The Delightful Horror of Family Birding

The Bookcase by Frank Scoblete

The Delightful Horror of Family Birding by Eli J. Knapp

Americans are not big buyers of books loaded with short stories, essays or multiple poems presented to us by somewhat obscure poets. Actually in America just about all poets, except for the ones taught in high school and college classes, are obscure.

I can’t speak for Europeans, who are constantly speaking about themselves, but the American literary market shuns big books loaded with short pieces. Magazines, the sacred shrines of the short piece, are dying now but short stories and books of essays have already dug their graves.

Even in the world of nature writing and, yes, even within our particular focus with birds, we tend to like our feed-grain to be of one type per book. Give us a tale that hangs together from beginning to end and we are satisfied if the tale can hold our interest. Yes, some birders will buy encyclopedic books about birds but those books must contain pictures for the reader to stay interested. Give me a full book about owls (thank you very much), but not one about various readers’ appreciation of what they are individually experiencing with those owls.

Now this predilection for longer pieces has pushed to the side those books that contain enlightening, entertaining, and important information that can delight us if we only give such works a chance to tickle our fancy.

One such book, composed of wonderful essays, (don’t you dare stop reading this article because I used the word “essays”) is by Eli J. Knapp and is titled The Delightful Horror of Family Birding. Knapp is a college professor and a bird lover since his youth when he encountered his first birds. More important, this man is a father opening the world of nature and of birds to his soon-to-be-savvy children.

Now, most books that feature children can be vacuous since most kids are dull, at least in my opinion, and their great discoveries are rather pedantic. Today our children would rather watch a sunset on their phones than in the actual sky. Not so with Knapp’s children. His kids are looking at the world because they are in the world.

Knapp’s essays often speak powerfully about the beauty inherent in birds and, of course, in the natural world and his kids happily pick up on that. It is fascinating to watch a parent lead his children to an appreciation of the rich world around them.

The book is funny; the essays hang together with crisp, sharp language and imagery. I think you will find the “horror” of family birding to be anything but horrible. Give it a try.

Visit Frank’s web site at www.frankscoblete.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, kindle, Barnes and Noble, e-books and in bookstores.

Thar Ain’t No Gold in Them Thar Hills

I enjoy birding or, as it used to be called, bird watching. My wife, the Beautiful AP, and I try to go get outside, sometimes just the two of us, just as often with the South Shore Audubon Society (SSAS) on Sunday morning excursions.

I am an amateur of amateurs. I know the names of some of the birds but basically I just gape. I enjoy hearing them sing, watching them fly, seeing those hunting raptors soar. I will never be an expert as some of the members of the SSAS are, but that’s fine with me.

I can last for about two hours on a walk; once or twice I’ve hit three hours, but I can’t do the all-morning, all-afternoon, most-of-the-evening walks some of the SSAS members enjoy. I do know my limitations.

My wife photographs the birds, the trails, and nature. When we get home she goes over the hundreds of pictures she took that day and will ask me my opinion of this one or that one—an opinion I am happy to express.

But not all bird walks are rewarding based on how many birds we encounter. There are some days when there are so few birds that we will say, “Nothing to be seen.”

Still, saying such a thing does not adequately express what we experienced that walk.

Where we take our most beautiful walks—Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens; the Marine Nature Study Area in Oceanside on Long Island; and the Cape May Point Trails near the Lighthouse in Cape May, New Jersey—can be inspiring, with or without many bird sightings.

A bird-empty beautiful area is still a beautiful area, and one to be savored. The three mentioned above are just such areas, and there are more.

But on a walk at the Marine Nature Study Area where there was “nothing to be seen,” something else hit me.

“You know,” I said to the Beautiful AP. “Even on walks where we say we didn’t see any birds, that isn’t true. We usually see something.”

That is true. We tend to simply overlook some birds because they are so familiar that they are just considered pests. Take the Canada Geese which can be found everywhere we go. Indeed, there probably isn’t a lake, pond, park, ballfield or grassy knoll that hasn’t seen an invasion of these creatures.

The sky at times can be filled with them flying in a massive “V” shape. They honk like crazy; and crap large black heaps, all to their hearts’ content. Such heaps can cover any footpath, turning a simple walk into a game of hopscotch.

You always know when they are around. They can aggressively demand food or privacy from humans. They have accommodated themselves to living in our areas to the point where they don’t even bother to migrate anymore.

When we see them we just tend to overlook them; it’s as if we didn’t see them.

