Wednesday, November 27, 2013

You Turkey!

There are few better ways to gain notice than to be magnificent, tasty, and standing in the middle of the road.

My gentle wife speaks with irritation about turkeys’ pedestrian disregard for their own safety. Furthermore, she sighs, they must have a death wish to be seen in public so near to Thanksgiving when some poor family will be needing a holiday dinner.

And yet the turkey proliferation is the success story of our Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Between 1972 and 1973 they released 37 birds trapped in New York State, to try to revive the population that had been exterminated in Massachusetts by 1850. In the ensuing forty years they, and others that may have arrived on their own from neighboring states, have increased to more than 20,000 birds that inhabit every county in the commonwealth.

A fair number of these favor Halibut Point. Their sense of geography is disjointed enough to lead them back and forth across the adjacent State Highway. Their survival is perplexing. Can they be the same gamebirds that hunters find so challenging to approach? My own suspicion is that the explanation may lie in the disproportion between the size of their heads and bodies.

I sought out the opinion of Dave Sartwell, the Outdoorsman columnist for the Gloucester Daily Times. Based on his many hunting experiences, Dave sees turkeys as wary but not smart. With excellent eyesight they detect the least movement and are very elusive in the wild. On the other hand, Dave once returned empty-handed from a hunt to find a turkey sitting on the hood of his truck. Vehicles apparently don’t register as a threat.

While reluctant to fly, turkeys are fleet of foot. Dave says that when they collapse their wings around them, lower their heads and sprint on those long legs, they look a missile running through the woods. They can also defend themselves with beak, talons, and, like fighting cocks, with lethal spurs on their heels. Protective mothers and courting Toms can make formidable battle.

Occasionally turkeys get their signals mixed up in their encounters with humans. A friend of mine who lives near Dogtown witnessed a big Tom pin his visiting sister in her car, pecking on the door. He’s willing to acknowledge that the bird may have been attacking its own reflection in shiny metal. But when it chased him into the barn he charged it with a wheelbarrow to restore order in the yard.

Various Boston suburbs have held public hearings and published advisories on the turkey problem. Rockport has offered its mailmen pepper spray. Our State Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs devotes a solemn website page to “Preventing Conflicts with Wild Turkeys”:
Remember that wild turkeys have a pecking order and that habituated birds may respond to you as they do to another turkey. The best defense against aggressive or persistent turkeys is to prevent the birds from becoming habituated in the first place by being bold to them. Everyone in the neighborhood must do the same; it will be ineffective if you do so only on your property. Each and every turkey must view all humans as dominant in the pecking order and respond to them as superiors rather than subjects. Habituated turkeys may attempt to dominate or attack people that the birds view as subordinates.

Benjamin Franklin lamented the choice of the bald eagle to represent the values of America. He wrote to his daughter that “the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

I laid my own doubts and vacillations before Chris Leahy of Mass Audubon, who echoed Franklin’s prejudice:
For the record, I believe that we should be celebrating the return of this magnificent native bird, which we once extirpated in New England, instead of fussing about the occasional rudeness of love-besotted Toms, which are of course doing what  males of all vertebrate species do when overwhelmed with the urge to breed.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Caroline, Christine, and Ludlow Griscom

In the gathering at the Halibut Point parking lot it was evident that most of the folks were fairly new to birding, drawn to this Brookline Bird Club outing for the possibility of first-time sightings along the Atlantic headlands. As we set out trip leader Caroline Haines began ‘pishing’ to attract birds in the under brush.
Caroline Haines ‘pishing’

At the shoreline Caroline’s tempo quickened. “We have some birds out here. It looks like common loons. One – two – three – four – five. Wow! Six – seven – eight. They’re just beyond the black-and-white buoy. There’s a Harlequin flying by, going from left to right. And there’s another loon flying from right to left, just above the horizon.”
“There must be good fishing right there.”
I noticed a chattering sound. Caroline didn’t think it was from the loons. “That sounds like Harlequins to me, actually. I have never heard that sound in connection with loons before.” It sounded like muffled yelping. Caroline had the latest in field resources, an app called Her phone suggested listening for ‘mouse-like squeals’ and played an eerie sample. “Yes, I think that’s what we’re hearing. They must be in behind the rocks.…There they are!... They dove…. They’ll be back up.”

