Vernal Pool Exploration

Clad in waders and toting a jumble of nets, tubs, and empty tofu containers, we set out toward Lithia Springs. It was a raw, rainy day and early yet, but our spirits were high as we bushwhacked through the woods. Led by the ecologist Molly Hale, we, the members of the Hitchcock Center’s nature study group, were in search of vernal pools.

Vernal pools, by definition, are ephemeral, seasonal habitats. They range in size from small puddles to shallow lakes and are found across the Northeast wherever woodland depressions or kettle ponds collect rainwater or snowmelt. A key characteristic of these pools is that they are isolated wetlands; they are not connected to any other water source and, as a result, they dry out periodically and are unable to harbor any reproducing fish populations. This last part is important: because there are no fish in vernal pools, it makes them the perfect environment for amphibians and invertebrates to breed without the threat of predation—while they last, anyway.

When we reached our first pool of the morning, Molly gave us a rundown on the different critters that we might encounter: obligate and facultative, vertebrate and invertebrate, larval and adult. On this overcast morning, it was not easy to see through the dark water to the decaying leaves below, but there was plenty of life swimming around at our feet. Mosquito larvae galore, horsehair worms, leeches, and daphnia all came to life under our magnifying glasses.

Then, there were the caddisflies. Had I seen caddisfly larvae on my own, I would have dismissed them as merely clumps of leaves and pine needles. And they are that, in a sense…but in reality what I was looking at were the caddisfly larvae’s marvelously constructed protective cases. The larvae build their cases using the silk that they produce and a multitude of organic and inorganic materials, depending on the species. The ones we encountered (I think from the family Limnephilidae) had a preference for leaf litter, pine needles, and twigs; however, others use rocks or even snail shells! (Yet others, aided by humans, have developed a taste for semi-precious stones.)

Several species rely exclusively on vernal pools for reproduction and development, despite their impermanent nature. These obligate species include wood frogs, burrowing mole salamanders, and the first non-mosquito species that I netted myself: the fairy shrimp. Being a complete neophyte when it comes to vernal pools, I was delighted by the very existence of this tiny woodland crustacean. Shrimp! In the woods! Just swimming around on their backs! (Swimming around in my recycled tofu container, at that!) Their undulating swimmerets were mesmerizing. We were lucky enough to find both male and female fairy shrimp, with the female easily distinguished by her brood pouch, which looked like a tiny dark circle at the base of her abdomen. At the end of the shrimp’s lifetime, she will release hard-shelled eggs (or cysts) that then become embedded in the soil below and enter a period of dormancy. These hardy cysts can withstand both freezing and drying—and, in fact, actually require a period of drying out before being able to hatch in the spring once the vernal pools refill.

In terms of amphibious obligate species, other than a lone wood frog tadpole, our findings were mostly gelatinous.

On rainy nights in early spring, spotted salamanders migrate to vernal pools to mate and lay eggs, a journey that often involves perilous road crossings. In our area, the Hitchcock Center maintains special migratory tunnels—tiny underpasses, essentially—that allow the salamanders to reach the pools safely.

Spotted Salamander Egg Mass
Spotted salamander egg mass (our sole photo, thanks to the rain)

This is a freshly laid spotted salamander egg mass: round, firm, and glistening. Each egg mass is enveloped by an outer jelly that holds the individual eggs together and provides protection from predators. And after the ordeal that the adults undergo to reach their breeding grounds, any added protection is welcome!

Not far from this egg mass, we encountered another amphibian: the red-spotted newt, a facultative species that could very well have had salamander eggs for breakfast. We caught two of them in flagrante—or rather, in amplexus, with the male clasping his back legs around the female, rubbing his chin on her snout, and fanning his muscular tale to waft his pheromones her way. The bizarre twist was that the amplexus that we witnessed was between an aquatic adult male newt and what looked like a terrestrial red eft. Was this an eft that was reaching the end of its immature stage? But if so, why would the adult newt attempt to breed with it before it was sexually mature? Those questions are far beyond my knowledge, but it was fascinating to watch.