“You know AP, if we only saw a few now and then, they would fascinate us.”

“True,” she said.

Canada Geese are large birds, powerful, and they move rather quickly. They are high flyers and their landings in the waters of lakes and ponds can be fast and furious.

Sometimes on our walks where we see “no birds,” we have seen dozens of Canada Geese, which we completely discount.

On the days when we think “thar ain’t no gold in them thar hills,” in reality there is plenty of gold. We have beautiful landscapes away from traffic to enjoy. And if we pretend never to have seen this species that has come to annoy us, they can transform a birdless walk into a bird walk, to which some of my wife’s photos can attest.

So, in birding, sometimes nothing is actually something.

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

Wow! I Met Pete Dunne

 

I’m new to birding; two years to be exact. I’ve been going to Cape May, New Jersey for over 60 years and—this is so embarrassing—I never knew it was a birder’s paradise. Four trips most years from my home in New York and I had no idea. I am not truly an observant writer.

My grandchildren suggested birding as an outlet I would enjoy since I had stopped my whirlwind traveler’s life. My wife, the Beautiful AP, asked them “What could Grandpa Scobe do instead of being a hermit?” Grandson John (11) said, “He should get out into nature.” Granddaughter Danielle (9) said, “Go birding, Grandpa.”

Birding? Aren’t the people who do that a little off? But the Beautiful AP liked the idea and one-two-three she had signed me up for our local South Shore Audubon Society. Birding? Me? Seriously?

Seriously.

And I found, despite my total ignorance, that I loved our weekly bird walks; and I loved coming to Cape May and birding in the various parks and sanctuaries. And I actually liked the people with whom I went birding.

And I started to read many books on the subjects, from academic books (often dreadfully dull) to personal stories (some extremely compelling).   I even became a book reviewer for our Audubon chapter.

And my birding friend, Paul Stessel, gifted me with several books written by Pete Dunne, an amazing writer. I dove into them and then I read many of his articles in BirdWatching magazine.

My word, this guy could write! His articles and books were informed not only by great knowledge but by a distinct voice. Yes, the subject matter fascinated but the person behind the writing was just as fascinating. You learned the subject and you learned about he who taught the subject. That is great writing. In short, a true voice spoke to you in his books and articles.

So, we were in Cape May last week, during the end of the great raptor watch, standing on the hawk observatory, being told which raptors were flying nearby by a member of the Cape May birding society. Then I heard someone say, “Pete, Pete?” It was kind of a dreamlike moment since I was intent on the sky. Pete? No. Could it be the Pete Dunne? I knew he birded in Cape May but was he here now?

I saw a man being engaged by several people. These several people had stars in their eyes. Pete Dunne? These people soon left him to continue watching the skies.

I turned to me wife. “Ask that guy in the green jacket over there if he is Pete Dunne.”

“Why don’t you?” she asked.

“I don’t want to act like a fan,” I said.

“You are a fan,” she said but she did walk over and ask him. He said “yes.”

I casually walked over; that is, if sprinting can be considered casual. I wanted to get to him before anyone else could. I introduced myself. I think I was tripping over my words. To meet someone that you respected; well it really doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?

He is a gracious guy and invited my wife and me to sit down with him. My wife arranged to have a couple of pictures taken with him. We discussed birds and writing and writing and birds. Throughout, he’d point to the sky and call out exactly which birds were flying by exactly where.

I explained to him why I thought he was a terrific writer.

He pointed to the sky, calling out the name of the raptor right over our heads.

I explained to him, again and again, why I thought he was a terrific writer.

We sat together for about a half hour. And I was unselfconsciously effusive. I have no problem telling people who are great that they are great.

In my life there are some people I wished I could sit next to: Shakespeare, Mark Twain and my literary love, Emily Dickinson. Let me be at the Globe Theatre watching the first rehearsals of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Or with Mark Twain when he penned the greatest line in American literature; Huck Finn saying “All right then, I’ll go to hell.” Or a Sunday afternoon listening to Dickinson’s poems in the glow of her garden instead of in the cold confines of a church.

Those could never be. But now Pete Dunne, in his element, in the world of birds and birders, and I was right there with him; sitting right next to him. Wow!

Frank Scoblete has written 35 books, several television shows, and has his own web site at www.FrankScoblete.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, e-books and at book stores.

 

 

The Bookcase: Raptors!

