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Misadventures In Birding

So my crazy birding friend Tina was up in DC and I drove up to meet her and do a little birding. We took the Cape May-Lewes ferry across to Cape May, hoping to get some deep water birds that had been driven into shore by the evil weather.

Sadly, there was no alcid love for us. Every scoter ever born was out there, but no dovekies or razorbills. We reached the far side and had a couple of hours to drive around Cape May and try to get some birds.

Now, Cape May is famous among birders. It is one of the High Holy Grounds. Migrating warblers come through there in extraordinary quantity. (There is literally a bird called the Cape May Warbler.)

It looked like the zombie apocalypse had hit and nobody had told us.

The off-season is not kind to this town. I'm told by people who grew up there that yes, that's normal in winter. Also, it was fourteen degrees out with lethal windchill. We saw literally TWO people on the street once we left the ferry...one of which turned out to be important.

See, we stopped at a marina there and pulled over, because there were ducks in among the boats. Tina got out her scope, and we were trying to locate the birds we'd just seen (a lot of birding is "It was here a minute ago...") and finally got a look at them. They were Ruddy Ducks, which is an adorable little duck, and actually a good one for me because while I've seen them in Europe, they were a bit of a nemesis for me in the US.*

"Good bird," we said cheerful, and turned back toward the car.

Tina had placed her scope on the dock. As we watched, the wind suddenly gusted and one leg of the tripod, apparently not secured correctly...gave out.

The scope toppled.

Now, let me take a moment here to say that a good scope is generally a sturdy piece of equipment, thoroughly waterproof AND has a lifetime warranty, so when it bashed into the dock and cracked the case, it was a pain-in-the-ass situation, not a fatal one. Tina would have to ship her scope back to Austria, where it would be repaired free of charge.

You can, however, expect to pay well over two thousand dollars for a scope of this quality. This is hard-core birder equipment.

But as it struck the dock, the clasp holding the scope to the tripod snapped. A piece of plastic lever flew into the air.

The scope detached from the tripod, bounced once...and rolled.

If you remember that scene in the movie Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo, in gratuitous slow-motion, screams "NOOOOOOO!" as Gandalf plummets into the Mines of Moria, you have a pretty good impression of Tina as the scope rolled...rolled again...and went over the side of the dock into the drink.

There was dead silence on the marina, except for the wind and the sound of two hearts sinking.

And then there was a "plop!"

Time began moving normally again. Tina lunged for the side of the dock. I said "Oh. Shit."

She very slowly leaned out over the water---and said "I see it!"

Very surprised--I had expected it to have passed beyond mortal knowledge by now---I leaned over and there it was, held up on the surface by the band of slushy ice that had formed around the dock. (A good scope may, in fact, float---it's waterproof and filled with nitrogen--but it could easily have floated under the dock where we'd never see it again.)

I made the mental calculation that of the two of us, I am more likely to survive the hypothermia---Tina's got a bum heart---and wondered if I could tie myself to the piling and walk myself down the side on a rope far enough to grab it. It was only about six feet feet down, there's a lot of rope lying around on a marina...

No, that was a horrible idea. That's the sort of idea that EMTs tell each other about at bars after the resuscitation attempts have failed. Survival time in that water would be measured in minutes, and not very many of them, and if I tied the rope to the car and had her throw it in reverse, I could add lots of broken bones to the hypothermia. This was a terrible idea.

Okay, maybe if we take the tripod and a scarf and rig a crude net with bungee cords from the car and I lie down on the dock and Tina holds my ankles--

Tina, meanwhile, was running across the street, where the only human being we'd seen out and about was unlocking the door to his storefront.

The luck of the birding gods was upon us. His storefront was a charter fishing place, he'd come down to pick up the mail, and he had a net.

He, in fact, flung himself flat on the dock with the net (I think chivalry would not allow him to see a 50-year-old woman doing so in his stead) and at full extension just managed to hook the scope off the slush and pull it to safety. Tina folded herself around it like a mother over a baby that has just been snatched from the jaws of a rare maritime ice-dingo. The thank-yous were not coherent, but they were plentiful, and I think he got the gist.

We killed time until the ferry returned, spotting an enormous flock of Northern Pintails (a very majestic sight) two very grumpy Bald Eagles huddled together in the middle of an ice floe (a rather adorable sight) and a bunch of Buffleheads, which are lovely wee little ducks. Mostly we uttered variations on "Oh god, that moment the scope fell!" "I can't believe the one guy we saw today was right there and had a net!"

Also we got lost and drove onto a Coast Guard training ground. They asked us politely to leave, with the air of people who have had to do this with a lot of confused birders.

