Jungle Dawn Chorus

Starting out in the morning fog on the Las PiedrasThe dawn chorus in the jungle has a particular bass beat, like a deep wave washing through the dense trees, or like the earth itself is exhaling. What is that, I wonder. I’m sitting in a dinky plastic pack raft on the Las Piedras River, cradling my camera, and straining to see something in the green on green on green that lines the river. I’ve set out with three others on this foggy dawn float, but they are already a bend and a half down the river so I feel alone. Alone with the caiman lounging on the sandy banks and the Pied Lapwings tip-toeing along the river’s edge. Alone with the Parakeets that flock across the river, screaming their destination and their joy. Alone with the Sunbittern and the Hoatzin, bi rds that seem created from an artist’s fantasy of a bird. Alone not at all.


Click to read more ...


Swimming with my fears

Swimming with JJ (left) and VishalaI’m grateful that it is only on the third day that Paul tells me that the Las Piedras River, where we have been boating, floating and swimming, my clothes perpetually wet from the afternoon plunges, is swimming with Piranhas. I knew about the Caiman, Spectacled and Yellow, that I’ve seen lounging on the banks, and scoot off whenever the boat comes near. I’ve tamed my response to snakes—an embarrassing nerve jangling recoil—by understanding that every snake is more afraid of me than I am of it. But Piranhas, that’s news. I laugh and say: cool.




Click to read more ...


Birding Before Dawn

Yes, everyone is smiling at 4:30 amThe beaver slapped its tail, a heavy thunk with purpose, and a ripple of laughter, nervous and surprised wafted through the group. “That gets the adrenalin going,” I said, though no one needed to add to the jangle of excitement. I’d brought coffee and banana nut muffins. “Susan, why didn’t you tell us you knew how to bake?” someone asked. “Because I can’t,” I said.

We were a cheerful bunch—seven students from my class on writing about birds at Bard College and three friends who were willing to get out of bed for a four in the morning bird event. We were out to hear the dawn chorus on Cruger Island Road, a muddy causeway that splits the North and South Tivoli Bays that edge the Hudson River.

I’ve been on Cruger Island for the dawn chorus many times; there is no place I’d rather hear the world wake up. An orange almost-full moon disappeared behind the Catskills as we stood in silence except for the hum of a barge on the Hudson in the distance. Students whispered to each other and one spotted a satellite coursing across the sky and I wondered: would this be a special morning, would they find it magic, as I did? Or might it be a dull dawn chorus, something they would regret rising so early for when they still had finals, papers to write.


Click to read more ...



Of all the fruits: cherries. Of all the months: October. Of all of the holidays: Thanksgiving. Of all of the birds: Rusty Blackbird. But--of all the groups of birds: shorebirds.

All birders have his or her favorite group or family of birds: the raptors in migration or the sparrows in a field. For many it’s easy: warblers in spring. For me, it’s shorebirds. Perhaps because I do associate them with water, the shore. Perhaps because I have spent so little time with them, the birds here in the Hudson Valley uncommon except in migration and even then there are few. Perhaps this group of birds retains a certain mystery because they are so elusive to me. And so when my friend Peter started reporting big numbers of shorebirds—a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers, a White-rumped Sandpiper, plus over forty Snipe at the Vly, a swamp in the northern edge of Ulster County, I had to go.


Click to read more ...


Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes in the campgroundWhen I first heard the rattling call I was walking along  a small lake in Ontario, east of Sault St. Marie and West of Sudbury. I’d been driving my little camper for eight hours, after getting up in the lovely Two Rivers Campground in Algonquin Provincial Park. Since I was tired and since it was late in the day I thought: you are hallucinating. There can’t be Sandhill Cranes here in the far north in early September.

When, at 3 in the morning, I again heard that distinctive call I thought: this is a dream, no cranes.

In the morning, I emerged from the cocoon that is my little camper and scanned the range of RVs in the tidy campground, the set up mobile homes for those who came through the season, the more portable campers that were there a night or two. My eye was drawn to a bird feeder tempting in Goldfinch set up near one of the mobile homes. And there stood two cranes. Not plastic statues of cranes, as you might imagine in such a campground, real winged, breathing birds. They tip toed as delicately as a long legged bird can, inspecting the short grass and only half-wary of me and a woman walking her dog. Cranes. In Canada.

I’ve always seen Sandhill Cranes in Arizona, the desert, and so think of them as birds that love the heat and dry. They fly into Wilcox, east of Tucson, by the hundreds, thousands, landing and taking off all flailing legs and wings. But there never seem to be actual collisions. I’ve stood, mesmerized by the loud, purring sound of the birds, and by the sheer numbers, all come to spend the winter there where it’s warm, where there’s food.

Click to read more ...