Big Trip, Ch 13, August Assemblage

August Assemblage

For those familiar with a vintage VW Beetle, some may wonder how a six-footer has managed to spend so much time in such a small car. It was not difficult. I had everything I needed in the little car and everything had its place for easy retrieval. I could find the book, the blank piece of paper or envelope, items of clothing, food, first aid, whatever I needed. Everything was there but a place to sleep. That would come very soon.

*****

22-23 August

Last night it rained again. I was tired of the wet ground so I decided to sleep in the car. The last time I did that was at Red Rock Lakes, Montana, to escape the hordes of mosquitoes. This time was no more comfortable. Cramped and aching from a contorted although dry night, I vowed not to do that again. At least not confined to the driver‘s side of the car. I had an idea. After breakfast of four donuts, I headed for the nearest lumberyard. For one dollar I constructed a shelf using two 1 X 12s, positioned them side by side from a wooden bookcase (it held field guides and other books and stationery) sitting on the back seat to the front windshield. Luckily, the heights of the bookcase and bottom of the windshield were the same. The 24-inch wide boards, braced in the front with two smaller boards that extended to the left and right sides of the car’s interior supported one end of the bed to be. Behind the seat two suitcases stood on their hinges, both equal in height to each other and remarkably to the new bed resting on top of the book-case and braces at the front windshield. On the platform, I placed my sleeping bag. From the driver’s seat, I could easily squeeze onto the bed that was about 15 inches below the ceiling of the car. If I felt claustrophobic, I needed only slide the sunroof open slightly and lock it in position. Now I would have a clean, dry and warm, and possibly safer, place to sleep.

Christmas Cove occupied the remainder of the day. What a beautiful place. The body of water must have been a welcome sight when Captain John Smith steered his crippled and nearly sinking ship into Christmas Cove. The present Christmas Cove was full of boats today, boats ranging from dinghies to small sloops. One of these boats tied up at the dock where I stopped belonged to Aaron M. Bagg and his wife, who I had corresponded about the birding trip. At the time, the Baggs lived in Dover, MA, and summered at Christmas Cove. I knew Aaron Bagg only as the editor of the northeastern maritime regional report appearing in Audubon Field Notes, a journal I read from cover to cover for decades. Aaron had taken the Bluenose ferry the day after I had. Apparently, the weather and birding were similar.

The Baggs graciously offered me a bed in their small cottage for the night and extended their hospitality with dinner, evening conversation, and a chance to browse through the extensive ornithological library. After a hearty breakfast, the Baggs and I launched their 15-foot inboard from Christmas Cove to a trip to Damariscotta Island. Laughing Gulls and Common Eiders were everywhere. Three Arctic Terns, their bills blood-red, were new life birds, a species that migrates from Arctic to Antarctic but a bird I missed on earlier Pacific coast trips. Several Greater Shearwaters glided by, probably not noticing our small boat aptly named Shearwater. These magnificent birds sailed so easily over the dead calm. Although the still air might not have been ideal for shearwaters, it allowed hundreds of Monarch butterflies to flutter across the wide expanse of water.

Back on shore, I thanked the Baggs for their kindness and drove about 10 miles to Reid State Park, where Aaron suggested I would begin seeing more shorebirds. Unlike most of the rocky coast of Maine I had so far experienced, the shore was sandy and teeming with shorebirds. The tide was coming in and crowding the birds in tighter and tighter congregations, forcing them to compete for higher ground and throngs of swimmers and sunbathers. The great thing about shorebirding is the birds are out in the open, like sitting ducks. My trusty scope, an incoming tide, and plenty of time to check each individual was a treat. This was what I had read about, dreamed about, and finally was experiencing.

Reid State Park’s almost 800 acres offered sandy beaches along the shore of the ocean and at the mouth of the Little River. Luckily, I arrived with the incoming tide. That is usually the best time as the incoming water concentrates foraging shorebirds into smaller and smaller habitat, and, of course, closer and closer to an anxious birder. This was my best shorebirding thus far. This was why I was in Maine in August.

