Crosby, Still and Nash Lied

Two thoughts winged (wanged?) their way into my head as i sat this week watching birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. Both were about how birding has affected my life both for better and for worser.

The first was a triumphant memory: Just recently, on my way home from a City Council Work Session, i was listening on my car radio to an episode of the NPR show, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” When i tuned in, they were at the point where the three celebrity panelists were telling tall tales only one of which is true, and the callers have to guess which one it is. Well, one panelist was saying that somewhere down South some people, as in the Hitchcock movie “The Birds,” had actually been attacked by — she said — “starlings and spotted grosbeaks.” I knew in a flash that that couldn’t be the true story, because there’s no such thing as “spotted grosbeaks!” And i was right. So! Tweet that, baby! See how much i’ve learned from studying my field guides?

The second thought i had was not as felicitous: It turns out that one of my all-time favorite songs, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, contains a similarly fictitious bird name. In fact, two of them. Remember these lines? “Chestnut-brown canary / Ruby-throated sparrow / Sing a song / Don’t be long / Thrill me to the marrow.”
Well again, there is no such thing as a chestnut-brown canary, and no damn ruby-throated sparrow either. Of course, it’s poetry. i get that. And these lines follow the lines, “I’ve got an answer; / I’m going to fly away.” So, you know … Stephen Stills can make up a color and species, and a name that rhymes with “marrow” if he wants to … It’s a song, right? A damn good song, too.

It’s just funny that for, like, 50 years, i never noticed those made-up birds.


Citizen Science

Twice a week, I sit at my dining room table with my tools, to wit: my binoculars; my Cornell bird-counting sheet; my drawing pad, pencil, pencil sharpener and Helix Professional Pencil-Cap eraser; my kitchen timer, set to 32 minutes; my rotten potato to throw at the squirrels; and my steaming hot cup of Constant Comment tea with a great big teaspoon of sugar in it.

What am I doing with all this paraphernalia? I am doing my Citizen Science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and don’t think I don’t like saying that. I say it with pride, even though my daughter doubles over, wincing and doing a spit-take, every time.

“Mom! That is the nerdiest thing anyone could possibly say!” she … uh … reminds me.

But I don’t care. I’m old, and this is what I do. I do my Citizen Science. Without me (and several hundred thousand others like me), Cornell couldn’t collate and analyze our results each year; they wouldn’t know if house finches are disappearing from the Northeast or not, and if so where the heck they’re going; or if those finches are suffering from eye disease again this year, and if so in what numbers; whether or not we’re having an irruption (yup, that’s the right spelling) of redpolls this winter … and zillions of other bits of data, and what to do about it all.

It occurs to me, as I put my binoculars down and cross out the “8” on the House Sparrow line on my bird-counting sheet and replace it with a “14,” that my father also started watching birds in his old age. He had a feeder behind his kitchen in his last (Slingerlands, N.Y.) house, and he would run to the window and call out, “Look! There’s a cardinal!” And he would smile and stare at it even as he added more quietly, “Aren’t they beautiful? They’re very common.”

I think I know how he felt. Cardinals are very common at backyard feeders in the Northeast; I too can’t take my eyes off them, and they always make me smile. And I think he liked being authoritative; he had a very old Petersen’s Bird Guide, which I inherited, and he read every page, even the parts about California condors and roadrunners and other birds he knew he’d never get to see, because it covered the whole U.S. and he was already old. He just liked knowing all about what he called “my little birdies.” And dad loved his Constant Comment.

If you call me on Sunday or Monday mornings from now through March, you’ll have to leave a message. I’ll be at my dining room table with all my tools arrayed before me, doing my Citizen Science.

(Note to files: I must ask Cornell if it invalidates the data if you get up in the middle of birdwatching to chuck a potato at the squirrels that hog the feeders. I vaguely recall from the one science class I ever took in college that there’s some theory called — Heimerdinger’s Cat? Schroedermacher’s Uncertainty Principle? – something with a funny name like that. I flunked the course, but loved it because of that funny name. And now, what was it? Anyway, I’m sure this theory said that you invalidate your results if you interject yourself into the thing you’re investigating. I must find out if I’m to let the squirrels have their way with my feeder, or if it’s OK to get up and hurl a few spuds at them.)

