Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bird-a-thon, Friday Night

In one of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's principal fundraisers, teams of birders scour the state to compete for the greatest variety of birds in a 24-hour count.  The clock starts ticking at 6:00pm on May 15.

Gloucester resident Chris Leahy limits his own version of the Bird-a-thon to Cape Ann. I join him with a travel mug of coffee at the Coolidge Reservation in Manchester. At the far edge of the Great Lawn he greets a gaggle of birders on the shoreline opposite Kettle Island, where marsh birds fly in nightly to roost.
Chris Leahy and Dave Weaver opposite Kettle Island
Chris and Dave Weaver exchange the jovial banter of comrades.
Chris - Okay, Weaver how're you doing? Poaching on my territory? What do you have for me?
Dave - Oh, everything. We've had a  pair of oystercatchers on the beach [half a mile away.] Now I don't see them....Wait. Here we go. Here we go! Right there on the water's edge, we've got them again. They've settled down. Something happened as you were approaching.
Laughter, and appreciation from the crowd for the glamour of the bird and for the repartée. I think about one champion golfer magnanimously allowing a 'gimme' putt to another in front of the faithful. But these chevaliers of The List want to raise their score rather than lower it.
Oystercatcher (Essex River)
Joel Ray photo
Chris - Dave, I shouldn't tell you this, but there's a....Do you know Black and White Beaches in Manchester? There's a bufflehead. Diving. I saw him twenty minutes ago.
Dave - That's out of the ordinary. So which was it, Black or White?
Chris - Black. Well, the beach. The bufflehead was black-and-white.
Bufflehead ducks (winter)
Most buffleheads, common winter residents in Cape Ann waters, departed weeks ago for northern nesting grounds. This stay-behind individual becomes 'the bird of the day' for the contest.
Glossy ibis
High overhead a flock of glossy ibis flies in to roost on the island. My friend Ellie Kanegis used to call them 'Nefertiti birds' from portrayals in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Great egrets returning to Kettle Island at sundown
Kettle Island gives nesting sanctuary to wading birds from marshlands up and down the coast.
Great egret on the Ipswich River (earlier in May)
Great egret taking flight
The Bird-a-thon celebrates the  hunter's skill more than the splendors of any individual bird. That splendor is nevertheless at the core of my companions' passion. In this fast-moving contest they need only identify the presence of a species whether by flight rhythms or the arcane patterns of a speck in a scope. Thus are observed gannets, red-throated loons, and white-winged scoters out at sea. We move on.
Magnolia Woods
At Magnolia Woods Chris imitates owl calls to provoke hidden marsh dwellers into revealing their curiosity or antipathy. The sky darkens. Chris names invisible songsters. "That wood thrush has the most wonderful voice. Thoreau called it 'the swamp angel.' Its syrinx can produce several different melody lines simultaneously. You can actually hear the layers. The veery, another thrush, is more ethereal, giving a pipe organ sound."
Listening for woodcocks
"At the witching hour woodcocks will come fluttering out of the woods and start circling in the sky. There's a twittering thing they do up there. Then they dive-bomb, zigzagging down. Their primary feathers are very thin and narrow. They make a whistling sound as the wind goes past their feathers. It's not a vocalization."
We are soon rewarded with just that, from faint bat-like silhouettes above the tree line.
Calling whippoorwills
Our Friday night finale takes us to a spot in West Gloucester where re-growth after a forest fire has created the heathland conditions that whippoorwills prefer. Hardly anyone ever sees these night-flying birds that catch bugs on the wing with gaping mouths. But they have a beloved place in folklore and nocturnal magic. Chris elicits a whispering response from the darkness, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.
He heads off to go owling on Eastern Point. We agree to meet at Halibut Point at six in the morning.

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