There were more Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers than I had ever seen, and they were in a feeding frenzy. Also scurrying about were flocks of surf dodging Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and spotless Spotted Sandpipers, and two new life birds, a single Knot [= Red Knot] that joined a flock of at least 50 Black-bellied Plovers. I recounted the shorebirds an hour later and discovered that the number of plovers did not change but 85% of the Semipalmated Sandpipers had disappeared. Perhaps the migratory flock departed southward, or found a nearby foraging area away from the numerous people who were competing for the sand.

*****

During my early years in Oregon, shorebirding was limited to interior migrants. I just never made it to the best Oregon coastal shorebird locations. Maine was shorebird heaven. For many years, including this trip, I used a 20 X 50 scope mounted on a rifle stock complete with leather sling. Some other birders at that time had similar setups. Birding magazines even advertised rifle stocks fitted for mounting scopes. Ever so, although infrequently, someone, usually a law enforcer would give my scope and me a second look. Through the decades, change especially that brought on by the 9-11 attacks has made carrying and aiming anything that looks like a weapon as a bad idea. In the sixties and later I avoided lugging a scope on a tripod. The quick-draw of my scope took in images of shorebirds, gulls, hawks, and others. Decades after the sixties, the steadiness provided by a tripod outweighs any shakiness induced from fear of being mistaken for someone aiming a rocket launcher.

*****

24-27 August

It was late so I spent the night in Reid State Park. The next day I worked on getting my notes up to date, cleaning, and organizing the car. Sometimes in the heat of birding, various articles of clothing and papers tossed in the car landed in the wrong places. Keeping organized mean keeping a certain amount of sanity. I also attempted to contact Chris M. Packard. He was highly regarded by Aaron.

The next evening I discovered that there were no places to camp. With permission, I slept in my VW bunk behind a service station in Brunswick. Getting in and out of my bunk was a little tricky but not nearly as difficult as dressing and undressing. My midget mobile home was without drapes that created a risk of someone catching me in my underwear. As far as I know, no one observed me slinking out of my sleeping bag and sliding from the berth and into the driver’s seat. Once extricated, the next step was to get out of the car, move the back of the seat forward and lean into the back to access the freezer chest for a quick breakfast. Some people call what I ate a continental breakfast, but that did not make it any more nutritious. Donuts are donuts, but somehow they were doing the trick.

At Chris Packard’s neighborhood, I finally found that the director of the Maine Audubon Society and Portland Natural History Museum was at Mast Landing, a 160 acre sanctuary in a coniferous forest near Yarmouth. He was conducting an insect survey. Most of the sanctuary is coniferous forest. Volunteers were busy inventorying the year old sanctuary and cataloguing plants and animals of all kinds and surveying for interpretative trails. Chris, as he preferred, took time from the insects to fill me in on recent bird finds in Maine. We discussed the puffins I missed. Chris tantalized me with a list of what I could see in the winter, including such chilling species such as Razor-billed Auks and Great Cormorants.

Chris and his company of volunteers went back to surveying insects, but one fellow begged off and went up one of the newly built trails. He said he wanted to photograph a pinesap, a plant resembling the ivory colored Indian pipe. An unexplored trail seemed more interesting to me than looking for insects. Maybe a new bird would be around the corner. In the meantime, I watched a meticulous photographer hovering over a pinesap. The plant was on the forest floor just off the sunny trail. The deep shade subdued the honey hue color of the plant nestled in the deep shade, but in a moment the forest floor was lit by the bright August sun, which was just enough for a mirror to capture and reflect its rays to the pinesap. After a few quick manipulations of the camera, the shutter began snapping to finish the job. It was then my companion apologized for concentrating so intently on the plant. He explained that a few more minutes and the little spot of sun light would have been gone. He preferred not to use flash and the pinesap color would change with age. The day and the time were perfect. Introductions were in order. This was Harry Chadbourne, whose primary interest was birds.

