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.

Bayberrying

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.

Bayberries

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.

bayberry
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.

Escalloped

I grew up in a sea of corn and soy, some 800 miles from the ocean. Like many Midwesterners, my acquaintance with marine life was limited to the pale, flash-frozen creatures unfortunate enough to end up on my plate.

This was a surprisingly frequent occurrence. My mom worked in the seafood department of a local grocery store. She was an expert lobster-bander and fish-filleter, and often came home smelling of brine. One of my favorite childhood dinners were her scallops, breaded and fried in butter.

It’s easy to forget in a place like Queens, but now I live on an island in the sea. Today Sarah and I drove east to Point Lookout. I saw a harlequin duck diving in the surf of a jetty. I saw a long-tailed duck, its plumage swept in a cat-eye curl. But my favorite discovery were the shells. A clear winter’s day as the tide is going out may be the perfect time to spy them.

I took a picture of my favorites. They were deep slate and heavily ribbed. And they were—as I later discovered—bay scallops. Or, more properly, the exoskeletons of bay scallops, whose sturdy little adductor muscles I so enjoyed drenched in butter.

scallops
Bay scallop (Argopecten irradians)

To my surprise, the bay scallop is a fascinating animal. Their shells are variably colored, ranging from grey to red, yellow, and purple. Their bodies are ringed in dozens of bright blue eyes, their visage something like a nautical Wheel of Galgallin. They see movement and shadow, and unlike most mollusks, can swim in quick bursts to escape predators. To swim, a scallop rhythmically contracts its adductor muscle, opening its shell and expelling a jet of water to propel itself forward.  (This activity accounts for the fact that their muscles are meatier than that of oysters and clams.)

Because a frightened scallop is capable of jetting ten feet away, prime scalloping season is in the active mollusk’s period of winter dormancy. Indeed, for over 100 years scalloping was the main economic activity of many Long Island towns during the winter off-season.

Since 1985, the rise of brown tides has caused a sharp declination in the bay scallop population. These algal blooms destroy the eelgrass meadows that shelter developing scallops from tides and predation. From 1986 to 2008, the average yearly landing of scallops has dropped from an average of 62,400 bushels to only 3,500. The CCE Eelgrass Program is working now to restore eelgrass habitat to Long Island and to protect related species like the scallop. Here’s what you can do.

It’s funny to think there’s so much history resting on one little half-shell.

The Family Moldstead

On summer weekends, it is not the beach that calls to me, but the woods—lovely, dark, deep, and far from the noise and congestion of Long Island. And so, earlier this month, I went as I often do to the woods of Northwestern Connecticut, where my family has a summer house. The house is part of what was once a bustling Methodist camp meeting ground in the 1800s; eventually tents gave way to about 60 small cottages in the Victorian painted lady style arranged in a double circle around a grove of towering cathedral pines. Fervent believers were replaced by summerfolk escaping the city, but there is still a chapel in the center of the grove, and the bells still ring at 11 o’clock every Sunday.

My father’s family started spending summers here in the 1950s, first in a cottage in the inner circle of the grove, and later on a sometimes forgotten spur heading deeper into the woods. That’s our cottage, the Needle Edge. Perched precariously on top of a rocky foundation, it has no insulation and only an ancient propane heater to heat its century-old bones; it is rustic in all senses of the world.  Even in high summer, when the air is heavy with mosquitoes and approaching storms, it is a good 10 degrees colder (and damper) inside than out. The sharp smell of mildew (care of a pine tree that fell through the roof during a storm some 20 years ago) hits you as soon as you walk into the kitchen from the back porch, and then the chill starts to seep into your bones. We call it the family moldstead, and still I love it.

When not out exploring the back roads and cobbles of the Berkshires, I sit on the porch, sometimes with a book and sometimes without. I note the singers in our summer chorus: veery, hermit, and wood thrush; eastern phoebe and wood-pewee; an insistent ovenbird; the drum of a red-bellied woodpecker and the whir of a thirsty ruby-throated hummingbird.

I like to watch the hummingbirds do battle over the sugar water we put out for them. We’ve never managed to attract hummers at my parents’ house, but here they never fail to come within 5 minutes of filling the feeders. For a while I found this perplexing; here we are in the deep woods, with nary a blossom to be seen, and yet the minute we put the feeders out we hear the familiar burry buzz of wings! But of course they wouldn’t subsist solely on flower nectar; the woods around us readily provide a smorgasbord of tree sap and mosquitoes. They do just fine without us.

At night in bed, I hear the descending, trilling whinny of eastern screech owls and the who-cooks-for-yoooou from a barred owl. And the neverending chorus of frogs. Years ago there were coyotes, but we haven’t heard them since I was a kid—and no, I don’t mind that at all. It’s pitch black outside, and there are no streetlights by our cottage. A coyote would not be on the list of things that I’d want to encounter while walking my dog at night.