After three hours in the bitter rain, my hands were soggy and stiff from cold, my pants were soaked through, and my kneecaps had begun their involuntary dance. I think we were all ready for a hot drink or two. “If this doesn’t make you all naturalists, I don’t know what does,” said Molly. At this stage in my education, I don’t think I have enough knowledge to call myself a naturalist, but I hope that experiences like this will help me along the way. Because there is so much to learn! We’re lucky to have a place like the Hitchcock Center nearby, and I’m excited to see what the next 8 months of natural history study will bring.


Wendell Wanderings

Little by little, spring seems to be arriving in Western Mass. Our resident house finches and robins are singing nonstop, and even though the landscape is mostly grey and brown, I’m starting to see some traces of green poking up through leaf litter. Yesterday the mercury climbed all the way into the 60s, and with that we laced up our hiking boots and headed out to hike our next portion of the New England Trail.

(Editor’s note: At the time of this posting, the ground is covered in a fine layer of sleet, with more on its way. Take advantage of the season-appropriate weather while you can. This is New England.)

We live a short drive from the Holyoke Range and Mt. Tom State Reservation, where the M-M trail traverses trap rock ridges to awe-inspiring vistas, but our ambitions were not so great this weekend. What’s more, I was not in the mood to deal with the inevitable crowds that this spring day would bring. So we headed north to Wendell State Forest.

HIKE 2: S15 Wendell State Forest – Ruggles Pond to Jerusalem Road
(3.6 miles round trip)

Nestled in the uplands south of Millers River in Franklin County, Wendell State Forest offers over 7,500 acres of forested, rolling hills. It’s home to an extensive network of multi-use trails, several recreational facilities, and the popular Ruggles Pond. A walking trail goes around the perimeter of the pond, which would be good to explore on our next visit—especially if it gives good views of the beaver dam we saw on the southern edge.

The pond must be hopping on hot summer days, what with its sandy beach, barbecue stations, and plentiful picnic tables. But on this day in mid April, the gates were closed, with only a few other cars parked in the ranger lot off Wendell Road. In our 3 hours on the M-M trail, we ran into two groups of hikers and a friendly dog, but that was all.

As we walked down the park road, we were greeted by the insect-like trill of a male pine warbler loudly proclaiming his territory. The pine warbler is one the earliest of the wood warblers to arrive each spring. And although its song is similar to that of some of the other migrants that are just now arriving—chipping sparrow and swamp sparrow, namely—its lemon-lime plumage brings a jolt of cheer to the woods that is unmistakable.

Trail blaze
I admire the precision of this blaze

The white-blazed M-M trail begins in the Ruggles Pond parking lot and traverses the western edge of the forest. An Adirondack shelter, equipped with a fire pit and picnic table, is situated a couple hundred yards from the trailhead; I was surprised to see it so close to civilization (if a parking lot can be called civilization). As is our habit now, we paged through the trail log; two slim notebooks chronicled the journey of over a decade of hikers. I wonder if the pages will fill up faster this year with more people hiking the NET.

Leaving the lean-to behind, we followed the trail as it descended through laurel scrub. The trees were thinner here, the result of a tornado that passed through the area in 2006. Chickadees called in the underbrush, and we saw a small hawk perching on a snag just up trail; it was too brief a look for a definitive ID, but the shape and size had me leaning towards broad-winged hawk. As we went deeper into the ravine, the sound of Lyons Brook grew clearer until eventually we were faced with some inspiring cascades. I can only imagine what this looked like earlier in the spring when the brook was swollen with snow melt.

Lyons Brook
Lyons Brook, babbling away
Lyons Brook

Eventually the trail began to climb, entering the Hidden Valley Memorial Forest, part of Mt. Grace Land Conservation Trust. This 67-acre holding was the research camp of the famed botanist Arthur Cronquist, who was an expert on asters. The centerpiece of this area is Lynne’s Falls, named after Cronquist’s daughter. The gneiss boulders were indeed, well, nice, but the falls itself was mostly a trickle on this day; we’ve made a note to return after a rainfall later this spring.