“Do they have red on their sides?” someone asked. “Yes they do. A mahogany red, like a gorgeous wood floor. They’re so colorful. I have them in the scope, if anyone wants a better look.”
Harlequin ducks
A woman named Christine peered into the lens. “Oh, my God! Aren’t they amazing? This is, like, crazy! Wow. You’re so pretty, you guys Yoop. Yoop-yoop. Oh my gosh, you can see it so much better in the scope. Gosh those things are beautiful. It looks like that dot is their eye.”
I asked Caroline how the ducks could make a living in the turbulent zone. “That’s where they feed on shellfish. Autopsies of Harlequins have shown them to have many healed fractures, from the time they spend in the rough breaking surf along the rocks.”

We moved on to the grout pile overlook with a satisfying variety of sightings. Someone called Caroline’s attention to a black-and-white speck on the water. They identified it as a horned grebe. Then Caroline had second thoughts.
Horned grebe
“You know, now that I have a closer look at this bird, I’m doubting that it’s a horned grebe. The size and the shape look right, but the plumage is odd. I don’t see the telltale line down the back of the neck. Let’s look it up…. Well, okay, it is. ” Just like that.
“Oh, more loons. Boy, it is a loon day today. Four of them along the water. And more up above us. One of the loon characteristics is ‘snorkeling.’ Sometimes they swim along the surface with their face in the water, looking for fish.”
Common loon
“Once in Annisquam I saw a loon in the road. It had gotten blown in somehow. They can’t take off from land. Their feet are too far behind them. So he was stuck there. People from a nearby house came out with gloves on, brought him down to the water, and he was happy.”

*  *  *
I came home to a nice note from Helen Garland. She had referred this blog to her friend Roland Clement on the occasion of his 101st birthday. He responded with memories of a visit to Halibut Point 72 years ago: “On Pearl Harbor Day that year I was birding the Halibut Point area with Ludlow Griscom, Harvard's famous birdman of the day, and other Harvard Ornithological Club members.” I queried Mr. Clement further about the occasion. His reply--

Martin: How refreshingly naive it seems to have someone like you ask, "Who was Ludlow Griscom?" People were either awed by him, or hated him. I was a lucky protégé for a year or so....

Look up, in some Mass. Audubon archive or index, a poem entitled "The Grudlow Liscomb" for some flavor of "the great man" in pre-World War II days in birding circles emanating from Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. There is also a biography, by Davis, but it misses the charisma of the man whom Roger Tory Peterson called "the court of last recourse" in matters of field identification of birds….

Every other month perhaps, I would stay overnight as guest of some HOC member, and we would join Griscom for a pre-dawn cafeteria breakfast (Bill Drury amazed us by ordering a soft-boiled egg on his gruel) before a day of birding on the coast.

This is how I got to Halibut Point on December 7, 1941. That rocky headland might have eiders, harlequin ducks, or alcids, and it was our aim to outdo our guru in first spotting some rare find. Or, heavenly luck, catch him in some hasty misidentification. But he almost always took a second look before speaking out, so we remained empty-handed.

That morning someone turned on the car radio just as announcements of Pearl Harbor's bombing first appeared. The Pacific Fleet destroyed! Impossible. Unknown to us, Griscom had been reading the foreign press for SS, but he pondered his own impressions. We were hardly halfway around our circuit of the North Shore, but our birding was over.
* * *
Wikipedia excerpts

Ludlow Griscom (June 17, 1890 – May 28, 1959) was an American ornithologist known as a pioneer in field ornithology. His emphasis on the identification of free-flying birds by field marks became widely adopted by professionals and amateurs. Many called him "Dean of the Birdwatchers.”

Griscom helped to establish the now widely-held view that birds can be reliably identified "in the field" by looking at field marks (distinctive plumages, behaviors, etc., that are discernible from far away) rather than "in the hand" (for example, by trapping or killing).

