Anything that flew or crawled was always a source of fascination for me. Things had to have a name, and as a child my reading matter of choice had many big pictures of animals, birds and insects. One time I was extremely embarrassed by Peter, a kid who lived across the street. After I told him that deer lost their horns every year he said “Deer don’t have horns, they have antlers!” That was a crushing blow to my self esteem—the pain lingers even now.
It is hard to remember how I developed a passion for birds. Perhaps it is the freedom that they enjoy over us earthbound creatures. Of course, their beauty, color, variety, and their accessibility make them fun to study. Listing birds is somewhat analogous to collecting stamps, satisfying some atavistic hunting instinct. The quest for new species adds adventure to any trip, no matter what the purpose, and also causes one to visit some unusual places. Swamps, landfills and sewage treatment facilities rank high on birders’ “must see” locations.
Nowadays I see my grandchildren naming the various species of dinosaur just as I learned to name the birds. While knowing the names of birds provides intellectual satisfaction, it also excites greater curiosity about similarities and differences between the kinds of birds, not only in their color, size and shape, but also in their habits, manner of flying, their habitats, patterns of coming and going, and the marvels of their survival.
My maternal grandmother, “Sweetheart,” (I gave Ella that name because that is what she always called me) probably instilled some interest by throwing bread out for the “chippies,” as she called the English Sparrows (their proper name in those days). Then there was “Jenny” the wren who occupied one of the bird houses on the trellis. I do not know how Sweetheart came by that name, but later I found a wren named Jenny in one of Thornton Burgess’s Bedtime Stories books..
I collected bird pictures from Arm & Hammer Baking Soda boxes. My first “real” bird book was a small format book by Chester A. Reed, Land Birds East of the Rockies (Doubleday, Page & Company, 1923). There was a picture of a different bird on each page with descriptive text next to it. As I identified each bird in the book, I penciled across its picture in big block letters: “SAW.” That book was assigned to the trash heap long ago, but I recently found another copy.
Another book that I really enjoyed was Birds of the South, (by Charlotte Hilton Green, published by UNC Press in 1933, a year before Roger Tory Peterson’s first Field Guide) which was given to me by Lou Fink, a family friend and scout leader who authored a bird watching column in the local newspaper, The Rutherford Republican. Its end papers sport some of my drawings, including a Star-nosed Mole and a deer, and show my address as 164 Springfield and telephone number “Rutherford-2-7392-M,” indicating that I was less than 8 years old when I defaced it. I did continue to use it, checking off the table of contents for each species seen. I remember longing to see a Mockingbird, unknown in the northeastern states at that time. Mockingbirds would later expand their range and become quite common even up into New England.
Birds of the South included a table on which the reader could enter bird sightings. I entered only one: “English Sparrow, August 29, in the garden eating weed seeds.” I did not keep a more serious list until I was 13 years old and in pursuit of a Boy Scout merit badge. This list began in the dead of winter, 1948, and reflected a zeal for observing and recording that has continued unabated for nearly 60 years to a present total of 564 US and Canadian species, plus a couple hundred more seen on my few trips to Hawaii and Latin America.
I still have my copy of the 1933 first edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s classic, A Field Guide to the Birds, which Mom bought second hand for $2.75. This book, and its many later editions, revolutionized the study of birds by allowing the observer to separate them in the field rather than in the hand. Opera glasses and binoculars replaced the gun barrel for bird study.
“Birding is a fascinating, exciting, challenging game. It requires and encourages ever-growing skill. It may involve us in great adventures and wide travel, sometimes in difficult terrain. Seeking new birds to check off on our life lists may draw us further into the lives of these birds, challenging us to learn more about their life cycles, their behaviors, and ecology; and as our ecological perspectives expand, we may be stimulated to become more involved in conservation work, to protect the habitats of the many species we enjoy.” (Burton S. Guttman, Birding, February 2004)
Yesterday we drove down to Everglades National Park in pursuit of a rare vagrant bird, the Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). A relative of the American Robin and thrushes, this species is one of few that may choose to nest in a hole in the ground. Millions breed in northern, central and Eastern Europe, but in the Western Hemisphere they breed only in far north Alaska, the Yukon and across the Arctic tundra. Their pattern of migration is interesting. Birds that nest in far northeastern Canada migrate to the east, across Greenland into Europe, to winter into Africa. Those nesting in Alaska and the Yukon fly west to Asia across the Bering Sea, also wintering as far south as Africa. Normally, they do not enter southern Canada or the lower 48 states. Rarely, they straggle south into the northeastern US, and exceptionally are found farther to the south, usually in the fall.