Hidden Valley Memorial Forest
Hidden Valley Memorial Forest

Deep in the woods, we heard the raucous cackle of the pileated woodpecker. These feathered dinosaurs never fail to thrill me. We didn’t have them on Long Island, and now I hear them everywhere—and when I don’t hear them, I see their telltale sign: deep oblong gouges and fresh wood chips littering the ground beneath.

Pileated woodpecker sign

Mostly, though, the woods were buzzing with eastern phoebes and hermit thrushes. Last weekend I heard my first thrush of the season, but was unable to get a visual. On this hike, we saw at least six. Of all the breeding birds in the area, I think that hermit thrushes will always hold a special spot in my heart. Their fluting song is more fleeting than the wood thrush’s and more pensive than the veery’s. Oh, holy holy, ah, purity purity eeh, sweetly sweetly…

Hermit Thrush
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)

Eventually the wind grew colder and the sky a little less hospitable, so we turned back just after reaching Jerusalem Road, retracing our steps to the trailhead. We’ll return another day—maybe when it’s warmer—and I look forward to seeing what real, full-fledged spring brings to this hidden valley.

Scarborough Brook Conservation Area

Today, Sarah and I hiked 3 miles: a short walk, but maybe, a new start.

Last year, we didn’t lace up our hiking boots or strap on our binoculars as often as planned. To kickstart our 2018 hiking, birding, and blogging, we are participating in the New England Scenic Trail’s Hike 50 Challenge. If we can log 50 miles on the NET, we’ll earn a commemorative patch (and the pleasure of learning our local trails). The NET spans 215 miles, from a boardwalk overlooking Long Island Sound to Royalston Falls, a 45-ft waterfall on the MA-NH border. The Massachusetts sections cross the Pioneer Valley and the Mount Holyoke Range, visible from our windows. (A good motivator!)

HIKE 1: S10 Scarborough Brook to S11 Mt. Lincoln
(1.5 miles one way, 3 miles round trip)

We didn’t begin at the beginning. Our point of departure was Section 10’s Scarborough Brook Conservation Area, a 70-acre tract of meadows and woodlands nestled in the Pelham Hills. We followed the NET/M-M trail through Scarborough Brook, across Packardville Road, and to the summit of nearby Mt. Lincoln (Section 11).

I was needlessly worried about finding the trailhead. A friendly, well-marked blaze greeted us at the edge of the parking lot.

NET Trailhead
Trailhead: one tree, three generations of markers

Scarborough Pond was just beyond the footbridge. It was a shallow, brook-fed pond, bordered by pines. This was an active area: despite our afternoon start, we saw two bluebirds, a wagging phoebe, and a pine warbler with brilliant yellow-green plumage.

As we neared the woods, three circling red-shouldered hawks began to cry.

The trail led us on a gentle ascent through a hemlock/hardwood forest. We found multiple many-leadered white pines, hoary giants who had survived logging days.

Scarborough Brook Hike
White pine (Pinus strobus)

The end of Section 10 passed through private land. On one stretch, “No trespassing” signs were aggressively posted on each trail blaze. Unsure whether the owners didn’t want us to leave the trail—or didn’t want us on the trail at all—we hurried by.

I’m always surprised at how quickly the character of the land can change. Across Packardville Road, we entered Section 11’s Caldwell Memorial Forest, where the trail was framed by wintergreen and studded by rock. Old fences and rock piles remained from prior use as pastureland. Animal sign was abundant: a coyote and raccoon had marked the trail with their scat, and we spied freshly chiseled pileated woodpecker holes.

Pileated woodpecker sign
Woodpecker sign

Mt. Lincoln was an easy 0.6 mile climb. At the summit, red maple and scarlet oaks encircled a gravel drive, fire tower, and active radio tower. The air buzzed. The forest obscured the vista, but a summer hiker could claim wild blueberries as a reward. (We made do with Easter candy.)