Sharp-Shinned Hawk!

i know it’s one of the most common hawks you can find in New York State, but it gets an exclamation point from me because i’d never spotted one (or at least, never recognized one) before … until today.

i was doing my citizen science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (and i know how cringe-worthy that sounds: i can hear my daughter’s eyes rolling from here), sitting at my dining room table as i do twice a week — two consecutive days, per the instructions from Cornell. i sit there next to my window, all cozy with my hot tea; binoculars; photocopied “score sheet” with my most-likely-to-see species written in, but with plenty of room to write in others; my little drawing pad; pencil with one of  my cool new Helix erasers that i bought online, paying about $3 for all 10 of them and then (dammit) $8 for the shipping; and my sharpener. What we Citizen Scientists do for Cornell is simply count the birdies of the various species who come to our feeders (i have four feeders) and record the highest number of each species we see over the two-day period.

As always i was just watching and counting and sketching and occasionally getting up to run and open my back door to yell, “Get!” ineffectually to the squirrels who continually attack the suet feeder, and frequently saying to myself, “Gee, this is pleasant! This is really pleasant! Thank you, God!” etc.

i was actually writing or sketching something when i heard a loud rustling sound out there. In my peripheral vision, i could tell it was a bigger birdie than the chickadees, sparrows, titmice, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches that i’d been otherwise seeing, but as i whipped around in my chair i expected to see a blue jay. Instead, there, settling on a branch near my black-oil sunflower seed tube feeder, was … a sharp-shinned hawk!

I think!

Small compared to the red-tailed hawks i often see soaring or perched on the sides of our highways, and very beautiful, it had a small head, grey back and a long, squarish-tipped tail with several dark horizontal bands across it. Its breast, belly and sides, which i saw when it finally turned a bit toward me, were white and heavily streaked with pretty, reddish-tan stripes (horizontal on the sides, and more vertical down its breast and belly). It had yellow feet, yellow eyes, and a yellow patch right where its small, hooked bill met its forehead.

And now, mustering all the technological prowess i possess, let me see if i can show you one, by pasting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website’s Sharp-Shinned Hawk page here:

Don’t look at the part that implies that it could well have been a Cooper’s Hawk … or the part that notes that sharp-shinned hawks are common as rain. Just try to imagine how happy i am!



My Own Winter Wren

Don’t know why, but a lovely, tiny winter wren has come to my feeder.  As i understand it from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they usually hop around on the ground looking for insects and avoid the black-oil sunflower seeds. Maybe he just flew in to see what everybody else was having: Dozens of sparrows, titmice, cardinals, chickadees and woodpeckers call my yard their winter home. Anyway, I’m very honored. to be hosting this new guy, and i hope he stays.

I love the way his little tail constantly bobs, as if he’s writing something with a quill pen.

I shall now try to append a photo of your typical winter wren, filched from the Cornell site, to this blog. Wish me luck! And if that doesn’t work, you can just go to the Lab’s winter-wren page:


“Silent Spring,” 50 years later

Sept. 27 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication by Houghton Mifflin of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” surely one of the most influential books of the 20th century. It raised the alarm about the harmful effects of pesticides on a wide variety of life forms, including insects, birds and humans, and was the impetus that created the environmental protection movement.
First serialized in the “New Yorker” in the spring and summer of 1962, the book shocked the nation and was an instant best-seller. The chemical industry spent a huge amount of money and time vilifying Carson and trying to stop her warnings from spreading. She was portrayed as an “hysterical woman,” even a Communist. But Rachel Carson was simply a brilliant, concerned biologist who could both see the big picture of what was happening and put it into words that everyone could understand.
Anyway, both Carson and her book weathered the storm. Millions of people worldwide rallied to the cause. The Kennedy administration ordered an investigation into the book’s claims, and that investigation led to the banning of DDT in the United States and to the eventual creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pesticides remain a threat to birds, humans and other life forms. The fact that her words, written half a century ago, still resonate shows the power of “Silent Spring,” and how it helped to improve our lives and ensure healthier lives for future generations.

