Birdwatchers used to arrive on the scene with binoculars and a well-thumbed field guide. Now they aid their obsession with a pack full of tech toys, including an iPod loaded with bird calls.
During the height of the annual spring bird migration, I joined a group of nature writers hoping to observe birds on their way north. Strategically located in the Atlantic flyway, Delaware's two National Wildlife Refuges and thirteen state parks provide safe stopover points midway in the birds' journey of several weeks. With some species traveling as far as South America to the Arctic tundra, they were the quintessential examples of traveling light.
Our human entourage, on the other hand, employed plenty of advanced technological items guaranteed to help us track them all down.
At my little farm cottage in upstate New York, my pet blue-and-white parakeet, Raphael twittered knowingly as I tapped the touch screen of my new portable Global Positioning System device. Then I headed outside and pressed the suction cup to my car's front window, plugged the cord into the power outlet and flipped up the miniature satellite antenna.
"Fol-low Wes-tern Road point sev-en miles and turn right on-to Brook-view Road." The choppy female voice would deliver me effortlessly, if not without annoyance, to the first venue where I would meet up with the birdwatcher's group.
That's what I thought anyway. Five hours later I was exiting, re-entering and exiting I-95 outside Wilmington, Delaware in a perpetual loop.
Introductions made, our group of twenty piled into the massive, climate-controlled motor coach which whisked us smoothly out of the six-lane Route 202 corridor of mega-malls where bordering states' residents flock for tax-free shopping, to the more verdant hills of the Brandywine River Valley. Through tinted glass windows, we strained to see a blue heron fly overhead.
Within minutes, we were strolling the floor of the Delaware Museum of Natural History, which boasts a collection of 4,000 bird species from around the world. I passed by dioramas of Antarctic penguins, an African watering hole and a Philippine rainforest complete with bird sounds.
Our guest of honor, however, was Delaware's former governor, Russell Peterson. Standing in front of a giant three-foot brass model of a dung beetle, the 92-year-old white-crested statesman captivated us with stories of how he fought against Shell Oil Company and prevented it from building a refinery on a fragile coastal ecosystem.
As the young, upstart governor who engineered and signed into law the Delaware Coastal Zone Act of 1971, he infuriated the powerful business interests who accused him of being disloyal to America. The bill passed by only one vote in the legislature.
Perhaps the passage of time had eased the sting of an abrupt end to a promising political career when he lost his re-election bid, but there was an almost gleeful sense of vindication in the mild-mannered nonagenarian birdwatcher who had single-handedly defeated Big Oil.
During the next three days, several expert birders would join our group as we made our way down the coast to visit many of the areas saved as a direct result of his convictions.
"Along the way, ask the birds how they like the Coastal Zone Act," the governor crowed.
I signed up for the optional "owl prowl" that night in the nearby Brandywine Creek State Park. After all, what kind of person doesn't like owls? I certainly didn't want to be seen as the killjoy so early in the group's dynamics.
The park naturalist Tess dramatically dimmed the lights in the visitor center for our orientation, while her intern, Shannon fiddled with the computer and projector settings. Beautiful photographs of owls filled the wall-sized screen. Tess cheerfully passed around feathers and other biological parts such as "owl pellets," the hair-bone balls that remain after an owl throws up its partially digested prey of rats and mice.
Once outside, we crept stealthily through the moonlit fringes of pasture and forest. Suddenly a soft trill, similar to the muted whinny of a horse, drifted in from the distance. The sound was the distinctive call of the eastern screech owl. Tess stopped dead in her tracks and motioned us to do the same, but that was the last and only owl encounter that night.
Gore-Tex Jacket and Hiking Boots
Protected from the elements by my allegedly weatherproof jacket and hiking boots, I ventured into the pouring rain the next morning. Promptly at 9:00 our group boarded the open-air ferry that carried us across the Delaware River to Pea Patch Island, the site of a Civil War prison. Now a state park, the sanctuary is the summer host to thousands of wading birds, including herons, egrets and ibises.
Seeking cover among the crumbling ruins, I pulled my jacket's hood over my baseball cap and dodged into dank corridors and nooks. Magically, the gleaming brass buttons of a Union officer's wool coat broke through the thick gray air. The year was 1864.
"Are you a veteran?" the sergeant demanded, looking quizzically at my synthetic clothing.
"No, sir," I replied.
"New inductees report over there," he ordered.
