Although I have been a birder almost as far back as I can remember, chasing after rare birds has not been a big concern of mine. True, in the “old days,” news traveled much slower. One might hear about the appearance of a rare bird only if a friend happened upon it and called you, or if it made the newspapers. Reports at monthly bird club meetings were generally not very useful, as vagrant and rare birds, by their nature, tend to move on and disappear, perhaps within minutes or hours, if not a few days. No, I found it most enjoyable to bird the same couple of nearby patches of woodlands and wetlands.
There is a thrill in seeing (or even better, being the first to locate) an unusual species. Being “first” to locate a rarity involves an element of luck. Casual birders rarely enjoy this distinction. This is not surprising, as it is the avid birders (we call some of them robo-birders, and in the UK they are called “tickers”), out often and early and far afield, who usually find the rare and unusual. As with the lottery, “If you don’t buy a ticket you cannot win.”
My own style of repeatedly visiting the same little “patches” produced its own rewards. Walking to the rhythm of the changing seasons, I delighted in the surprises that a change in weather or wind might produce. One wintry morning when I was 12 years old, while walking along a weed patch along the Passaic River in northwest Rutherford, I chanced upon a large flock of tiny streaked finches. They sported black chins and the unmistakable little red foreheads that belong only to redpolls, birds that I had seen only in field guides, and a species that sporadically visits the northern US from the Arctic. Excitedly, I raced home to phone an experienced birder, who simply dismissed my observation as the more common Purple Finches, birds with much different habitat, flocking and foraging patterns. I then called Lou Fink, a Scout Leader who authored a weekly nature column in the Rutherford Republican. Lou came right over and we drove down to the spot. He confirmed my observation, and having my name in his column the next week was a high point for me. People who read about the sighting then came out to look for the birds, but they were long gone.
I had a polar opposite experience only a few months later. One weekend, Alan Nelson, another Scout leader, drove me and a few others from our troop to Troy Meadows for a generic nature walk. Here, a narrow boardwalk topped by two parallel 12 inch planks led about a mile out into a large marsh, under some power lines. Early in the walk, we came upon a raccoon that had been caught in a leg-hold trap that was chained to one of the pilings that supported the boardwalk. We covered the animal with a coat, lifted it up to the surface of the boardwalk, and restrained it as one of the scouts released the jaws of the trap. Once released, the animal amazed us by just standing there and looking at us, as if to say “Thank you.” It limped away slowly, repeatedly looking back at us over its shoulder. The remarkable image stays with me to this day. The highlight of the walk, at least for me, was yet to come.
As the only enthusiastic birder in the group, I was tuned into the sounds of rails and bitterns as we made our way along the Troy Meadows boardwalk. Suddenly, a black heron-like bird flew up from the edge of a pond not more than 40 feet away. Unlike a heron, which folds its neck close to its body in flight, this bird flew with its neck extended, and its bill was very long and curved downward, sealing its identity as a Glossy Ibis (pictured). Even the non-birders agreed with me on the fine points of identification, as we compared our bird to pictures of other curve-billed birds such as curlews and whimbrels. I could not wait to report my find, as Glossy Ibis was indeed rare in northern New Jersey, and the last sighting was over ten years previously. The species had crossed over from Africa to South America only about 50 years before, and had since extended its range to the southern coastal US.
The Hackensack Audubon Society met in Odd Fellows Hall that next week, and I persuaded my father to take me to the meeting. At one point the president asked attendees to report recent sightings. Excitedly, I raised my hand and was recognized. I carefully described my sighting of the Glossy Ibis to an incredulous audience of seasoned birders. One spoke out, asking me if I “put salt on its tail.” Another said that such an unusual sighting would have to be confirmed by an “experienced” member. I was devastated and embarrassed in front of my Dad, and swore I would have nothing to do with Audubon or its members ever again in my life! Interestingly, more Glossy Ibises were sighted later that year in Troy Meadows, and the species has since extended its range northward to become a regular breeder in the Northeastern US.
Only a few “rare” birds may be counted among the nearly 600 species I have recorded in the Lower 48 and Canada. Thanks to the Internet, the birding community receives immediate notice of unusual sightings. I picked up two just because I happened to be in the areas when the birds were reported: Piratic Flycatcher in New Mexico (read my account here), and Northern Spindalis in Key West. We did seek out the third, the Northern Wheatear (see my Blog post and photo), an hour and a half away, in Everglades National Park.
Completion of my internship meant the end of 9 years of deferral from the military draft as a student. At 27 years of age, I faced the prospect of remaining draft eligible until I reached 36. Viet Nam was really heating up. It was not a question of “if,” but “how soon?” During medical school I pondered two rather disparate choices of specialty. Pathology, especially microscopic anatomy and cytology, always appealed to me. Yet I found deep satisfaction in seeing live patients. My rotation on the Obstetrics service at Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City (pictured, now an historic landmark) was extremely busy and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
During medical school I had considered enlisting in the US Navy, with the objective of seeking a straight internship and residency in pathology, but it seemed a long shot. Instead I selected a rotating internship near home, at a community hospital affiliated with my University. During my first three years in medical school I had worked there nights as a laboratory technician on call, and had gotten to know and respect many of the staff physicians. Dr. John Work, Chief of Pathology, and Dr. Paul Fagan, Chief of Family Practice were two of my role models.
Choosing a general internship gave me a chance to experience a broad range of clinical services. It also cemented my desire to continue seeing live patients. When Dr. Fagan invited me to enter into a partnership with him upon completion of my internship, I jumped at the chance. It spared me the risk of renting and equipping an office, and if /when I got drafted, or entered a residency program, I could just depart without a penalty. This seemed to be an ideal arrangement, given the uncertainty of the times.
My private practice began the very first day after I completed internship. It felt almost the same as the day before, except that I showed up at the hospital in a suit and tie, insteady of my grungy intern whites, to meet Dr. Paul Fagan in the medical staff lounge. I also donned my crisp new lab coat embroidered with with my name and “Staff Physician,” in blue rather than the old red thread.
We began that morning by making rounds on his patients, a few of whom I already knew by virtue of my internship assignment. One was Mary, a new obstetric admission, one of Paul’s established patients who planned to have her baby under hypnosis. I knew that Paul practiced hypnosis, but I had never seen him utilize his skills in practice. He demonstrated as I stood at Mary’s bedside. She was multiparous (having delivered three children previously, all under hypnosis) and in early labor. Her cervix had only started dilating and her pains were irregular. He simply touched her shoulder and said calmly, “Relax yourself, Mary.” She immediately went into a deep trance! It was impressive. When he said, “Alright Mary, you can wake up,” she opened her eyes as if nothing had happened.
Paul asked me to stick around the hospital for a while as he had to make a house call nearby. No problem, so I thought. His little Triumph sports car had barely left the parking lot when he was paged over the intercom: “DOCTOR FAGAN, LABOR ROOM, STAT!” I rushed up to find that Mary had suddenly gone into very heavy labor, and was already on the verge of delivery. She was extremely anxious, crying and asking for Dr. Fagan. I walked in and told her that Dr. Fagan would be back shortly, and then placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “Relax yourself, Mary.” It worked like a charm, and Mary immediately quieted down as I quickly scrubbed. Within minutes she started crowning and I delivered her baby, all along speaking words of encouragement to her as calmly as I could.
The outcome convinced me that I wanted to learn hypnosis.