Scarborough Brook Hike
Radio & fire tower on Mt. Lincoln

Before returning to the car, we stopped to admire the nesting boxes near the pond. A male and female wood duck rested on the bank—hopefully there will be a clutch of ducklings this spring.

Scarborough Brook Conservation Area
Are you going to Scarborough Brook? Gnarly pine, checkerberry, and climbs.

This was a gentle, quiet start to our year’s adventure. In two rambling hours, we didn’t see another human. This portion would be worth a return—for meadow wildflowers, ferns, and wood ducks.

The author

Little Bit of Blue

It is good to find one’s place. In New York City, for this bird, it was hard to find. Sometimes I found it while walking around the Central Park Reservoir in February, glasses fogged and fingers numb, scanning the water for anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes I found it in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under Diana’s watchful gaze. Sometimes at Jamaica Bay, where glossy ibis mingled with jet liners in the air. But I usually had to leave the city to find it.

Last week, I found that all I need to do now is drive 9 minutes—to this.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
Fitzgerald Lake

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area is a 560-acre swath of wooded wetlands, lake, meadows, and forested uplands in Northampton. The conservation area is managed by the Broad Brook Coalition, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of open space and the promotion of affordable housing in the city—two goals that are often thought to be at odds with one another. I’m glad to see that is not the case here.

The lake itself is manmade, created when Broad Brook was dammed in anticipation of a housing development in 1965. Conservation restrictions eventually led this project to be abandoned, and the landowner, Harold Fitzgerald, sold the lake and surrounding land to the city 12 years later.

There are a couple of entrances, the closest being just beyond a shopping center that we frequent for pet supplies, but I decided to explore that route another day. Instead, I took the entrance on North Farms Road, which featured an accessible paved trail winding through the woodlands and—most appealing to me—close proximity to a boardwalk. As I made my way through the woods, American goldfinch (probably fledglings begging to be fed, judging by the cacophony), eastern wood-pewee, and a couple of rather insistent mosquitoes provided a fitting late-summer soundtrack.

Elizabeth makes fun of me all the time for my love of boardwalks (bonus points if they go through wetlands), but there is just something about hearing my hollow footsteps over the water that puts my mind at ease. And, what’s more, they provide excellent vantage points for birding, which leads me the reason for my visit: a little blue heron.

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

These small waders are not uncommon in my hometown on Long Island during the summer months, but I had not seen one yet this year due to our move. I was actually surprised to learn how rare they are in Western Massachusetts; according to eBird, this is the first one sighted west of Boston all year. Adult little blue herons are quite striking creatures, with light blue beaks, purple or even maroon heads, and deep slate-blue bodies. The Fitzgerald Lake bird, however, is a juvenile and blue in name only.

Little Blue Heron and Mallard
Size comparison with a mallard

Although they have similar plumage, juvenile little blue herons can be distinguished from snowy egrets by their greenish-yellow legs (versus the snowy’s black-with-yellow-socks), pale beaks tipped with black, and their more sedentary style of fishing. Compared to snowy egrets, whom you might see dashing about in the shallow water as they chase fish, little blue herons take a watch-and-wait approach and only strike when necessary. As a similarly methodical creature, I admire and appreciate their patience.

Little Blue Heron
Seeing double

After getting my fill, I continued my walk along the shoreline, following the white- and blue-blazed trails until I reached a point marked “The Narrows” on my map. The lake was perfectly still, save for some wood ducks paddling on the opposite shore and a stray swallow swooping after insects. And even though I could still hear the fairgrounds in the distance, when I looked across the lake it felt like I was the only human around for miles. Yes, I think this is the place.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
The Narrows

Nesting Seabirds at Nickerson Beach

Growing up on Long Island, with the Sound almost at our doorstep and the Atlantic Ocean just a 30-minute drive away, you would think that I would be better at shorebirds and seabirds than I am. Unfortunately, my propensity to wilt in the face of heat and humidity, coupled with my general aversion to the beach when it’s not cold enough to require long underwear, has made the opposite true. Now that I’m landlocked, though, I find myself longing for the ocean and the birds that make their homes upon its shores.