He is best remembered, however, for his eager participation in and promotion of the rising practice of birding by eye and ear, of watching birds as a sport. His first Christmas Bird Count was in 1908, and he organized counts in the Boston area. He kept personal life and year lists: his North America species total through 1939 was 640. But his particular passion was for Big Days, a friendly competition in which a team of birders traverses a region, intending to find and identify as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period. An excellent one-day count for Griscom in coastal Massachusetts was 160 species.

In the field, Griscom is remembered by friends and students for his virtuosity in identification, his enthusiasm and brusque sense of humor, and his great satisfaction in teaching others the pleasures of birding. Probably his most illustrious field trip companion was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who accompanied Griscom on a trip through Dutchess County, New York, in 1942.

It can be argued that Ludlow Griscom's single most important contribution to ornithology and conservation was his influence on Roger Tory Peterson, leading to the first edition of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds in 1934.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What a Difference a Day Makes

In our last outing on Halibut Point we accompanied the Brookline Bird Club in shirt sleeves. That was Saturday, November 2nd. The next day Joel and I met local birding guide Peter Van Demark to explore the coastline. As I dressed before dawn a spooky wind spoke “long johns.” They turned out to be the saving layer.

Peter termed it “a dirty day.” That meant not just cold, windy and overcast, but choppy water that might obscure the birds. But the Ray boys were rarin’ to go. Joel had a plane to catch, and we had a PLAN to carry out at Andrews Point. According to the masterful research of Rick Heil *, these blustery conditions should be perfect for initiating the fall migration of shorebirds that had been so absent the day before. Peter assented with curiosity for both nature and man.

Peter Van Demark scoping at Andrews Point
We leaned into the 30 mph gusts, threading our way across the moors to the high-scour line. Wow, the skies were zipping with duck things in flying wedges and soaring things free-wheeling above the waves. Everything was in motion.
Joel photographing from ‘shelter’
Joel was determined to get closer. He set up his camera behind a clutter of boulders to minimize the wind and spray. His portfolio below accomplished Step One of our PLAN. 

Gannet and black scoters
Scoters were on their way south in groups of hundreds. Evidently they were prompted not just by the falling temperatures, but by a boost from the howling air. Interestingly, their flight path crossed rather than followed the wind, leading me to speculate that, like sailors, they don’t make their best speed directly downwind.

White-winged scoters flocking south
Coming out of the north-northeast, roughly from the Isles of Shoals, this wind brought a tremendous number of gannets our way. With 6-foot tapered wingspans they make the hard work of maneuvering aloft seem playful. But of course they were hard at the serious business of fishing on a stormy day, far from their usual offshore haunts.
Gannet, the soaring spear
Peter warmed us with accounts of gannets on pristine days. “They are pelagic birds, living out over the ocean. I’ve seen them nesting in Scotland on cliffs along with kittiwakes and oystercatchers and harlequin ducks. They’re a very striking bird. Even two miles out, they look like bright white dots, especially if it’s sunny.  One time there must have been a school of herring or something miles out in the Ipswich Bay. It looked like rain with these white dots dropping out of the sky. Gannets can dive for fish from as high as 200 feet, just like pelicans. It’s incredible how high they can dive from.”

I was entranced enough to seek further details on Wikipedia. Gannets can achieve speeds of 60 mph as they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most airborne birds. They have a number of adaptations which enable them to do this:
· nostrils located inside the mouth rather than externally;
· air sacs under their skin of face and chest that cushion the impact with water;
· eyes are positioned far enough forward to give them binocular vision, for judging distances accurately.

Recording bird lore
Suddenly yesterday’s trophy premonition was realized. Peter lifted his binoculars. “A bird just landed out there. Two birds. It might be harlequin ducks. Yes! My goodness. There they are….a  gorgeous duck. Like the Commedia dell’arte character they have all sorts of colors.”

The Harlequins
Thus satisfied Joel and I got busy on Step 2 of the PLAN. His pop-up tent took shape easily on a flat rock, with ropes straining against a perimeter of sandbags. We were experimenting with a winter station.

