Forthofer
Great Blue Heron by Rich Forthofer

I am Not Semi-Retired

 

I love my wife the Beautiful AP; I really do, but sometimes she can be a royal pain in those areas that Royals are not allowed to discuss.

“Since you are semi-retired I think you should take up birding,” she said.

“What?”

“Birding; you know go out to the areas where people bring binoculars and watch birds,” she said.

“I know what birding is,” I said. “What’s that other thing?”

“What?”

“Semi-retired? Why did you say I am semi-retired?”

“Because you are semi-retired,” she insisted. (My wife is an “insisterer.”)

“I am not semi-retired,” I said. “I am not semi-retired. I am a writer. In the past 25 years I have published 35 books, some with the largest publishing company in the world. How could you forget that? I’ve written thousands of articles for over 50 newspapers and magazines. I’ve written television shows. I’ve…”

“Scobe,” she insisted. “You don’t have to sell me on what you’ve done in your writing career; it’s just that you have cut back a lot and I mean a lot on your writing time.”

Okay, she has a small point there, a teeny-tiny point. In the past I would spend eight (sometimes up to 10) hours a day at this damn (I mean “darn”) keyboard. In one year I wrote four books – four hefty brilliant books – for a subsidiary of Random House. Try writing four thick, amazingly good books in one year while also writing for…

“I know what you are thinking Scobe,” she said. “You are now going to tell everyone reading this how amazingly prolific you are and how much you have accomplished to show you aren’t semi-retired.”

“What makes you think that?” I whimpered.

“Because I know you,” she insisted. “I can see the wheels turning in your head.”

Okay, okay, I am spending less time writing than I used to in the past. I now spend about four hours a day (sometimes three) writing my columns and other stuff (such as Facebook posts) but I have a good excuse for that…

“I know you are reading a lot more lately,” she said. (I swear she is plucking this stuff out of my damn [darn] head!)

She’s right; she’s right. I am reading more lately. That is true.

From the age of 15 to 35 I read maybe five books a week; I had over 5,000 books in my collection by the time I divorced my first wife. I kid you not. I am a fast reader because once a book grabs me I can’t put it down. (”Is dad still in the bathroom?” “Yes, he’s reading.”)

During that 20-year period, I read mostly science, philosophy, esotericism, theology, classics and a lot of science fiction. In my young years I thought I was on the road to learning “the truth” which is what Pontius Pilate sarcastically asked Jesus, “And what is the truth?” Jesus remained silent. Had he answered the damn (darn) Roman governor’s question I would know “the truth”; instead I have not been spared from my current, total ignorance. (I blame Jesus for all of this!)

So why am I reading more lately? Well from 35 to my current age of 69 (“It’s just a number. It’s just a number.” It’s just a number my ass. I have arthritis for God’s sake!), I spent my time doing theatre, then playing casino games and writing. The more I did those things, the less I read.

“Oh, no,” my wife insisted, reading my mind. “You have cut down your writing but spend as much time watching movies and news programs as you do reading.”

She just stands there plucking this stuff out of my mind. Do any of you husbands out there have wives who can read their minds? It’s very annoying.

“I read a bunch of good magazines, Scientific American, Discover, Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, Reason, Free Inquiry and…”

“Come on, Scobe; you are semi-retired,” insisted the Beautiful AP.

“No, I am not. I am retired from teaching for almost 15 years but not from working,” I lament. “I am a writer. A full-time writer.”

“I think you’ll like birding.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I cried out loud.

“You also need to get out of the house and socialize more.”

“I have a friend,” I said.

“Who lives in Tennessee and you live in New York,” she said. “Why don’t you call some of the people you taught with and set up breakfast or luncheon dates with them?”

“Most of the teachers I was friends with have died.” That is so true. Most of the ones who inspired me are in their graves. I honor them in my memory.

“You have to be involved with people,” she insisted.

“I give talks. I’ve given talks to fifteen hundred people at one time if you haven’t forgotten,” I defended myself.

“Other than the person who paid you; come on, you didn’t know any of them.”

[“And what is the truth?” Come on Jesus, answer the damn (darn) question.]

“You need…binoculars…to be a birdwatcher,” I stammered.

“I’ve ordered them. I’m getting a pair too and I’ll go with you until we can find you a birding friend.”

[A birding friend? A stinking birding friend! What the hell (heck) is happening to me?]

“You know I get bit all the time by mosquitoes,” I said. “I could get Zika.”

“I’ve bought wipes with DEET on them. You’ll be okay.”

“I don’t want to socialize. I’m not that good in small groups,” I said.

“Lawrence High School has a group that meets every so often. Find out about them.”

“I don’t know any of them,” I said. “They came to the High School during the time I was a hermit.” [The Scobe the Hermit story is for another time.]

“You will write a note to Steve Kussin who is in charge of the group.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.”

“I want you to become a bird watcher. And I want you to sign up for a program at Hofstra University for professionals who are retired…”

“I’m semi-retired,” I said.

Crap (crap). She nailed me.

So enjoy my bird articles!