Ruth Bass: Bird walks with experts are the best
RICHMOND -- Our lawn mower used to attract barn swallows in swarms. They would swoop over the tractor, barely missing the driver, while they harvested the insects the machine stirred up in the grass.
We haven't seen them at our house in years. But the memory of their skilled maneuvers popped up Mother's Day weekend during a bird walk at Tod's Point in Connecticut, where we watched barn swallows skim over the beach and the water's edge. We saw no barns there for their nests, but birds tend to find a way.
We were on a guided tour and aware once more what fun it is to go with experts who know birds so well that they can identify them even with just a fleeting glimpse. Only a few birders showed up for this trip because it was raining at sunrise and still sprinkling a bit as we gathered near the beach. Minutes later, the sun was out, the birds were in full tweet, and the tramp began.
New Jersey's Cape May is famous for the numbers of warblers that migrate through that small town this month, and some had already made their way north to Tod's Point, with more expected soon. The bright, unmistakable yellow warblers were flitting around all over the place, and we also saw redstarts, a northern parula and the black-throated blue warbler.
But the most beautiful bird of the day was not rare. The Baltimore oriole kept perching high in pink flowering trees, his bright orange flashy in the sun. We saw him and his female partner -- or, more probably, several couples -- at nearly every turn. And on a little spar called Sand Island, where fishermen wearing waders were looking for bass, we saw a favorite -- a pair of American oystercatchers, their thick red-orange beaks ready to crack oyster, clam and mussel shells.
Any time we semi-amateurs are near a beach, we are more than grateful to have an expert at hand. So we knew, because the guides said so, that we were seeing the greater yellow legs, not the lesser yellow legs, and that the scurrying sandpipers were least, not Baird's, not white-rumped or whatever.
We had no problem with the flicker. His sharp beak and part of his head were sticking out of a hole on the remains of a dead tree. And the purple martins, which nest in bird apartment houses, were gathered in force at a grouping of artsy, gourd-shaped globes.
Tod's Point looks quite different this year. The beach is visible from the park road because Hurricane Sandy ripped out the trees and brush that once helped keep sand in place. But the birds are definitely back, apparently still finding habitat they like.
Our guides pointed out white-throated sparrows and brants (easily mistaken for a Canada goose), both of which are about to abandon their winter home in the park and go north, just as the exquisite great and snowy egrets arrive from the south. It is always amazing to look up a bird and find out that its endurance for distance would wear out most humans.
Our hummingbirds, for instance, stoke up in late August and take off for Central America. They refuel along the way, but do some 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight, their tiny wings doing 80 beats a second. (Try that: See how many times you can flap your arms in a second.) No wonder they're hungry when they get back here.
An even more impressive Berkshire traveler is apparently the black-billed cuckoo, who sings on the hill behind our house and has recently arrived from its winter home in South America. A Cornell University website indicates that it comes overland, through all of Central America and eventually to Lenox Mountain. All without an external GPS.
Ruth Bass watches birds in Richmond.
Her website is www.ruthbass.com.