I don’t have to give you captions or conclusions about being snug inside THE PLAN. We’ll have a little heater, thermos, and chairs for three.

* Richard S. Heil, "Seabirds of Andrew's Point, Rockport, Massachusetts." Bird Observer. Vol. 29, No. 5, 2001

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sacred Ground, Veterans Day 2013

Some years ago I took time off from a peace witness in Washington to visit Arlington National Cemetery. From the hilltop in May our Capital stretched resplendently on the other side of the Potomac. A steady stream of planes flew in and out of view like worker bees feeding the colony from a global hinterland. Dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom comforted the fields of graves. Spring green lawns made the monuments look whiter than life.

At the summit stood the Custis-Lee Mansion, homestead of General Robert E. Lee, once Superintendent of West Point and leader of the secessionist army. He married Mary Custis, the granddaughter of George Washington, and oversaw slaves tilling these fields opposite the Union capital. Congress sought to debase his name and plantation by expropriating the land as a burying ground for the Union dead in 1864.

Nearby I found I found my grandfather’s gravestone. When he eulogized Fath at a chapel gathering here my Dad invoked the Long Grey Line of West Point graduates that framed both their lives, as well as that of Uncle Rod. Fath’s other two sons entered national service from the Naval Academy.

In June of 1968 Fath had attended my Regular Army commissioning. Dad was there in uniform, two colonels and a newly minted lieutenant.

I visited Fath two months later in East Moriches. He and Jeanne were closing the family homestead for the last time. He entrusted me with his dress saber, his Indian clubs, and the cast iron water pump that served the household when they first summered in rural Long Island.

Dad called a few weeks later. Fath had died while saying farewell to his pals in town, the day they sold the house. He never made the move to Florida.

Now thirty years or so later I stood before his gravestone as a pilgrim both to and from my past. I breathed out loud my first spoken prayer. “Forgive me, Fath, the ways I have disappointed you and I will forgive you the ways you have disappointed me.” A small cloud crossed the perfect sky streaking tears over the inscription on his stone.

Fath’s three surviving sons inherited the other half of his cemetery plot. They agreed it should belong to Uncle Rod for his eventual interment – Uncle Rod, the baby of the family, wounded at Normandy, and the Third Colonel Ray.

While I was taking care of Dad in the nursing home he reminisced about Fath’s charge to him in 1939 to help prepare Rod for the West Point entrance exam. Dad took on his schoolboy brother as a summer orderly in the horse-drawn artillery at Fort Hoyle, Maryland. He assigned Rod a docile mare named Betty.

When Rod died in 2007 Dad asked me to represent him at the Arlington service. I read the Cadet Prayer, as he had at Fath’s funeral. I spoke his message: “Rod and I have been brothers and close friends all our lives. In the past, I usually led to a meeting of significance or adventure. This time Rod, you have beaten me to it. See you soon, pal.”
Folding Uncle Rod's flag
Family and friends followed the caisson from the chapel to the grave site, escorted by the United States Army Band. Rod was accorded full ceremonial honors. A color guard folded the flag over his ashes and presented it to his widow. A bugler played “Taps.”

Presenting flag to Uncle Rod's widow Dorothy, accompanied by Uncle Alan
We witnessed the re-dedication of the nation to itself as one of its soldiers was laid to rest, a cherished defender of freedom accorded hallowed ground. I looked back across the river. The planes continued to come and go.

My country had said it needed me in Vietnam. People suffered, sacrificed, endured tedium, terror and heroism. Mostly I saw it as an immeasurable waste. I didn’t want to be thanked for my part.

I looked across the river from the sacred ground of citizenship and the sacred ground of my soul. Like the bees I was born for obedience to the hive, but also to question its choices.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Birds of a Feather

Brother Joel and I were happy to be invited as guests on the Brookline Bird Club’s November 2nd field trip for the ‘Dovekie migration,’ so named for the hope of seeing the smallest and cutest of alcids.

We joined the group at the Gloucester State Fish Pier. Joel delved into comparative hardware with some of the men. Local resident Daan Sandee astutely sighted a peregrine falcon astride the City Hall weather vane, at a distance of nearly half a mile. “Would you like to see its picture?” offered Joel, turning his 800mm Canon to the skyline. I believe his camera exceeded the optical acuity even of the fabled raptor.

