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.

8 thoughts on “Misadventures in Birding

  1. Carole Sevilla Brown says:

    OMG! My heart is just pounding at the thoughts of my scope ending up in frigid salt water! I had to go hug mine, just because. LOL

    So glad you met the guy with the net. How amazing is that!!!!

    But 6 life birds. Whoooo Hoooo 🙂

    Glad you had a great day. Next time you’re up in this neck of the woods, let me know. I’ll show you my favorite birding spots in Cape May.

  2. Liddle-Oldman says:

    Ages past, I was on the editorial board of my college literary magazine (“Loam”). One of the other editors brought in a photo he’d taken with a borrowed camera, trying for an arty self-portrait. He’d propped his friend’s insanely expensive SLR on a short tripod on his sink, and just as he clilcked the remote plunger — the camera headed for the tile floor. He’d caught it, but he’d captured the most honest look of pure horror I’d ever seen.

    I imagine your friend looked about the same. (Yay for nets!)

  3. bob says:

    Once it’s more towards spring or even well into fall, our bird selection gets better. From Reeds Beach to East Point on Rt 47 there are quite a few birding spots.

  4. Samantha Kimball says:

    Now if you had said Artic skua at first, I would have immediately known that you were talking about the bird that Anthony LaPaglia voiced in Happy Feet. 🙂 congrats on the life birds.

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