Common Tern
Adult common tern (Sterna hirundo)

Common terns are listed as threatened in New York State, after having been almost extirpated in the late 19th century by a lethal combination of the millinery trade—their feathers were quite stylish on ladies’ hats—and, later, habitat loss and degradation. They have made a comeback thanks to protections afforded by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other conservation regulations, but they and other shore-nesting birds still inhabit a precarious place on our beaches.

Common Tern
Possible nest…with bonus tampon applicator

These “sea swallows” are abundant on Long Island during the summer and can be found nesting all along the south shore. One colony that seems to be a magnet for bird photographers is located on Nickerson Beach, a popular county beach on the Long Beach barrier island. I was visiting my family this weekend, and it didn’t take much convincing to get my sister to join me on my first visit to the famed tern colony.

Early morning at Nickerson
Morning at Nickerson Beach

We arrived early at 7:30 am in order to bypass the steep parking fees—$35!—that the county charges non–Leisure Pass holders. As we made our way down to the beach, we crossed paths with a phalanx of photographers on their way back to the parking lot, well sated from a morning spent snapping baby birds in the dawn light. The sand was surprisingly cool, the sun bright but not oppressive, and the air was filled with the kips and kee-arrrrs of terns. And when the wind changed direction, it smelled exactly like you might expect a tern colony to smell.

Terns typically lay their eggs from late May through June, with incubation taking around 3-4 weeks and first fledge happening about 28 days after hatching. The colony was filled with fledglings begging for food from their parents, their red mouths gaping and ready for some sweet, delicious sandlance.

Common Tern
Common Terns
Strutting around with its breakfast
Common Tern fledgling
Scarfing down some delicious sandlance

Although most of the terns that we saw were annoying fish-grubbing teenagers (I say this with love), we were delighted to catch glimpses of some hatchlings as well. Even if the temperatures weren’t already heating up at this point, I think one look at these tiny fuzzballs would be enough to melt even the stoniest person’s heart.

Common Tern

Terns are semi-precocial, meaning that even though they are mobile, covered in down, and able to see as soon as they hatch, they remain close to their nests and dependent on their parents for food until fledging. Their down was sandy brown and speckled with black, perfect for camouflaging themselves in the sand as they hide from predators, and their bellies were creamy white. Their little pink beaks were tipped with black. They were…ridiculously adorable.

Common Tern
This little fuzz hid behind vegetation until its parent came back with food in beak…
Common Terns
…at which point it was safe enough to trundle forward

In addition to hosting this most photogenic tern colony, the beach is also home to innumerable American oystercatcher families with their adorably gawky young, protected piping plovers (which we did not see, sadly), and one of the largest colonies of black skimmers in New York State.

Baby American Oystercatchers
Oodles and oodles of American oystercatcher noodles—er, legs
Black Skimmer
Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) with its distinctive underbite

According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the Nickerson colony averages around 150 to 200 mating pairs of skimmers every year. No young appear to have hatched when we visited, but those little fuzzballs should be begging for food by the end of July or beginning of August. Nevertheless, I was just as happy to see the adult birds loafing on the beach, resting flat on their bellies farther back in the dunes among the vegetation, and skimming for fish in the surf.

Black Skimmer Colony
Skimmers tend to choose nesting ground with more protective vegetation than do terns

We capped off the morning by watching a young oystercatcher explore the receding waves with its parent. As they gingerly made their way down the shore, the adult oystercatcher patiently nudged food toward its offspring’s little beak—and my heart melted again. Awwwwww, indeed.

American Oystercatchers
Banded American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) and chick


January saw us stalking rare geese on Long Island and making grand resolutions to bird more, write more, and generally make better use of this blog. But seven months have passed, with nary a peep.