Peregrine falcon on City Hall, from State Fish Pier
For all of us on the Pier it was the season’s first glimpse of this aristocrat perched above the halls of government. Several years ago I photographed the falcon roosting there for its panoramic view of municipal pigeons.
Peregrine falcon on Gloucester City Hall
We traveled on to Halibut Point State Park. Trip leader Bill Drummond of North Andover recommends the months November to March for ‘good’ birds driven to our southern shores by frigid or blustery air. Today’s balmy weather is a disappointment for alcids but Walter Bockus of Rowley expects something good to come of it, with Bill at the helm. “He’s seen every bird in North America. I was the northernmost person on the Continent one day because of him. I went out on the Point Barrow ice cap. There was no one further north..”

Trip leader Bill Drummond
In the warm weather lull Walter is reflective. “If you have the right companions in the group, even a bad day is a good day. Birding gives you something to do while you’re out there, adventure, a quest, maybe fanatical at times, but you had a great day. You get more life in your step.”

I asked several people, “What is your fondest dream today?” Noel Mann, who lives not far away, calibrates her calendar with special arrivals. “The Harlequins are probably here. They’re great fun to photograph. They’re fun to watch.”

I was happy to respond that one of my readers reported seeing nine Harlequin ducks at Halibut Point this week. The postings are giving me currency, in two senses of the word!

Up ahead the vanguard knots and chatters, binoculars up. Bill queries, exhorts, arbitrates. “What were you getting? Hermit thrush. Oh, good. Oh, wow. Okay, they have a hermit thrush.” “There it goes. Two hermit thrushes.” “That’s good.” “I’m not sure that’s a hermit.” “It looks like one.” “It didn’t have a red tail.” “Let’s keep watching, keep watching, keep watching.” “He’s down in there.” “There’s one up there!” “There are two, there are two.” “That’s it. keep watching.” “That’s the one, with the dark spotting.” “I count at least four….”

Bill appreciates the team effort that improves the chance of success, then opts for solitary quiet beside a pond. “I want to take a look here for awhile in case some warbler shows up. The thrush has been our only migrant. This would be a good spot to find a bird, especially where there’s a little water down there. We’ve had the yellow-rumped warbler. I’m hoping to get an orange-crowned.”

At the ocean overlook there’s little to see but languid gulls. Someone with a scope points uncertainly at a speck on the water, calling Bill for confirmation. “Long-tailed Duck,” he said unhesitatingly.” Used to be called the Old Squaw. The ladies objected.”

Walter Bockus puts his duck call to service. “When I’m in an area and I see somebody I know, to get their attention, I ‘quack.’ My wife and I used to get separated in crowds so I would go ‘quack, quack, quack.’ Well she would duck her head and everybody else would look, but she knew it was me and she would come in that direction. I’ve done that with a lot of my friends and acquaintances, like when Barbara showed up today, she goes ‘quack, quack.’ She remembers that. People remember you by your duck call. The first time it happened was unfortunate. The pros were playing golf someplace in the central part of the state and we went to watch them play. We were around the clubhouse and there was a big mob and she got separated and I spotted her and I went ‘quack, quack, quack.’ Unbeknownst to me a guy was getting ready to tee off. Well they’re all looking around and I just went ‘Whoops,’ and walked away. But she knew who it was. I always remembered that. The pro turned around. I don’t know if he was in the middle of his swing or not but he said ‘Who in the heck is quacking here?’...I don’t know what eccentric means. I think it’s fun. I’d say most everybody I know I have ‘quacked’ once or more. They know that that’s me.  I’ve been in a mall and I’ll ‘quack, quack, quack,’ and everybody looks around.  My friend will say, ‘I know who it is,’ and everybody else says, ‘What the heck is that?’ and they keep on going, but my friend will say, ‘Hey, I see you!’ - especially if I forgot their name.’