We wound our way through the aspen and willows to a salt-water marsh. Along one edge, a narrow strip of mud flat bordered a channel. Semipalmated Sandpipers pattered back and forth, pulling what looked like tiny worms from the sticky muck. Nearby we discovered three different looking peeps that stopped us. These were Baird’s Sandpipers. The next day we returned to the mud flat with Chris. The three Baird’s Sandpipers were still there. Maybe they were the same birds. Chris was excited, as they were new for Mast Landing Sanctuary, as was a Sharp-tailed Sparrow. We also found Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper migrants. We found no other shorebirds.

Before the day was complete, Harry, Chris and I traversed through a wet marsh. I told them that whenever I get near water I manage to get wet. About six feet further along, as I trailed just yards from my companions and much to my surprise, or was the prophesy coming true, my right foot kept going down. And down. In seconds, I tilted forward, catching my plunge to the center of the earth with my left leg and hands. Next was a roar of laughter. Chris and Harry just happen to turn as I went down. The tall marsh grass folded over my sinking body and I waved madly as I attempted to right myself. It was funny, even for me. Harry laughed the most. He loved life. Harry offered his home where I could wash the marsh ooze away. On the way, we found a Magnolia Warbler in a tall fir and talked about shorebirds, flowers, hawks I might see at Hawk Mountain, and his favorite subject, birding in Florida, Harry’s dream trip.

During the last four days, Harry and Virginia Chadbourne were my generous hosts. The couple took me into their home, Ginny, as she preferred to be called, fed me, and the two helped me find birds in the area. They showed their genuine love of nature and life. They were wonderful and genuinely encouraging toward my travel goals. Harry’s day job was delivery fuel oil to residents. He liked it because it got him out of doors, which gave him time to look for birds or flowers to photograph. The hard winters and dragging a smelly fuel hose across icy snow was not his favorite activity but he probably saw more Snowy Owls, Snow Bunting and redpolls than most Down Easters.

*****

Identifying species of sharp-tailed sparrows later became a problem. According to the 7th Edition of the AOU Check-list, the two species overlap between Scarborough Marsh near Portland and Popham Beach, just north of Reid State Park. Studies that are more recent show that the zone of overlap of the two species is expanding; the report put the zone from near Rockland to coastal Massachusetts. The zone of overlap probably has changed at this very moment. At any rate, the sparrows seen at the sanctuary could have been either species. In 1962, we were not checking bill lengths, whether the buff color of the face contrasted sharply with the paler underparts, or any of the other subtle differences between what then were only separate subspecies. Many field guides today help distinguish some subspecies, especially ones that are easily identifiable in the field and sometimes those sets of subspecies that may be suspected to actually comprise distinct species. Several years after I completed most of my tour around the U.S., I realized that had a field guide distinguishing subspecies been available, the list of species seen on the trip would be different today. Perhaps I could have identified that sparrow at Mast Landing.

Guides that offer details on identifying subspecies are both good and bad. What field guides describe is what the average subspecies looks like. Having spent decades studying thousands and thousands of specimens, I can attest that the range of individual variation of study skins collected the same month and same geographic region often exceeds the limits illustrated or discussed in even the best field guides. We are talking about birds that are not moving. These are stationary specimens viewed in ideal light and at close range. Weather is not a factor. Mosquitoes are not gnawing at the observer or at least in the museums I have visited. The light is perfect and there is plenty of time for staring at color and pattern. However, there is hope for the field observer as identification techniques and field guides continue to improve.

Sometimes, as much is it is hard to accept, it just is not possible to identify everything within the range of our optics. A harsher way of putting this warning that we cannot identify everything we see is apparent by reading the introductions in Allan R. Phillips two volumes of Known Birds of North and Middle America. Anyone serious about birds should read these introductions and Allan’s memorable comments in the species accounts.