Lest I be unwittingly drafted into the Union army, I quickly rejoined my group and we headed away from the fort for a hike into the marshy flats. Although true birders would have been envious of my rare glimpse at the secretive yellow-crowned night heron regally perched on a low-lying branch, I marveled at the more common semipalmated plovers blissfully frolicking in a puddle along the trail while I shivered in clothes soaked down to the underwear.
High-power Spotting Scope
The rain stopped and our bus continued southward on our itinerary along the coast. Joined by author and naturalist Jeff Gordon, we passed marshes, Christmas tree farms and subdivisions with vinyl-sided, four-bedroom colonial homes on our way to the international birding hotspot, 16,000-acre Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge.
Once inside the park, we hopped out periodically along our shoreline driving route while Jeff set up the super-sized Leica APO Televid 77 with 20-60x zoom eyepiece and aimed it at our unsuspecting avian victims. The salt-water smell and sound of roiling surf formed the perfect sensory backdrop for our sightings of bald eagles, eastern kingbirds and blue-winged teals.
Excitement reached a fever pitch, however, when someone in our group spotted a black-necked stilt, thus named because its spindly legs give it the appearance of walking on stilts. Then, in rapid-fire succession, we saw a black-crowned night heron, clumps of white egrets in trees, and my personal favorite, the blue grosbeak with the most amazing deep blue neon-like iridescence. Everyone politely waited his or her turn at the scope.
"Oh, look at the skimmers! Look at the skimmers drifting in!" Jeff cried. A whole flock of black birds, whose lower bills were longer than their uppers, flew along the surface of the water scooping up fish.
Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we were entertained by a white egret that had caught an eel in the surf. Like peeping Toms looking through someone's dining room window, we watched it struggle with, and eventually swallow, its unwieldy meal.
The next morning dawned crystal clear and spirits were running high with anticipation. Our tally of observed species thus far was an impressive 81. We were into some serious bragging rights now and surely we could top 100 today.
On our way to the Milford Neck Wildlife area the road cut through a thickly forested tract of land. Our bus stopped and by now we all knew the drill. We grabbed our notebooks and cameras and quietly piled out of the vehicle onto the shoulder of the two-lane country road.
"I'm hearing a scarlet tanager," Jeff said. "It's like a robin with a sore throat."
I didn't hear a thing, sickly or not.
"Let's see if we can bring it in." Jeff took a small iPod out of his shirt pocket. Akin to a disk jockey for birds, he worked the dial to select a bird song from his pre-recorded "play list" and blasted the tune out of a small battery-powered speaker about the size of a card deck. He explained that for most small birds in Delaware, song is a territorial demarcation. If a male bird thought another male was infringing on his territory, he would come closer to the source of the sound to defend his home. Furthermore, the latest studies are showing that some birds can distinguish between individual bird voices of the same species. If the male knew that the interloper wasn't a familiar safe neighbor, he would try to drive it away.
We waited several minutes but no bird showed up. Jeff was apologizing that his Dial-a-Bird contraption isn't necessarily one hundred percent effective when he caught a glimpse of color in the treetops.
"Oh! Misidentification! It's a summer tanager, not a scarlet tanager," he said. This time he selected the correct species from his iPod and played its song. Sure enough, a rosy red bird with a big yellow beak flew within clear viewing range.
During the remainder of our trip, we marveled at an osprey soaring overhead at Big Stone Beach. We watched thousands of squawking short-billed dowitchers and dunlins feeding on horseshoe crab eggs at Slaughter Beach as the tide started to drop, leaving a thin strip of sand exposed on "Delaware's Serengeti." At the Dupont Nature Center overlooking Mispillion Harbor, we identified the red knot that would travel 10,000 miles to its final destination in the Arctic.
Back in my hotel room that night in trendy Rehoboth Beach, I left the balcony door wide open and let the balmy night breezes and the sound of gentle waves lull me to sleep with peaceful reflections on our group's birdwatching experiences. Sometimes the technological inventiveness of humans worked splendidly, sometimes not so. But through the millennia, the birds have found their way and carried on just fine without us. I was happy to get back home to upstate New York the next day, and when I walked through the door and opened the bird cage, Raphael jumped on my finger and chirped twice as if to say, "Welcome home," and "I told you so."
David Lee Drotar's travel stories appear in Mountain Living, The Globe & Mail, New York Post, The Buffalo News and numerous other publications. He is the author of seven books including Steep Passages: A World-wide Eco-Adventurer Unlocks Nature's Spiritual Truths (www.brookviewpress.com).
For information on planning a birdwatching trip to Delaware, see www.visitdelaware.com.
Journey Through the Ice by David Lee Drotar
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