Over the years, only a handful of these birds have been known to wander into Florida, and none had ever been seen in Everglades National Park. But it happened last week. On September 14, word went out on the Tropical Audubon Society Miami Bird Board that on the previous day, a Northern Wheatear had suddenly appeared on the lawn of the Daniel Beard Research Center not far from the main entrance of the Park. It was seen and photographed daily; excellent photos are posted on the TAS Web site. Mary Lou and I were anxious to go, but circumstances kept us near home until yesterday, when we drove 55 miles south to the Bill Robertson Center, where the bird had been seen the day before.
We were rewarded immediately with great views of the bird, which was in first fall plumage. From a distance, it appeared surprisingly non-descript, a warm brown and somewhat short-tailed bird that ran upright in spurts, robin-like, across a recently mowed field, exploring the small piles of cut grass. It frequently took short flights from one hummock to another, displaying a prominent white rump and outer tail feathers. Through the binoculars and spotting scope the bird appeared quite beautiful. A dark line ran through its eye and widened over its ear coverts, and a subdued white eyebrow ran on top of that. The tip of its tail was black, accentuating the contrast between the white and creating an inverted T-shaped marking. My digiscopic photo (taken through the lens of my spotting scope using an adapter I had fashioned out of a Durkee’s spice container) did not turn out very well, but, hey, it’s all mine!:
I had always assumed that the wheatear’s name was derived from the markings on its face, fancying that someone thought they resembled a curved shaft of wheat. Nope, according to birdguides.com “It is said that the name Wheatear derives from the expression ‘white arse’, a perfect description of how this bird appears as it flies away.” Perhaps “white rear” is etymologically closer.
This fall, wheatears have shown up in eastern Canada and some northeastern states earlier and in larger numbers than normal. Local birder Robin Diaz found a post in birdingonthenet.com Frontiers of Identification, in which Ian A. McLaren, commenting on this fall’s unusual influx of Northern Wheatears in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, postulates a reason: “intense northerly windflow in late August that deflected birds bound for Europe (or for N Africa by wheatears) southward from northern Nunavut or Greenland.” This map linked to the Newfoundland birds Google Group shows this year’s North American sightings.
How many Northern Wheatears have actually wandered into Florida this year? It seems likely that these solitary and relatively non-descript birds (at least to the untrained naked eye) would not stand out if seen by ordinary citizens, running across a recently mowed fields on private property. Reports such as this must represent only a rather small sample of the number of birds actually out there somewhere. Seeing the wheatear was on a par with our experience almost exactly three years ago, in New Mexico, when we saw and photographed another extremely rare vagrant bird, the Piratic Flycatcher– only the fifth time it had ever been reported in the US..
We visited Niagara Falls when I was almost three years old. All I can remember about the experience is being very frightened, walking along with my parents in a space that seemed to be under the actual falls. It was rather dark, and a wall of water cascaded down over us. We may have been wearing rubber rain coats and hats, and there was a lot of mist. ..
Ah, Doctor Freud, I do remember living in that apartment over the White Front Market at the corner of Union and Springfield Avenue in Rutherford, New Jersey. I did not know then that we were in the depths of the Great Depression, or that Italy had invaded Ethiopia and Nazis had stepped up their persecution of the Jews, nor did I know about the Dust Bowl, or Babe Ruth leaving the Yankees for the Braves.