During the winter in early 1963, the Chadbournes once again are my hosts. The Chadbournes and I kept a steady stream of correspondence during my trip. About a year later, the Chadbournes moved to Mast Landing Sanctuary where they were caretakers for five years. Our correspondence continued and one day Ginny wrote that Harry had died unexpectedly. He never made it to Florida. Ginny remains in touch, and I look forward to her letters to this day. The assembly of people I met in Maine made visiting Down East an unforgettable pleasure. Some of them are gone. Chris Packard, a conservations and naturalist, just 12 years older than me, died before I could belatedly thank him again for his expertise. It is never too early to thank those who made life better. Harry, Ginny and Chris, showed me the possibilities, the intrigue, and the fun of studying birds. The assembly of people in Maine and elsewhere, and the assembly of birds they shared helped shape me. Both nourished my zeal that positioned me, luckily, to have a career doing something I love.

*****

28-30 August

Robert Gobeil greeted me at the doorway of his home in Biddeford Pools. He was just two years older than I was. He was enthusiastic about birding and especially excited about shorebirds, possibly more so since he had labored through weeks and weeks as a counselor at a boys camp in comparatively shorebird free Vermont. Robert came highly recommend by Chris and others as a good guide to Biddeford Pools, and the pools were highly recommend by Pettingill as an important stop. The light was going so we talked about the shorebirds we would see tomorrow.

Almost all of our time the next three days was spent shorebirding Scarborough Marsh, Hills Beach, Higgins Beach and the famous mud flats of Biddeford Pools. We made three visits to Biddeford Pools, a tidal bay sheltered by sand dunes and ledges. On an incoming tide, a very important event almost at any shorebirding locale, thousands of birds crowded together by the incoming water to forage on the extensive mud flats. Unfortunately, we arrived at the pools during low tide. Our first visit yielded a smattering of Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, knots, Greater Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstones, altogether 11 species of shorebirds. Highlights for the day were three new trip birds: White-winged and Surf scoters, Roseate Tern, and Mockingbird [= Northern Mockingbird]. Back at Robert’s home, we planned the next day for an incoming tide.

The next morning was one of rain and hard wind blowing about 30 miles an hour. We downed our breakfast to the sound of the rain pelting the windows. A few minutes and miles away, we arrived at Biddeford Pools. Shorebirds covered the mud flats. We splashed through the area, glassing almost everything until the rain-soaked into our water-resistant but not water proof jackets, rain down the collar, and, speaking for myself only, saturated my socks and underwear. What really mattered was keeping our optics dry. After all, we were there to see birds. Sandpipers and plovers crawled around us, some running away as we approached them, others reluctantly flying to the other side of the short marsh grass that bordered the mud. The short grass borders were already full of groups of standing shorebirds, little two-legged trees forming an oasis of birds waiting identification. We found several Whimbrels and three Long-billed Curlews. Robert was elated to see the curlews. The species is rare for coastal Maine. I had seen the curlews out west and did not appreciate fully that these birds were way out of their normal range. On the other hand, I was happy to see the Whimbrels, a new species for the trip. The rain and wind, brought courtesy of Hurricane Alma, made it impossible to use our scopes. Luckily, the weather induced the birds to avoid flying. During the course of the day I had soaked two pairs of socks, two pairs of boots, one pair of pants and most of another pair, and two shirts, a jacket, and, of course my underwear.

After the tide went out, the shorebirds dispersed, and so did we. There was daylight left so we looked for land birds. We found a couple of Eastern Phoebes, a small flock of Barn Swallows trying to ride out the blustering rain. A couple of warblers were lingering in the bushes including a Yellowthroat and my first eastern sighting of a Wilson’s Warbler. Back at the house, in dry clothes, we poured over field guides making sure we knew the salient field marks to be ready to identify terns that the hurricane might blow northward, and looked over gulls, pondering the possibility of an early Black-headed Gull.

Our last and third day was under calm skies. Biddeford Pools was once again loaded with birds. Once again, we glassed each Black-bellied Plover, and mostly waiting for them to fly which allowed us check the color of the axillaries. All were black, but finally a winter plumaged plover flew directly overhead. The axillaries were not black. It landed among the Black-bellied Plovers. There we could compare bill size (we could use our scopes today). Soon several more birds joined the foraging Black-bellied Plovers. My first Golden Plover! [Later, golden-plovers are split into more than one species; the birds we were watching at Biddeford Pools were American Golden-Plovers.] More searching revealed a Pectoral Sandpiper, a trip species. Just as we were about to leave a group of nine birders arrived, the first seen these last three days. They were well equipped with high-powered scopes mounted on the heaviest of tripods. They parked themselves on the flats and began picking out the birds. Unfortunately, the golden-plovers had departed just minutes earlier.