 

Raptors: The Curious Nature of Diurnal Birds of Prey by Keith L. Bildstein

I was dancing up a storm; wiggling my nether parts, flinging my appendages in the air and over my head, whirling and twirling and uttering whistles and clicks. Oh yes, she noticed me—and after a little flirting she came to me. My display had entranced her. I brought her food; she loved fish and I gave her the best fish I could catch.

And then we mated. Indeed we mated twice an hour for well over a month which meant we did “it” about 1,488 times. I have been with my love for 12 years now and we have many offspring. We’ve lived in the same location for the entire dozen years.

You might want to know how I regenerate my sexual desire each mating season. It’s simple, I hibernate my sexual organ by bringing it inside me until it’s time to perform again and then a whole new cycle begins. I am like a new being! Bring on those thousand copulations!

The above is the basic pattern of some raptor mating rituals. In the human world, if it had been me wiggling my nether parts, I would not have won the girl; I’d have been bounced from the nightclub.

Keith L. Bildstein, the Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, has written a fascinating book on raptors titled, appropriately enough: Raptors: The Curious Nature of Diurnal Birds of Prey.

Most birders probably know that “diurnal” means daylight which is when most raptors hunt, although some raptors, such as those Peregrines living in cities will even hunt at night because of how well-lit human habitats are. Of the over 300 species of raptors, the overwhelming majority are, by and large, hunters and killers.

Just think of the Osprey and the Peregrine and the various hawks that we see quite frequently in the Northeast United States riding the air currents. These birds aren’t soaring in the air and skimming the waters and wildly chasing songbirds through the woods for a pleasant day of harmless fun. They’re hunting because they are hungry.

Raptors have color vision, just as we do, but they are also able to see ultraviolet light which allows them to hunt rodents whose urine and feces reflect such wave lengths. (Play ominous music here and add an ominous voice over.) “Anytime a rodent does his doody, it could be his last.”

Many raptors are monogamous, although some will cheat on their spouses, while still others are promiscuous. The bigger ones tend to be monogamous; the smaller ones tend to be promiscuous. The bigger ones also have smaller broods so it takes two to handle the lives and deaths of their young ones.

Raptors have a long history with humans, some of which was favorable (think of King Richard the falcon-hearted and all those other falconers) contrasted with the tremendous slaughter bounty hunters and farmers wreaked. Then add to that the near-wiping out of many species because of our use of insecticides. Luckily, we have saved those falcons most endangered by our folly.

This book is worth a careful read. You will find the presentation somewhat academic at times, but overall it is an excellent work by a man who knows his subject. (Those 1488 times! I’d be dead in a day.)

Visit Frank’s web site at www.frankscoblete.com. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at book stores.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bird-Boating on the Osprey

 

The Osprey is both a bird of the raptor class (usually meaning hunter/killer) and the name of a boat that plies the waters of Cape May, New Jersey’s back bays. The Osprey bird is a fish eater and can often be seen swooping over the water looking to nail its prey for itself and its young.

The small, rectangular Osprey boat seats up to 20 people. In the front it has an open deck that allows birders to get up close and personal with the birds and the water, with both often swooshing around them. (http://www.ospreycruise.com/)

What a treat bird-boating those back bays of Cape May is! At the helm of the Osprey boat is the knowledgeable and quite humorous Captain Bob Lubberman. He is accompanied by a naturalist. On our last the trip in October, our naturalist was Thomas Baxter, a young man who knows the ins and outs of the birds inhabiting the back bays during migratory season; and, yes, some of these back-bay birds stay all year round.

On this particular trip we had about 15 people on board, all carrying their binoculars. A few were rank amateurs on their first trip—I am no longer such a rank amateur; you might say I am just rank.

Right off the bat, across from the dock about 100 feet away on the far side of the inlet were several Cormorants, Herons and Oyster Catchers. Baxter pointed them out and so our October tour began before the boat had moved an inch.

“Look in the air, about eleven o’clock, is a Red Tailed Hawk,” said Baxter. All our binoculars shot upward. There the hawk was, gliding beautifully on the air currents.

“For those of you who are new to birding and the use of binoculars,” said Baxter, “When you see the bird with your naked eye, do not bend your head to get your binoculars; just bring them up to your eyes. Keep the bird in your normal vision and then you will not lose him when you raise the binoculars. If you move your head when you try to use the binoculars you will lose the bird.”