It was fun looking out the window overlooking Union Avenue to watch the traffic, including the horse drawn ice wagon. The wagon usually parked on the wrong side of Union Avenue just under the window. Almost every day, the Ice Man used large tongs to carry blocks of ice into the market. Most of it must have been used in the market’s big meat cooler. I can remember the butcher breaking up ice blocks in a basin and pouring the chips into the meat display case. The horse had side blinders and the Ice Man used a flat iron as a weight to hold the horse’s reins while parked at the curb. I probably looked down at my future spouse, then an infant, as she was wheeled by her mother who shopped at White Front. They would soon move away to Wood-Ridge, and our paths would not cross until high school and college days.
From the sidewalk to the cornices of the flat roof, the façade of the White Front Market was covered with square white ceramic tiles, and the theme carried into all the interior walls. White Front specialized in nice cuts of beef and had a big white meat case that ran all along its right side. Its single room seemed large in those days, but probably was only about 60 feet wide by 80 feet deep. In back there was the walk-in cooler with a heavy wooden door. Sides of beef hung in a row on curved spikes along the sides of the cooler. Sawdust covered all the floors. Flypaper hung from the ceilings
We had ice delivered for our wooden ice box, but I think we also had an electric “Frigidaire” (actually a GE) with a big vented cylinder on top for the condenser and fan. When I was a bit older we kids would chase after the ice wagon and the Ice Man often rewarded us with chunks to suck on.
In the apartment there was a big bathtub in which I enjoyed making the water surge back and forth, ever higher and higher, and over unto the floor. Once I got a great wave going, and flooded the cookie section in the market below.
Nabisco had a display that consisted of a rack of boxes set in 3 or 4 rows on an angle. The boxes had glass doors and were filled with stacks of loose cookies and crackers. You could pick out whichever cookies you wanted, put them in a brown paper bag and pay by the pound. My bath water had trickled down through the holes in the linoleum, down through the floorboards and out through the tin paneled ceiling of the market, to drip on the containers.
A few cookies got wet before the owner, Mr. Hugh Hallam (who was also our landlord) knocked on our apartment door. My mother hurriedly mopped up the bathroom and then bundled me up in a bath towel and we ran down to inspect the damage.
There I was in front of the cookie display, scared and sobbing, the center of attention with Hugh and his butcher, Otto Fischer, and a few customers staring at me in the altogether. Mom was profusely apologetic, and I vividly remember kindly Mr. Hallam saying that I had damaged some cookies and I had to eat them. The mixed memory of fear and pleasure of that incident persists, vividly, but in isolation. We lived above White Front Market until I was about three years old. By then, I didn’t know it, but the Nazis had invaded Austria, the Jews were being banished to ghettos, and Joe Louis had knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round.
How exciting… Such interesting stuff! Next I’ll try to remember all about moving to the rent house just down the street.
I’ve waited way too long! Why am I starting a Blog now, in my eighth decade of life? Eighth Decade! That sounds impressive, just as “Twenty-first Century” did when we all entered it, even though it was only January 1, 2000, or was it 2001?
How do you set out to describe the high points of your life? Do you start with the fun, the exciting, the dangerous stuff? Was there anything unusual or interesting enough to even talk about? Does anyone else care anyway? Until a couple of years ago, Blog was not a word. I tried to pick a title to pique the readers’ curiosity and anticipation of great things to come.
Why do this? There is a simple answer, the same one given by the guy who confessed to a priest that he had had sex 5 times a day for 7 days in a row. The priest asked if he knew the woman, and he said, “Yes, it was my wife,” causing the priest to exclaim, “That’s not a sin, why are you telling me?” The guy said “I had to tell someone!”
Well, it would have been easier of I had kept a journal and then torn out the pages and pages of humdrum days and the bad memories before ever letting anyone see them. I did not do that, so now the memories cascade, they fragment and are stirred around as if in a bowl of chowder. The dates are fuzzy, as are the locations, names and faces. Things I thought I would never forget are lost as in a paper shredder. It can’t be early dementia, not after all these years!
One way to start the process might be to dig back into the remote recesses of my mind. What were my earliest recollections?