Perhaps this was not surprising, but what happened? Well, instead of spending my spring brushing up on sparrows, memorizing songs and chip notes, and chasing warblers, I was instead consumed by planning our own migration from New York City to Western Massachusetts. It involved far more boxes than birds. (And I could have bought a very nice scope with what we ended up spending on the move.) New jobs are good things, but missing out on spring migration made it bittersweet.

Now that we are mostly settled in our new home in the Pioneer Valley, we are beginning to get a better sense of our natural surroundings. One definite benefit of living here—and, indeed, one of reasons we moved—is that it is so much easier to get out in nature. Not that the city didn’t have good birding or opportunities for urban naturalists, because they were actually plentiful; it just required a lot more effort and planning on our part to take advantage of it. Weekend birding trips no longer involve a 2-hour round-trip subway ride or just as long spent idling in traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway; instead, breeding cerulean and worm-eating warblers are just a 10-minute drive—and one mountain—away. (Not that I’ve seen a cerulean…yet.) We’ve exchanged skyscrapers, pocket parks, barrier islands, and salt marshes for undisturbed woodlands, rolling farmland, mountains and ridges with sweeping vistas, and peat bogs filled with wild orchids.

There so much to explore. Sometimes, I don’t even know where to start—but start we must.

Pink Feet and Red Heads

The pink-footed goose is a compact goose with grey-brown plumage, a short pink beak, and as the name might imply, pink feet. Their breeding territory is far to the north in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, and they generally winter in northwestern Europe—Ireland, the UK, Denmark. Sometimes, though, they get a little discombobulated on their way south and end up in the Long Island suburbs. Such has been the case with Valley Stream’s seemingly resident pinkfoot, who has been quite happy to paddle Hendrickson Park’s man-made pond for the past two months.

By the time December rolled in, it seemed like every birder in the New York metropolitan area has seen it…except for me, of course. So over the holiday break I decided to drag my family out on a wild goose chase.

“Where are we going?” they asked.

“To Valley Stream! To a town park! It’s gonna be great!” I said excitedly.

“What. Why?” They were dubious. The North Shore/South Shore divide is alive and well on Long Island.

“There’s a goose! It has pink feet! It’s very lost, and I swear it will be worth it!”

So kudos to my mom, girlfriend, and sister for hearing the above and gamely piling into the car to drive 40 minutes to a tiny Canada goose–encrusted town park. We parked in a municipal lot, trekked through the residential neighborhood dotted with plastic nativity scenes and inflatable Santas, and immediately started scanning the lake for anything out of the ordinary in the flocks of Canada geese.

And there were a lot of Canadas. A conservative count brought me to at least 500, at which point I gave up trying to do a complete tally. Scattered among the geese were a good number of mallards, a couple of hooded mergansers, one stalking great blue heron, and then…something smaller. Something with a brown head, grayish coverts, and a pair of pink feet looming just below the surface of the water.

Pink-footed Goose
Which of these things is not like the other?

We waited around for it to raise its head and flash its beak, all the while being careful not to get too close. Eventually a public safety officer accomplished that for us, zooming by and flushing the flock to the other side of the lake—but not before I snapped a shot. What a perturbed little face and stubby little bill! That’s one cute goose. Thanks, officer.

Pink-footed Goose
Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Satisfied with our photos, we made one more stop to the north of the lake, as I’d heard there had been a red-headed woodpecker in that area. Red-headed woodpecker populations have been in decline over the past few decades, primarily due to habitat loss and competition with invasives like the European starling, and they are considered species of Special Concern in New York State. Although a handful of individuals turn up each year on Long Island and in the city, I’d never been lucky enough to see one. Would we continue our winning streak today?

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

After a couple of minutes craning our necks, my sister spied a medium-sized woodpecker industriously caching its acorns in a snag above us. There it was. The red-headed woodpecker actually is one of the few woodpeckers in the world known to hoard its food, and I was excited to see this charismatic bird engaged in one of its characteristic behaviors.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Chomp, chomp, crunch.