The return ferry-trip was significantly birdier---got a Great Cormorant and a Parasitic Jaeger. (Tina declared that she was proud of me for noticing that something was not-quite-right with what looked like a brown juvenile gull. It was, in fact, the Jaeger.**) Apparently somebody on board was the 43 millionth passenger. They held up signs and took photos and we got interviewed by a cub reporter as to why we were there. That reporter now knows entirely too much about alcids. I wish her well.

The last hour or so of daylight we spent at a weedy saltmarsh field, acquiring the aptly named Saltmarsh Sparrow, and then we drove home. The next morning was mostly spent on jetties, scanning the rocks for Purple Sandpipers. They like rocky coastlines, and they love jetties. Three of them were lurking at the end of a jetty in a private marina. (The woman at the counter was vaguely bemused when two women in cold weather gear came through the door asking if we could please walk down their dock--"We are birders. We are harmless but eccentric folk," Tina said. "Ohhh-kaaaaay...." the woman said. "Go right ahead. Good luck." You always ask for permission if you're going on private property, or else people start to dislike birders.)

It is cold on a jetty sticking into the Atlantic ocean in January with a polar vortex on the premises. I just want to put that out there. Cold. Brisk. Not warm. The Arcteryx shell I picked up at an REI close-out-sale last year was worth its weight in gold. I stand before you with my core temperature intact because of this fantastic article of clothing.

Anyway, we got our sandpipers---a little skulky dark gray bird on dark gray rocks, not an easy one to locate--and this is where a scope that costs a ridiculous amount of money is handy, because you can stand fifty yards from the bird so it's not threatened and still get a good enough look to be able to determine what color is at the base of the bill and whether the legs are yellow or not. Even if the scope is currently held on with bungee cords because the damn lever broke.

The final tally was six lifers for me, three for Tina. Overall, a good trip, snatched from the jaws of a very bad trip indeed.

Today, I nap. Tomorrow, I lay more stone.

*Yes, it matters if you're doing the ABA listing thing, where you count US & Canada birds. I kinda sorta am, because...well...you go out with Tina often enough, it's self-defense.

**No, they're not giant robot death machines. There are several species that are called Jaegers in the Americas and Skuas in other places. A Parasitic Jaeger is also called an Arctic Skua. They are "kleptoparasites" (is that not an awesome word!?) and live mostly by stealing food from other birds. Imagine a sort of thuggier gull, only brown with white bits and with a certain I'm-in-charge-here method of flight.

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Wow. Thank goodness for that fisherman and his trusty net.

Tina is one lucky birder for sure!

You guys, weight the tripod next time you're out in wind (and maybe a heavier tripod?). It should have a hook under the head for weights. Hang a full knapsack or something pretty heavy there. I have a bag that I can fill with rocks. The weight will help keep it from blowing over, or from being knocked over by a casual bump from a smallish sea lion or penguin. Elephant seals or angry penguins, weight won't help much, pick it up and move.

My Tripod is light weight as it is fibre carbon and much easier to pack than my older heavier manfroto tripod. I even have weights for it, what I don't have is the hook on which to attach them to, undoubtedly lost during another birding trip. As it will need repairing, I will get a new hook attachment too.

Ain't nothing gonna stand up to an elephant seal.
Also, angry penguins are hilarious.
And you sound like the kind of person I'd like to know.

...And now I want fanfic about Jaegers (the giant robot death machine kind) becoming parasitic to their human pilots...

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Gad. Glad it worked out.

This is not the first time I've read one of your birding posts, and only at the very end realised that yes, I do know what you're talking about. You mean arctic skues? On, *right*! Wear a hat. (If necessary, held above your head on a walking stick).

Congratulations on the lifers!

I have friends who have been in complicated automobile accidents and the first question is, "Are the optics all right?"

My husband is actually from Mays Landing, very near to Cape May - he took me to the Cape May County Zoo once when I was visiting him in Jersey. It's where I learned what a lion ACTUALLY sounds like! And from that side of the zoo I got to see the tiger urine-mark several guests along with the tree he was aiming for, which is frankly HYSTERICAL from a safe distance.

A friend sent me over to read this as I live near Cape May and like birding (though I am not avid; I sure as hell wouldn't crawl around on the docks & jetties in polar-vortex weather). I am glad for your lifers! The ruddy ducks have been a pleasant surprise this winter. Also very, very glad for the person who rescued the scope--great good fortune on that!

But yeah, the place is deader than the deadest dead doornail in winter. Now think about living with that. All the time. All winter. And if you would, spare a moment's pity for an urbanite who is stuck here, even with as delightful as the birds are. (Husband's job requires us to be here. We hope to go somewhere else soon, because no amount of birds can make up for the off-season. Or even the on-season, because the nearest decent movie theater is 30 miles away and there is no Vietnamese food no matter what time of year it is.)

