Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ed's Count

Here is another special entry straight from Frank Gallo, Director of the Coastal Center at Milford Point.

Ed’s Count
By Frank Gallo

It’s six a.m., and Ed Shove is here to do a bird count. Before him stretches New Haven’s Quinnipiac Marsh, his count area for far longer than he can remember. He walks quietly along the railroad trestle at first light. There is no need to come earlier, the owls will still be there, or will they? A mega movie cinema now replaces his best owling area. There have been changes, deemed “progress” over the years. He wonders if the owls see it that way: Behind him, the Middletown Avenue Landfill stands in silent silhouette against the morning sky, a reminder of human presence and our affect upon the land. He moves on with a purpose.

Across the marsh, Christmas lights from the houses along State Street twinkle in the clear morning air. It is a week until Christmas. He checks his thermometer. It is 5ºF.

It is the day for members of the New Haven Bird Club to participate in the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. There should be 45 or 50 species to reward him for his days work. What will he find this year? There is not much still open water, so ducks should be in the river, if the hunters have not pushed them out. As he walks, he listens and looks for the sounds of his quarry. The marsh is a harsh environment in winter. If you are a small bird or mammal, it is wise not to remain in the open. The wind is cruel, and the hawks are hungry. To his right, a Northern Cardinal calls. He marks it down. There are always the regulars: flickers, crows, starlings and titmice are all here. Perhaps there will be a Golden-crowned Kinglet or a Hairy Woodpecker this year. Along the tracks, Northern Cardinals, White-throated Sparrows, Black-capped chickadees, Northern Juncos, Tree and Song Sparrows all feed. There will be other, less common birds, such as the occasional Swamp Sparrow, Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks or perhaps a Brown Creeper. Then, there are always a few “good birds”, like the Blue-winged Teals in 1979 and 80 or the Boreal Chickadees in 1977 and 1983. Maybe there will be another American Bittern like last year. They are out here; they’re just so hard to find.

A startled Great Blue Heron flushes from a hidden river channel with a loud squawk; two steps later, a Black-crowned Night-Heron does the same. Both are uncommon birds for this time of year. A startled birder records them in his notebook. Further down the line a female pheasant rushes across the tracks and disappears instantly into the grass. Like the bittern, they are a difficult bird to find. There was only one here last year. A flock of 7 Pine Siskins and 2 Common Redpolls alight in a nearby tree. It looks as if it may be a good “winter finch” year. A Northern Mockingbird jumps up to eye him from the top of a nearby rose bush, and two American Goldfinches pass overhead uttering their “Po-ta-to-chip” call. He writes them down, checks his watch and thermometer and moves on. It is 8:30 a.m. The temperature has reached 15 degrees.

He follows the tracks deeper into the marsh. The tracks offer an unobstructed view of the marsh, but no respite from the wind, which blows now from the north. All he can do is hike up his collar and press on. People are counting on him to find Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Saw-whet Owls. There is usually a couple of each wintering in the marsh. Looking up, he sees the familiar shape of a Red-tailed Hawk soaring over the dump. Beneath it, a Northern Harrier glides effortlessly on raised wings hunting along a mosquito ditch. Another large hawk quarters the marsh in the distance, but he can’t quite make it out. It begins to hover in place. It is a light-phase Rough-legged Hawk. As it nears, he can see its white rump and dark belly. That’s one. Perhaps the dark-phased bird seen last year has also returned.

Before the day is through, he will return to the dump to count the many gulls. Maybe a Glaucous or Iceland Gull, rare winter visitors from the north, will be present to reward him for his work. Below the Middletown Avenue Bridge, there should be Canvasbacks, Black Ducks, and Common Goledneyes, and with luck a Hooded Merganser or Pied-billed Grebe. If he has time, he’ll check the bushes and marsh below the bridge for songbirds before checking the cedars off Sacchet Point Road for Saw-whets. The Eastern Meadowlarks that were near the bridge in late October may still be around.

A Killdeer calls from somewhere to his left. Searching, he sees a kingfisher plunge into the river and come up with a small fish. So far, it has been a good day. He writes them in his notebook, checks his watch and thermometer and moves on.

In the distance, he hears gunshots; he’ll have to hurry. A flock of 10 Canada geese come hurtling down the river away from the sound followed by a group of Mallards and Black Ducks. Wait; is there a smaller duck with them? He raises his binoculars. Yes, the smaller bird is a green-winged teal, a “good bird” for the marsh. It’s the first since 1982.

He hurries on. His luck may not last forever. Another gust of wind greets him as he rounds the bend. He can see the river and there are still ducks on the water. His eyes water as he tries to make them out. Ah, if it were only spring. The rails and bitterns would be back. He could watch the Least Terns in comfort as they flew up and down the river to feed, or spend leisurely hours pouring through the flocks of shorebirds that frequent the marsh pools and riverbanks. There is no use lamenting his lot. It is not his way, and in truth he loves all this. Spring will arrive in due course. For now, people are counting on him, and he has ducks to count.

His name is Ed Shove, and he is here to do a bird count.

Dedicated to the Memory of Ed Shove, the first Lighthouse Point Park hawk compiler, a consummate naturalist and my friend. He saw more than most…

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