We were out about a few hundred yards and the mudflats were filled with shore birds. “At one-o’clock,” said Captain Bob, “you’ll see a couple of Surf Scoters diving, these are large ducks.” These male ducks are black with white and black heads and seemingly orange beaks—caused by the sunlight bouncing off them.

Now my wife, the Beautiful AP, is a photographer learning her trade and she will zoom over to the area of the boat’s open front deck where she can best photograph the birds being identified. Occasionally she runs over me. I am zooming as fast as I can to the right spot but my zoom is closer to an amble. Her zoom is closer to Usain Bolt’s 100-yard sprint.

There are other camera-carrying birders and they do the same thing—zoom to the best area of the open front deck to get a picture of the indicated birds. “Brants over to the right at three o’clock!” Zoom, every photographer careens to that side of the boat. “Great blue heron at ten o’clock!” Zoom.

The Osprey boat can at times land on those massive mudflats and some birders have the courage to exit the boat in order to forage for and munch on the plentiful “salt” grass.

“Mmm, yes, it is so salty!”

Of course, it’s salty, that’s why it’s called salt grass!

Sorry, this type of naturalist eating is not for me; I want my salad prepared by a gourmet chef; not nature’s mud where birds have been (I’m going to be indelicate here) dumping their brains out. I actually don’t want to think that what I eat is or was alive so don’t bother writing me to tell me that everything I eat sooner or later can be traced back to living nature. When I was in Japan and the fish was served with its head still there and its eyes gazing into my eyes…well, no thanks.

Although my wife took some great close-up pictures of Ospreys in our August bird cruise, our October trip saw us see no Ospreys as these beautiful birds had left for their winter homes; but we did spy a host of birds of every type—even amazing Peregrine falcons living in the metal and concrete works of a drawbridge.

These two Peregrines were alert when our boat stopped under the bridge in order for us to gawk and photograph them. Captain Bob explained why they were so annoyed and aggressive: “At first when they made their home here, the opening and closing of the bridge didn’t seem to concern them. But as summer came and the tourists flooded the area, that bridge opened and closed so often that the birds became ill-tempered. Now they associate any boat passing under the bridge with the bridge opening and treat it as an annoyance or a threat, so you see why they are taking off and flying at us and around us.”

These are beautiful birds and the fastest creatures on earth, being clocked at up to 200 miles per hour! Even birders with cameras can’t move that fast (my wife is close though).

On this particular two-hour trip we saw a myriad of birds. Here’s a list taken from my memory: Scores of Cormorants and the same with American Oyster Catchers. There were so many Brants that they rivaled the thousands we see on Long Island. Of course, Canada Geese, honking and craping like crazy and found in all areas. Yes, we had Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets and Surf Scoters. Add to these the many Royal Terns and Caspian Terns and Dunlins and Dowitchers. Couple these with Bald Eagles and Peregrines and Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Sanderlings. Finally, so many various Gulls I actually couldn’t keep up with which ones they were.

There were more species but I was too busy zooming and missed them.

We also saw a small school of dolphins in the back bays, which is unusual because the water is not very deep in most parts. Captain Bob told us there were probably a lot of fish present and that lured the dolphins.

If you are in Cape May, do try to take an Osprey bird-boating tour. I think you’ll enjoy it…but stay off the salt grass; it will give you high blood pressure.

 

Photos by Alene Scoblete

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

Are Birders Liars?

 

I mentioned this topic in a past article. My birding friend, Bob, is convinced that many birders are much like golfers, they lie to make themselves look good, especially those birders who keep lists. He believes it is inherent because birders are on the honor system and that leaves it totally open to liars and cheaters.

Has any honor system ever really worked? There have been scandals at West Point for crying (or lying) out loud. I remember that when I was a teacher the “leaders” in education (such sad, sad people) were always trying to figure out a way to have students “share” knowledge as opposed to cheating to get good, or at least passing, grades. None of these impractical ideas worked. Obviously. Did anyone of any intelligence think they would?

Antony in Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, sarcastically said of the murderer of Julius Caesar: “For Brutus is an honourable man; / So are they all, all honourable men—“

Are all birders honourable men and women? Or are some outright or closeted liars?

When you are on a birding walk most birders don’t necessarily see every bird that someone else points out or points to. I certainly don’t see all of them. I probably— to be blunt here—don’t see half the birds everyone is saying they are seeing. “Look, there’s a tufted tit mouse over there!” I put my binoculars to my eyes but the bird zips away like lightning, as do most little song birds. Song birds are the biggest annoyances in birding—beautiful but fast-flying birds that are hard to see at times. (Give me high-soaring raptors any day.)