Brookline Bird Club members at Halibut Point
The Brookline Bird Club is celebrating its 100th  Anniversary this year. Barbara Drummond sums up the common tone: “I couldn’t stay in on a day like this, you know? I enjoy the whole experience of birding. I’m not really a Lister. I just enjoy looking at the birds and hearing them and being in the area. It’s a compulsion to identify birds. A compulsion. I’ve had that all my life. But I enjoy watching their behavior. Everybody has their interests. Now I can’t identify them because my eyes are so bad. Somebody else has to identify it, and I’ll go look at it. You know what I like? I like to be surrounded by life. That’s my thing. I like to be in a place that’s different, and things are moving around, just being alive.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

'Mere Cormorants'

I surprised myself, in reflecting on the last posting, to have referred to ‘mere cormorants.’ I overlooked my longstanding admiration for them as well as their felonious maritime reputation. These  plain-looking avians can out-swim a fish, run on water and fly away. Even at rest they never slouch, posing like Balanchine in basic black.

My personal art collection enjoys three tributes to cormorants. One of the first photographs I took on Cape Ann silhouettes a cormorant in solemn consideration of his allotted domain of water, air and rocks. It is a portrait of satisfaction with the equations of life.

Kay and I once commissioned a cormorant carving from local woodworker Richard Nutbrown. Richard assured us that the figure’s improbably large feet are accurately sized and located. Their configuration gives the bird a lethal advantage over small fish. I have looked down on one jetting beneath the water surface of a Halibut Point quarry like a torpedo with a hooked bill.

Brother Joel contributed to our household a photograph that contrasts graceful flight with hawk-like focus, a hungry cormorant skimming  over the waves at sunrise premeditating its predations.


We are in good company with our cormorant motif. The Packard Automobile Company offered a choice of three distinguished hood ornaments on its luxury models: Cormorant, Adonis, and The Goddess of Speed. The other two may  have evoked sensuality but Cormorant expresses grace, humility, and sublime aspiration.

Poetry dropped with a thud when I came across this partisan description on the Cornell Ornithology site:  “The gangly Double-crested Cormorant is a prehistoric-looking, matte-black fishing bird with yellow-orange facial skin.”  It reads like a dismissive judgment on a Halloween contestant.

Contrast that with the performance-oriented report in National Geographic Magazine last year of Imperial cormorants in Argentina diving 150 feet  to the seafloor to catch fish. Scientists had attached lipstick-size video cameras to follow the champions. Neither scientists nor editors shied from calling their subject Superbirds.

We kids fishing off the Lanesville rocks with a bamboo pole could count on catching cunners as soon as our periwinkle bait hit the water. Dad would fry up good-sized ones. Cunners aren’t there anymore. Cormorants patrol the waters. One friend of mine says cormorants weren’t so common in the old days when he and his buddies used to go gunning along the shore – and there were a lot more fish.

If ducks weren’t available, gunning cormorants was the sport. But you didn’t bring one home for dinner. A soup recipe attributed to Down East homesteaders involved nailing a cormorant to a shingle, leaving it in the sun for three days, then dropping the whole thing into a boiling pot for 6 hours, pouring off the broth, throwing away the bird and eating the shingle. Poultry they evidently are not.

Cormorants overfly us in V-shaped formations. Individuals alternate with the harder work at the head of the flock. All the rest get a bit of aerodynamic lift from companions ahead of them. Two species occupy the Cape Ann shoreline seasonally. The summer-dwelling Double-crested cormorants are still here in early November. Their orange cheeks flanked by white patches make them the fancier of the two, which are otherwise hard to tell apart.

Double-crested Cormorants

This week I tried to find an example of their cousin for a comparative photograph, to no avail. The Great, or European Cormorant will be the family’s principal winter resident. Its cheeks present a dingier, more yellow-white cast.

Cormorants ride lower in the water than most floating birds. Their outer feathers are less fully oiled and become wet, requiring picturesque drying time.  Chances are that this is not an oversight on Nature’s part, but may contribute to the birds hydrodynamic speed. Closer in the plumage is kept more watertight and warm.

The sum of these observations, conjectures, and appreciations is my determination to be careful in the future about referring to ‘mere cormorants.’