Birding Before Dawn

Yes, everyone is smiling at 4:30 amThe beaver slapped its tail, a heavy thunk with purpose, and a ripple of laughter, nervous and surprised wafted through the group. “That gets the adrenalin going,” I said, though no one needed to add to the jangle of excitement. I’d brought coffee and banana nut muffins. “Susan, why didn’t you tell us you knew how to bake?” someone asked. “Because I can’t,” I said.

We were a cheerful bunch—seven students from my class on writing about birds at Bard College and three friends who were willing to get out of bed for a four in the morning bird event. We were out to hear the dawn chorus on Cruger Island Road, a muddy causeway that splits the North and South Tivoli Bays that edge the Hudson River.

I’ve been on Cruger Island for the dawn chorus many times; there is no place I’d rather hear the world wake up. An orange almost-full moon disappeared behind the Catskills as we stood in silence except for the hum of a barge on the Hudson in the distance. Students whispered to each other and one spotted a satellite coursing across the sky and I wondered: would this be a special morning, would they find it magic, as I did? Or might it be a dull dawn chorus, something they would regret rising so early for when they still had finals, papers to write.


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Of all the fruits: cherries. Of all the months: October. Of all of the holidays: Thanksgiving. Of all of the birds: Rusty Blackbird. But--of all the groups of birds: shorebirds.

All birders have his or her favorite group or family of birds: the raptors in migration or the sparrows in a field. For many it’s easy: warblers in spring. For me, it’s shorebirds. Perhaps because I do associate them with water, the shore. Perhaps because I have spent so little time with them, the birds here in the Hudson Valley uncommon except in migration and even then there are few. Perhaps this group of birds retains a certain mystery because they are so elusive to me. And so when my friend Peter started reporting big numbers of shorebirds—a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers, a White-rumped Sandpiper, plus over forty Snipe at the Vly, a swamp in the northern edge of Ulster County, I had to go.


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Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes in the campgroundWhen I first heard the rattling call I was walking along  a small lake in Ontario, east of Sault St. Marie and West of Sudbury. I’d been driving my little camper for eight hours, after getting up in the lovely Two Rivers Campground in Algonquin Provincial Park. Since I was tired and since it was late in the day I thought: you are hallucinating. There can’t be Sandhill Cranes here in the far north in early September.

When, at 3 in the morning, I again heard that distinctive call I thought: this is a dream, no cranes.

In the morning, I emerged from the cocoon that is my little camper and scanned the range of RVs in the tidy campground, the set up mobile homes for those who came through the season, the more portable campers that were there a night or two. My eye was drawn to a bird feeder tempting in Goldfinch set up near one of the mobile homes. And there stood two cranes. Not plastic statues of cranes, as you might imagine in such a campground, real winged, breathing birds. They tip toed as delicately as a long legged bird can, inspecting the short grass and only half-wary of me and a woman walking her dog. Cranes. In Canada.

I’ve always seen Sandhill Cranes in Arizona, the desert, and so think of them as birds that love the heat and dry. They fly into Wilcox, east of Tucson, by the hundreds, thousands, landing and taking off all flailing legs and wings. But there never seem to be actual collisions. I’ve stood, mesmerized by the loud, purring sound of the birds, and by the sheer numbers, all come to spend the winter there where it’s warm, where there’s food.

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Wood pile

Through the winter months when my friends are going to the gym, taking yoga or pilates, I’m cutting wood. It’s my gym, my church, my movie night. Last year I had a few trees taken down so that from the top of the ridge where my house perches I have a pocket view of the Catskill Mountains. I felt badly about cutting what were mostly beech trees, so like the hunter who decides to take a deer and eat every part: heart, liver, thighs and knees, I decided I should use this wood. The difficulty is that these trees are down a hill and all I had was a little handsaw.

I cut my logs about eight inches in diameter, and about 36 inches long (it is never, however, this precise). This part of the cutting is the most satisfying, a sort of meditation on an outsized game of pick up sticks. What will drop easily? What will I have to support, and what will fall if I take this piece here? I pile these in one place and carry them up the hill. It was during this phase that a young friend, Remi, pointed out I should be using a better saw. A little research later and I had a Silky Katanaboy, a work of art that slices through wood like butter.

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I’d like to think that people who eat Stone Blue chips (as I do) don’t throw the packaging overboard or out the window of a speeding car. But it seems they do. I picked up the wet and silt covered bag along with an empty Gatorade bottle, a plastic coffee container and other stuff that littered the Tivoli landing. The debris washed up on shore shook me and made it near impossible to get my boat into the water. I spent twenty minutes picking up trash before I could slide my kayak into the water on my first paddle of 2017.

In spring, snow melts and the roadsides are revealed for what they are: dumping grounds for people’s stuff. Some is overt, like the trash bag tossed that then bursts or is torn apart by a hungry raccoon. But most are items casually flung from a car window. I like to undertake a thought experiment: I picture myself sailing down the road in my Subaru and I toss a Ginger Ale can from the window. I can’t do it, even in my imagination.


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