Okay, I don’t see half of them.

Yet, I wonder how many of my fellow birders are actually just lying about it all? “Oh, yeah, yeah, I see that tit mouse!” Did you really? I mean really?

Many birders keep lists of the birds they see; on a given day, week, month, trip or year and also in areas, countries and continents. Some birders go on “Big Years” where they try to see as many species of birds as they can in a single year. Some birders do a big year restricted to provinces, states, or countries, and some traverse the entire earth.

The American Birding Association states there are 993 species of birds north of Mexico. John Weigel, an extreme birder, saw 783 of these species in 2016. There are a host of “see-ers” throughout the North-of-Mexico birding community. Are any of them total frauds?

Additionally, you don’t have to see the bird to record it on your list—just hearing it counts. Don’t laugh at this; there are plenty of birders who know the songs of almost all the birds they encounter, perhaps some birders know the songs of all the birds in the world. Hey, I recognize a few bird songs, two of which are my parrots sitting to my right in my office as I write this.

As for the big guns in birding, I think these folks are probably honest as they are driven to be the best at what they do and they probably have folks joining them on many of their expeditions.

But what about the rest of us? Are all the birders in my group the South Shore Audubon Society totally honest observers of birds?

So I decided to do a survey to see if honesty would prevail. I would just point up to the tree and say, “I see a Baltimore Oriole up there.” There was no Oriole. I did this several times, naming different birds. Did anyone lie to me and say they saw these missing birds at which I was pointing? No. People just admitted to not seeing the bird.

And what of when others saw birds and pointed? Did anyone flat out say, “I don’t see it.” Yes, quite a few, myself included.

Of course this was not a scientific poll such as the ones that predicted Trump would lose the Presidential race in 2016.

So, my opinion is that while birding does allow for subterfuge, I haven’t actually witnessed any as of yet. If I do I’ll let you know.

[There is an excellent movie titled The Big Year starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson as birders going on a big year. Enjoyable all the way.]

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

Wildlife in Your Backyard

 

Attracting Wildlife to Your Backyard: 101 Ways to Make Your Property Home for Creatures Great and Small by Josh VanBrakle

It is raining.

My office is three-quarters windows so I am surrounded by nature. Trees and bushes are my landscape.

I see my three squirrel-proof Sky Café bird feeders right over the top of my computer, their roofs dripping the rain away from the seeds, and, yes, some birds are happily eating those very seeds. Don’t let anyone tell you that birds won’t eat in wet weather. I eat in wet weather; you eat in wet weather; birds eat in wet weather.

Which brings me to Attracting Wildlife to Your Backyard: 101 Ways to Make Your Property Home for Creatures Great and Small by Josh VanBrakle.

I have wildlife coming and going throughout my property: possums, raccoons, mice, lizards, those damn voles and their holes; in addition to countless squirrels of the grey, black, and rust variety (my wife the Beautiful AP and I once saw a white one). Sometimes we see rabbits too. And birds, species after species of beautiful birds at our feeders, in our bushes and on our trees.

I also have those horrible outdoor cats, some feral, some let out by their owners. Those cats are responsible for the death of over a billion (yes over a billion!) birds a year. I like cats…indoors.

Now, the author Josh VanBrakle is a research forester and he lays out most of what a person needs to know to attract and keep wildlife on private property; from planting native plants; getting rid of invasive species, choosing which trees to plant, where to plant them; how to create and care for a rather large pond of at least half an acre or more.

He even recommends attracting bats to your property to kill off mosquitoes. And bring in the bees in order to pollinate recommended plants (bats help pollinate plants too).

Do I think this is a good book and worthy of a read? Yes, I do, especially if you have the land necessary to put in place his recommendations. Still many of his insights actually do fit those of us whose properties do not live up to the proper size required for a half-acre or more pond. For example, if invasive species of plants have possessed your property, he gives you a step-by-step method for exorcising such demons.

In truth, I do not want to attract deer or moose or bears or bobcats or mountain lions to my property; just birds. I particularly do not want to attract those aggressive, vicious cats.

Wild nature is not so wild as it once was. One of the greatest saviors of our wildlife is, in truth, us. So welcome the wild ones into your civilized life.

Visit Frank’s web site at www.frankscoblete.com. His books are available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Kindle and at bookstores.

 

 

 

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.

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.