The man who has replied to you about Vietnamese knows where all decent food in southern Jersey is. ALL OF IT.

Kleptoparasite is a new favorite word. I love science.



sometimes when i am out hunting USGS survey markers and i am knowcking on someone's door to ask if is can go look at the disk in their back field, i have to explain to them that it's sort of like birding.

and they go "ohhhhh" in a confused sort of way, but not as confused as they get if you were playing dashpointing, which involved racing to randomly generated GPS coordinates around the globe every month to get a picture of yourself standing there.

"hi. i'm playing a game and would it be okay with you if i go out behind your house and take a picture of myself standing in your field? k? thanks."

A parasitic Jaeger is a phrase that conjures up some interesting images.

I am glad the scope was rescued without serious loss of life or limb.

Somehowm if the weather hadn't been straight from the Arctic I am sure more birds may have been there to be added to your list. I think most would have migrated down to Mexico by now if they could.

Around here, April 15 is Ruddy Duck Day, when we ceremonially reenact the Ruddy Duck Boogie that I performed when I first saw them (spring migration in New Mexico).

Survival time in that water would be measured in minutes, and not very many of them

I am immeasurably glad that you knew this *before* this incident...

Heaven-or-its-equivalent forgive me, but the first thought my brain tossed up when you defined "kleptoparasite" was Big Eddie the komodo dragon, walking away with Danny's lunch again.
The second thought was how much fun I get to have, now, sharing with my kid that there's a word for beings that survive mostly by snatching other beings' dinners. Thank you for that!

If it makes you feel any better, I am TOTALLY teaching this word to the next group of kids I sub for. I like to teach them intelligent insults. I get tired of hearing "you're so GAAAY".

Parasitic Jaeger is a terrible-tasting German herbal-based liqueur that, after having been ingested in sufficient quantities, becomes sentient in the stomach and proceeds to slowly liquefy and consume the drinker from the inside out. Or should be.

Pretty sure that's what happened the last time I drank Jaeger...

However, there are those who with enough study and perseverance can subdue the creature that inhabits their digestive tract and force it to a) lie still, b) eat up excess calories on command, thus causing weight-loss, or c) make their stomach ripple in ways amusing to the excessively drunk. These worthy folk are known as Jaegermeisters.


Sounds like quite the adventure! Goodness. Also sounds like a blast. I never knew Cape May was such a big deal for birders. We went a couple times in the summer just b/c its a cute tourist trap town that my mom had fond memories of.

That's quite an adventure, and I'm SO glad all ended well.

Aaaand ... the reason there are so many different kinds of things called "jaegers" is that Jaeger, or Jäger, is German for "hunter".

What I learned recently: some species of skua are effectively eternal fliers. They're apparently able to remain in the air perpetually.

Couldn't tell you which type, though.

God I miss you. Damn it. I need to take you to Hawai'i.

I"m not familiar with Arteryx shell stuff, but I swear by Pepper Skins. Available at most ski shops, and probably places like Gander Mountain, or REI. Thin, soft, wonderful longjohns, made for skiing and activities requiring movement. I have probably 4 pairs on hand. They're moderately expensive ($25-30), but you won't want to go back to anything else. I will attempt to provide a link for you, but I know your spam-filter WU is strong... www/basicskiwear/com/hotchillys/html

as you can see, simply replace the / with the usual periods. Only way to keep it from being marked as spam.

I'm trying to get back into birding after a hiatus and really enjoyed reading this. Despite having grown up in NJ I've never made it to Cape May, though I have seen the eponymous warbler here in MA. Maybe this spring...

As for ducks, should you ever find yourself in Las Vegas, take a trip to the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve (and water reclamation facility); I won't try to link but it's easily found. "The Preserve is home to thousands of migratory waterfowl as well as numerous resident desert birds. There are nine ponds available for birding, surrounded by both paved and soft surfaces." The pools (the water has already been treated) and surrounding vegetation are absolutely full of birds. There were so many ducks (including Ruddies) when I was there just now, as wells as gallinules and grebes and mergansers and... It almost felt like cheating to see waterfowl at close range without freezing, not to mention all the other birds above and around the pools.

The water reclamation project wasn't originally intended to be a bird preserve, but open water + desert = birds, and they went with it: "The City listened to the bird lovers, and in 1995 decided to take steps to formalize birding at the water reclamation facilities. It was an educational experience." Over the years they've added benches, blinds, boardwalks, and an observation tower. It's a fabulous place. (I hear Vegas has casinos and stuff, but I go for the birds and desert.)

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