Here’s how we can all help maintain the legacy of “Silent Spring”:

* Avoid using chemical pesticides, and then only in the smallest amounts needed;

* Dispose of chemical pesticides as instructed on their original containers, and never throw unused pesticides down a drain or a storm sewer.

* Donate to the Nature Conservancy, the Xerces Society or the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference to support their habitat creation and advocacy work;

* Keep Rachel Carson’s memory alive by reading or re-reading “Silent Spring” and recommending it to everyone you know.

Ah, Nature

This morning I spent a few minutes transfixed by the sight of the long-haired, blonde, feral cat my neighbor feeds, merrily torturing a monarch butterfly in our back yard.

I was walking out to the compost barrel when I saw her (the cat, not my neighbor) crouched and batting something back and forth in the high grass before her, sometimes letting it go, then making little jumps to catch it again in a gruesome little game of “Breakfast is On Me.”

At first I thought her unlucky victim must be a mouse or a vole. She saw me just after I spotted her, and stopped stock-still, looked at me and silently but very distinctly said: “What are you looking at? I’m not doing anything. In fact, just to prove it, I’ll hold this little morsel down with one paw and idly lick my other paw and then yawn. Then I’ll just stare right back at you forever; I’ve got all day.”

She disdainfully watched me take a few more steps toward the barrel and then grew bored with me. She resumed playing with her food, and it was then I saw it was a butterfly. A few times, just to amuse herself, I suppose, she let it get away for a moment. Each time it would start to fly but, with now-tattered wings, couldn’t get up very far, and Blondie would instantly catch it again in her claws. Last I saw, she was strutting around the yard with her breakfast mostly protruding from her mouth, one orange-and-black wing still fluttering.

Ah, Nature.

Trailsfest in Kingston Coming Up Soon!

Don't miss "Trailsfest 2012," Saturday, May 19, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Kingston!

The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference and other outdoor organizations,
retailers and groups will celebrate hiking and outdoor recreation in the
Catskill Mountain Region, hosted by Kenco the Work and Play Outfitter.
Free and open to the public.
It will be held at Kenco, 1000 Hurley Mountain Road, Kingston.
For more info, email Jeff Senterman at


AAA, You Forgot a Few Places

The new issue of “Car and Travel,” AAA’s abysmal magazine for members, has a featured story on the state’s “7 Natural Wonders” that we all should, supposedly, make road trips to this summer. Only one of them involves the mid-Hudson Valley: a trip to “the Gunks and Catskills.”

That’s quite a conflation.

Assuming, as always, that their readers are driving from Manhattan, they tell us to take Thruway Exit 18 and head to New Paltz. What would be much faster and easier would be to just take the Metro-North to one of the the state’s much closer-to-the-City “natural wonders,” Breakneck Mountain. The trains stop right there on weekends.

And every day, the trains stop at another, even closer,  great place: Cold Spring. From the station you can easily walk up the village’s fun Main Street and across Rt. 9D to a wonderful hike up Bull Hill (also known as Mount Taurus). In Cold Spring, you can also rent a kayak and shoot underneath the train trestle (an adventure in itself, depending on the tides) into the wild and peaceful  Constitution Marsh, or just paddle around in the Hudson among the boaters and fishers. You can follow up your experience on one of the country’s great rivers with a beer and/or meal, ranging from plain to fancy, at any of Cold Spring’s many eateries.

Oddly, they also omitted the  swimming and hiking available at Rockland Lake State Park, from whose Hook Mountain you can see the skyline of Gotham; the world-famous Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks; and the hiking on Storm King, Schunnemunk and Black Rock — all of which are way closer to NYC than New Paltz is.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at these goofs, though, in a publication that amounts, issue after issue, to nothing more than one long, typo-riddled advertisement for their latest cruise-line “partner.”