The late-afternoon sun was working against us, but you can see the bright red feathers just starting to come in on its head. Hopefully it sticks around long enough for us to see it transition into full adult plumage!

New Year, New Birds

My first bird of the new year was a blue jay, hunkered down on a fence post in my parents’ backyard. Common, but every bird is a new bird on January 1! And this was a particularly cheering dab of color to spy out my bedroom window. Later that day, we made a winter waterfowl pilgrimage around the neighborhood: canvasbacks and redheads at Centerport Pond, bald-headed American wigeons at Mill Pond, then laughing long-tailed ducks and scurrying sanderlings along Eatons Neck as the sun set. I can’t not start the year with birds.

Shadow play
Shadow play on Hobart Beach

This past year was a hard one, and I hope that 2017 brings some more color to my life. If it comes in the form of warblers and woodpeckers, I’ll take it.

I saw 167 species in 2016 (down 3 from the previous year), 37 of which were new to me. I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but I thought I would try some birding ones this year. Here’s a spoiler: It all boils down to bird more. So in no particular order…

Bird more regularly throughout the year. My birding tends to follow a rather predictable and unfortunate trajectory: regular outings in the winter; a frenzied peak during spring migration; a fallow period in the summer where I wilt and whine in the heat and sunlight; an autumn spent wishing I had more free weekends to spend both hiking and staring at brownish yellow warblers; and then finally slow uptick come November, with regular birding once again over the holidays. Fix this.

Bird more with other people. Not just with Elizabeth and my family, but also other members of the birding community. I’m a shy, pretty solitary person by nature, but I’d like to get to know more birders in my area. This is hard, but the internet helps! Just this past November I went on a walk with the Feminist Bird Club, a fledgling group in my city that aims to get more women outdoors and spark a broader conversation about women’s rights. It was such a nice change to go bird with women my own age, and I want to do more of that. Part of this will probably boil down to simply being more friendly and open in the field. (Eep!)

…But also: Bird more by myself. And don’t let other people’s lack of interest determine whether or not I go out in the morning. Some of my most productive, satisfying mornings have been spent by myself in the woods, binoculars in hand.

Get my year list closer to 200. Thirty-seven lifers is nice, but the majority of those were thanks to a trip to England and some lunchtime birding while at a conference in Phoenix. There are so many regular species in my area that I failed to see this past year, and there’s no reason for that! I’m not a competitive lister by any means (uh, obviously…also, I work full time), but I find that simply trying to build my year list encourages me to go out and explore more varied habitats, leading to more satisfying birding overall.

Make headway in my ornithology course. As a Christmas gift, my parents paid for my enrolling in the Cornell Lab’s ornithology home study course, which I’ve been wanting to take for years. I’m excited to develop a deeper understanding of the biology of these creatures I obsessively watch. (And to close some gaps in my education. As an English major, I spent my college years up to my neck in literature and took not one biology or environmental science course. Oy.)

See a cerulean warbler. Please.

New Years Sunset
Sunset on New Years Day

Let’s get started.


Winter is Sarah’s favorite time for walks on the beach. From November to March, she is a faithful pilgrim to Long Island’s shores. While she gazes at the sea, undaunted by the bitter winter wind, I (an inland creature), often scout out a nice sheltered rock or dune. This is how, on Black Friday, I found myself wandering the dunes, busy with the unlikely and decidedly uncommercial task of gathering bayberries for candlewax.


Also known as candleberries and wax myrtle, northern bayberries grow on the dry hillsides, dunes, and abandoned farms of the northeastern coastland. The grey-blue berries ripen in September, but cling to the bushes throughout harsh northern winters. They are rimed in a waxy coating that was used in colonial times to make candles. While refining bayberry wax was an arduous process, the resulting tapers were more economical than beeswax and finer than smoky, smelly tallow. They were traditionally burned on Christmas or New Year’s Eve for luck, as in the rhyme “a bayberry candle burned down to the socket will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket.”