31 August-5 September

With some reluctance, I drove out of Maine to Durham and the University of New Hampshire. It was a relief to be away from Hurricane Alma although the wind and what birds it might bring was at the same time exciting. It was my first hurricane. Luckily, it was a weak one, with maximum winds up to 100 mph and leaving less than two inches of rain on the coast of Maine. Of course, the entire storm seemed to be at Biddeford Pools, with much of it in my underwear. The hurricane fizzled out and disappeared by 2 September. Chris Packard had suggested I try to meet Dr. Arthur C. Borror, an internationally known ornithologist. Unfortunately, he was out-of-town, but someone gave me permission to browse one of the libraries. I never realized there were so many different publications sponsored by so many birding organizations. Besides the big three, Auk, Condor and Wilson Bulletin, there was the Delaware Naturalist and Chat that covered some of the regions to the south. Audubon Field Notes filled several shelves. In fact, volume one of most of the journals stood at the beginning of rows and rows of shelves of journals from all over the country. I skipped the Auk and Audubon Field Notes. I was a novice beginner of the American Ornithologist’s Union in 1962 and asked my parents to mail me the Auk. They also sent new issues of Audubon Field Notes. There was so much to read and so little time to learn.

Part of my day in New Hampshire was devoted to the mundane. It was time for a lube and oil change that cost $4.40. Worse of all, time was spent watching my dirty laundry become clean and dry for the next day’s birding. After laundry and groceries, which came to $1.09, I headed west, ending up at a deserted side road about 30 miles east of Concord. I spent two nights there, just feet from the highway but hidden by the understory of the forest. Not much was going on during the dog days of birding. A Red-eyed Vireo fed its fledged young, and an occasional Blue Jay announced its presence. I also learned later that it was illegal to sleep in a car in New Hampshire but that was my only bed and I was also hoping to avoid traveling during the Labor Day weekend. That is when motorist are killed as everyone rushes out and back home for the last summer fling. A disc jockey announced on the car radio “486 people managed to kill themselves over this year’s Labor Day weekend.” By now, I had driven almost 5,000 miles without being in an accident. While waiting for the week end to end, I worked on getting my notes up to date, wrote a column about my trip for my high school paper, and reviewed the field marks for all the birds I hoped to see at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania.

At Acadia National Park, I had met Fred and Margaret Denner, who invited me to stop over in Elnora, New York. They reminded me of my parents. I suppose I was a little home sick even though the birding kept me from thinking about home. Still, I could not resist, and on the night of the third, I arrived at the Denner’s doorstep. They actually seemed happy to see me. I hit it off with their son. We reminisced about Acadia, and I told them about Biddeford Pools. Being nonbirders, they were curiously bewildered but encouraging that someone would travel the country just to see birds.

*****

Surviving Labor Day and possibly being a highway fatality seemed to be an important accomplishment in 1962. I had avoided a catastrophe that fretful relatives sometimes imagine. Having to explain that not every bear is going to maul or every stream is hiding deadly quick sand is tiresome. My parents were far more forgiving, but they did instill a fear of highway accidents during holidays. Taking their advice brought a peaceful and restful Labor Day weekend. I needed it. After all, I had lived through a hurricane. Today, even though there are more people driving in the 21st Century, the death toll during the weekend of Labor Day has not dramatically risen since 1962. This is partly because cars are slightly safer. Like reports of mortality in wars, the number dead do not reflect the near death of those suffering from wounds from car accidents and war. My VW, much smaller than most vehicles in 1962, and without seat belts or air bags, would not have done well in keeping me out of the statistics books had I been so unlucky to drive into a mauling bear or quicksand. Having survived the highways now for many years, I wish I could motor up to the North East to see old friends and thank them once again.

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