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Could That Be ... A Greater Shearwater?
by Allan Appel | Nov 1, 2012 2:18 pm
Posted to: Superstorm Sandy
Birds, too, clear out before an onrushing storm. And just like humans, birds are reluctant evacuees when asked by firefighters and police to leave their nests.
That’s how ornithology expert Mark Aronson explained it to me as we drove the streets of New Haven before and after Superstorm Sandy.
Aronson was helping me with the evacuation of my Front Street condo—and then taking us on a detour.
Our aim, or rather his: to spot the rare Sooty Tern or Leach’s Tern that might have been buffeted in from its far away home on the sea or knocked off course along the migration routes south.
Yes, he was helping me defend my riverine condo against the storm. Yes, he housed me at his place in East Rock for the night and brewed up some powerful Bolivian coffee in the morning. Yes, he chauffeured me about town.
Far be it from me to question such generosity.
Yet there was no mistaking an avian agenda, and perhaps a deeper purpose. As we drove in his 2004 metallic grey Honda Civic, with binoculars on the back seat, spotting scope in the trunk, and iPhone on which he regularly checked birding sites, his eye was always on the lookout for bodies of water throughout the city where the rare sea bird might alight.
Monday high tide came in and water rose over the boardwalk at Oyster Cove. Aronson helped lift some furniture off the floor of the living room and then scanned the makeshift barrier on the back porch.
Just Vultures and Hawks
Not much more could be done, but there was still plenty of time to look for birds. He was wearing long wading boots and stepped down toward the inundated dock. He scanned the choppy waters of the Quinnipiac for a minute.
I’ve learned not to ask, “Do you see anything?” He calls it out if a bird is sighted.
In this instance, silence.
As the storm neared and gathered force, Aronson was out again.
As he backed the car out of his garage heading for Lake Whitney on the New Haven-Hamden border, he looked up to the sky. A bird with sizable wing span was cruising on the winds in the northwest.
“There’s a Red-tailed Hawk,” he said.
I thought it might be a Turkey Vulture. Actually I think everything might be a Turkey Vulture, and I said so.
“No, turkey vultures are going down,” he said. Most of them migrate to warmer southern climes for the winter.
Aronson was eager to go. We headed north to the first destination, the large Lake Whitney reservoir.
The avenue had several downed trees marked by yellow police tape and lots of fallen branches. He drove around them, no problem at all.
At a church on Whitney and Linden, a Honda had hunkered down under the wrong limb of a pine tree. Aronson looked toward the sky and said, “peregrine falcon.”
I looked up into the beautiful grey and pink gathering clouds, but didn’t see a thing. That is often the case with me, but Aronson has trained his eye to be able to identify birds at great distance by what birders call their GISS. That stands for general impression, size, and shape.
In any event, such birds, relatively common to our area, were not what he was hoping for. A storm like Sandy offers rich challenges to birdwatchers’ expertise: Local birds might have gotten away and been blown back. Or birds from remote territories become reluctant arrivistes, and they’re all mixed up. Aronson’s style suggested a mysterious, Delphic pursuit: Appel, you occasional birding hobbyist, you’ll know what you need to know when the time comes. Shut up, please, and look for birds.
The surface of Lake Whitney viewed from the road was choppy beneath Sandy’s winds, but didn’t reveal any hopeful signs. Except for what’s blown in, many local birds that might normally be seen perching instead hunkered down at the base of bushes to hide from the increasing winds, Aronson said.
We took a left onto Waite Street and headed for the two ponds between Whitney and Dixwell, also part of the reservoir system, to the north. The wind was picking up, blowing leaves and some sizable branches across the road.
Aronson slowed the car down, curved left, and then right around the obstruction. No problem. This was the vehicular equivalent of walking through the forest, I gathered.
At these lakes, nothing unusual was visible except a stop sign over one of the small bridges that had been turned upside so it read: P-O-T-S.
We headed back out towards Oyster Cove on the Quinnipiac to take one last look at my condo before the expected climax of the storm. As we headed east, several police lights were visible flashing at the Hartford Turnpike, where they blocked the road where some trees had fallen.
I got the impression Aronson wanted to turn in here for a better and perhaps final check of Lake Whitney’s surface for birds. This after all might be a landing zone for the terns or petrels or others birds used to the sea.
The police presence was a kind of deterrence. “Cops have such an unhealthy relationship to bird watchers,” Aronson said.
As we approached Fair Haven along Lombard, another police car blocked the right turn onto Front Street at the river. Aronson turned right, then left, around some fallen branches that made Pine Street a third of its size. All the deft turns made me think that we were in relation to the police like sandpipers hopping about the beach playing hide-and-seek with the tide.
We took a right down little Lewis Street,. “Sharp-shinned Hawk,” Aronson called out.
I couldn’t see this one either. A pattern was emerging: I couldn’t see the regular birds, and Aronson wasn’t finding his exotic either.
Inside my condo, we took some time to wedge a dresser against French doors on the second floor to keep them from being flung open by Sandy’s wind. Then before we departed, Aronson waded up to his ankles in the water, scanning the Quinnipiac again. This time he seemed pleased. He called out, “Red-throated Loon.”
Now I was headed to write some stories. Aronson, whose place of business was closed all day, had more bodies of water to check: Long Wharf, then perhaps the harbor sites in West Haven if he could get to them.
He was going to drop me off downtown, but as we were driving west down Chapel, just before the Mill River, at Criscuolo Park (pictured at the top of the story), he put on the brakes.
There in the park, the lawn and soccer field were covered with birds. We parked, and he pulled out his Leica telescope from the trunk. He sprung it open and set up to the right of a tree.
“Canada geese, great black-backed gulls, ring-billed gulls, herring gulls, laughing gulls,” he said.
I’d often seen these birds, but the population on this morning was particularly large.
“Can I get closer to them?”
“They’re urban birds,” he said. I wouldn’t scare them. And I did not. One goose sat there and let me approach long enough so that I might have conducted an interview. Then it took off, with wing beats like heavy sheets flapping in the wind, to join its pals closer to where the harbor’s waters were rising onto the walking path.
That was the last I saw of Aronson until the storm had passed. On Tuesday late afternoon, after the final threatening tide had subsided, I met him as I went to pick up my clothes.
It turned out he’d spent hours poking around the other towns as well as New Haven. The storm didn’t seem to interest him as much as the bird he had identified. It was a Greater Shearwater. He’d seen it in Madison, and at some distance, among others but too far away even with the telescope to make out the behavior.
Still it was an unusual bird. Provided by Sandy.
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