With help, I gathered a scant pound of berries, leaving fruit for other foragers. Today the principal foragers of bayberries are yellow-rumped warblers, whose unusual ability to digest lipids in the berries’ coating allows them to overwinter where others of their genus cannot. Indeed, the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler is known as the myrtle warbler, after its reliance on the fruit.

Northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)

Of fruits & labor

As described by capable DIY bloggers, the process of refining the wax seemed simple. First, the berries are boiled in a few inches of water, until the waxy coating has melted and risen to the surface. Then, cooling wax is skimmed off the top. Once hardened, the wax can be re-melted and strained to remove impurities.

Spurred by romantic notions of perfuming my kitchen with their balmy fragrance, I eagerly boiled my berries.

After 15 minutes, the resulting brew was the color of bog water and smelled of briny oregano. The wax burst from tiny bubbles, then bloomed on the surface of the water like algae.

Bayberry brew
Bayberry brew

I was able to remove a brittle saucer of wax, littered with seeds and stems and mottled with purple berry juice from a too-long steep.

Unfiltered bayberry wax
Unfiltered bayberry wax

After re-boiling, re-melting, and straining through cheesecloth, I produced a far more attractive wax and then, finally, three misty green tea lights.

Bayberry votives
Far Left: pure bayberry, poured after partially cooling; Top: bayberry & paraffin, inexpertly blended; Far Right: nailed it!

After working hours for my small candles, it is easy to understand why this practice has been all but abandoned. But my yield was greater than a few ounces of wax. Now I know the bright scent of fresh-picked berries on my hands, their deep herbal tang when boiled, and the woodsy aroma of their smoke.

We plan to burn one down to the socket this Christmas.


Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to help lead a bird walk in Central Park with Elizabeth. Our charges: ten high school students participating in an environmental science mentorship program run by her work. These were 15 year olds from the Bronx, for the most part, and all but one had never been birding before. And we were asking them to get up early on a Saturday. Gulp.

This was my first time on the “other side” of a bird walk, and the prospect of doing so with teenagers was slightly daunting. Luckily, my responsibility was mainly to point out the birds while Elizabeth focused on the teenager wrangling and flexed her environmental education muscles.

We chose late April for our walk with the hopes that the birds would be easier to spot before the trees had fully leafed out, but I neglected to take into account the inevitable warbler-thirst that I would be feeling at that point. On the eve of May, the first big push of migrants had yet to arrive, and I had to do everything in my power to conceal my frustration over all the migrants we just weren’t seeing. A rare Swainson’s warbler (!!!) had drawn throngs to the park only two days prior, but after three hours spent combing the Ramble, we were only able to pick up a small handful of warblers: yellow, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and ovenbird. Or, as our charges viewed them: tiny, fast-moving blobs of color obscured by foliage. It’s hard to be impressed by that.

But that was OK, because these urban teens were instead entranced by blue jays and in awe of the fearlessness of robins. They admired the flashy epaulets of a singing red-winged blackbird and quickly learned to recognize northern cardinals by their sci-fi blaster calls. And one girl seemed to fall in love with grackles, reminding me that, as a kid, I too once marveled at their iridescent, oil-slick plumage. (I should remember to do that more often.)

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

It’s easy to ignore the common birds when you’re looking for that singing Blackburnian warbler high in the canopy, but why should that be the case? What better birds to get a kid interested in nature than the ones that they could feasibly see in their neighborhood park—not just during the month of May, but year round?

By the end of the walk, I found myself with a newfound admiration for trip leaders. To be able to tailor your walks to diverse audiences, manage expectations (yours included), stoke curiosity, and find the damn birds is no mean feat for a single person—and there were two of us!

Birding is hard and requires sometimes preternatural patience, observation, and focus, but our students did an admirable job; in fact, I think they demonstrated a whole lot more patience than I did. I have no idea if any of them will pick up binoculars again, and I’m not going to pretend that we christened a new generation of young birders. (But…maybe one or two? I hope so.)