It has been a while, for a lot of things. Least of which is this blog. Like most of us I get caught up in so many different things that I let others go, miss opportunities and flat out procrastinate until the point of even taking it up again is lost, not just to me but those that were waiting for it. Not one of my most flattering character traits, I know. And that’s what I love about birding. No matter how long it’s been it’s always there. At any whim you can pick up your binoculars and head outside. And so it was a few nights ago.
Jackie and I were both home together at sunset. This in itself is a note worthy event, what with meetings, work events and my near maniacal plunge into recreational ice hockey. Dinner was over and we were putzing around in the kitchen when I said lets go watch a timber doodle sky-dance. And with that we grabbed our binoculars and were out the door. It was hard to remember the last time we had done it. Had we made the time last spring? We weren’t sure. It was not only an annual event when we lived at Caratunk it was a nightly event. After all the American woodcock was the symbol of the Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, but now we had to make the time. Thankfully we did.
Now that we’re back in the Poconos our favorite sky-dance viewing spot is in a scrubby field that is part of a nursery, along the Brodhead creek south of Canadensis. It is also home to a pair of resident bald eagles one of which was evident on the nest even from our vantage point in the fading light. The scene was gray, without any brilliant sunset induced infusion of orange, pink or red but the sky was still spectacular as darker clouds trailing veils of vapor drifted in over the distant trees. We stood murmuring quietly about how beautiful it all was when we heard it – peeeeeeeeennt – a timber doodle calling to get noticed. Then the whistle of the wings, it was in flight and then just over us a whirl of wings as this plump little bird with the comically long beak climbed over our heads. It came in so close that as we followed it higher it got lost in the branches of the tree beside us and then the whistling of its flapping wings stopped and we picked up the distinct sound of its dramatic decent. PEEEEEEEEEEEENT – it was on the ground again.
We watched several more display flights, one of which we were able to follow all the way, even tracking it as it dropped like a combination of a leaf and a stone zigging, plummeting, sagging and plummeting until it was back on the ground – peeeeent. At one point we were listening to the nasal call when one approached us just above our heads nearly landing on us before realizing we were standing there. It veered quickly to our left and its wings whistled in response and then it was gone across the road and into the night.
Then across the field over the tree line a large silhouette, flapping, flapping, methodically, rhythmically, flapping. A shadowy great blue heron winging its way, where? We didn’t know but it was majestic and added greatly to the incredible experience we were witness to and then we sensed it before hearing it, “Hoo-huh-hooooooo-hoo-hoo,” a great horned owl calling. The higher pitched female responded and then again more a feeling than a sound, something we could sense in our chests the deeper, primitive call of the male, “hoo-huh-hooooooo-hoo-hoo.” Did you hear that, Jackie nodded.
As the rain finally reached us we bundled into the car. Making our way home we sat quietly still reveling in what we had just experienced. You never know what you’re going to find when you take the time for Timberdoodles.
I have the greatest job on earth! Those that have accompanied me on walks or birding adventures have often heard me say that but even I may not have fully understood how great I’ve got it until this past weekend. From 5 pm on Friday September 30 to 5 pm October 1, the Pocono Avian Research Center joined with the Monroe County Conservation District in sponsoring the 2011 Great Monroe County Snipe Hunt.
The snipe hunt has always been an idea for having fun, getting out and enjoying our favorite past time – birding – in a competitive format with a twist. It’s not just about the most species but the rarest or toughest to find. Thus the snipe hunt. Each bird has a point value, 50 for a snipe, 1 for a house sparrow and all kinds of values in between. This all stemmed from my own past as a competitive birder. I’ve long been involved with birdathon’s starting with my days at the Audubon Naturalist Society and later the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Once I even joined my good friends Mark Garland and Mark Swick (we would introduce ourselves like this, Hi I’m Darryl, this is my brother Mark and my other brother Mark) to compete in NJ Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory World Series of Birding. From the get go, back in the 80’s I was as competitive as the next guy.
But I’ve always approached the snipe hunt differently. My team is my family and always has been, the challenges are different, and changing as the boys get older. Jackie and Jordan had to go to Skytop in the morning and with Jacob still asleep (he is a teenager) I donned my binoculars for a walk down to the school and back. I was no more than a few steps beyond the garage when I stopped dead in my tracks. There, halfway down the lane on the lowest wire, midway between two poles was an adult red-shouldered hawk and it was looking right at me. Farther down the wires were half dozen mourning doves - frozen in place like statues waiting for another to make the wrong move. Closer to me were a pair of bluebirds and a pair of chipping sparrows. One of the bluebirds was an immature with a peach wash across the breast and the faintest baby-blue head while the other was an adult male so vibrant blue that it put the leaden, overcast skies to shame. These two birds kept switching places but it was the chipping sparrows that seemed unfazed by the hawk’s presence. They were constant motion chasing each other and teasing the bluebirds. It was almost as if they were hanging out with the bluebirds purposefully and not just coincidentally sharing the wires.
From the left side of the road was a constant chatter as a flock of starlings had congregated among the snags created by the gypsy moth outbreak of a few years ago. Small groups of starlings would take from the trees and swarm out into the playing fields and then return. The hawk would turn its gaze out into the field on these occasions and I would take a few steps closer. I was so focused on the hawk perched on the wire that I never noticed one over my head until it flushed from the tree, this caused not only the starlings to explode out of the trees but a flock of 20 or more mourning doves streaked out of the woods and spread across the field and out into the parking lot. The hawk on the wire remained stoic, as it once again turned to face me. I actually perceived a gleam in its eye just before it spread its wings and launched into the air. It dropped slightly from the height of the wire then climbed steadily as it flew out over the field, circled and came back over head into the trees behind me, all the while causing panic in the birds around us. It was one of those incredibly intimate moments you occasionally get to share with a wild creature; recognition, an awareness of each other’s presence in an unthreatening and un-fearing way.
I spent the rest of the day in the company of my family, Jordan behind the wheel (he has his learners permit) as we visited sights of interest in search of birds. Later at the evenings award ceremony I told of my encounter with the red-shouldered hawk. It was one of many highlights each of the teams shared with each other. In the end the Great Monroe County Snipe Hunt Trophy was awarded to the Long-tailed Jaegermeisters comprised of Terry Kloiber, her son Stephen and their friend Cory Husic. In the twenty-four hours they recorded 82 species. The PARC Pranksters didn’t do quite as well for total species but I doubt anyone had a greater experience.
Like most people I sometimes get nostalgic for things I’ve done in the past. I would like for a moment to go back and do some things over again, but even if I could it wouldn’t be the same. Somewhere along life’s path I’ve stopped making time to just go birding. That’s one of the reasons, I learned this weekend, why I have the greatest job in the world. By scheduling the Great Monroe County Snipe Hunt and being committed to seeing it through I created an opportunity to get myself out with my binoculars. Who would have guessed the greatest discovery of the day would be just a few feet from my backyard. It rekindled the excitement, if only for a few moments, making the rest of my days birding all the more rewarding.