Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No Other Way: Birding the Adirondacks

~Alan Belford

Yells and screams proceeded us as we canoed up the Oswegatchie River, but we soon found the progress of our Ornithology class slowed by a low beaver dam blocking our way. There was only one place where the water was flowing deep enough to allow us to pass over it, and any deviation from a straight line through that small slot would land an aluminum canoe stuck—a predicament in which one of our boats found itself when we arrived. Two of the canoes had struggled their way across the dam and their occupants had turned to taunt their classmates, who were hoping they could avoid a lift-over and the subsequent wet feet.

My bowman Paul and I positioned our boat downstream where we could help fish anyone out who fell into the drink. The laughter and cheering insured that no one would do any birding until we had all undergone this rite of passage, anyway. Each boat’s attempt to cross over was a paddling frenzy of getting stuck, backing out and retrying, not gaining enough speed, and getting stuck again. All had to eventually push with their paddles and feet to get past and a couple came close to tipping when they became lodged at an awkward angle. One canoe tried again and again. Finally it became wedged and Andrea had no choice but to pull them out. I yelled words of caution amid the hoopla, but I was too late. The first steps from beaver dams are often doozies, and she was immediately in up to her chest--much to the enjoyment of her boisterous audience. Never losing her smile, she climbed back up the dam and pulled their canoe free.

Everyone was, of course, waiting for Paul and me—it’s every student’s dream to see their teacher dunked. But, although our boat was relatively heavy, Paul is a hulk of a human, who could probably break me over his knee if he chose, and we had no difficulty achieving the requisite speed. All I had to do was keep us pointed straight. We cruised up and over the dam with barely a break in our momentum, and Paul and I afforded ourselves a smirk and a nod at the misfortune of the disappointed onlookers. We then led the trip upstream into a world of rusty blackbirds and alder and olive-sided flycatchers.

Canoeing and getting wet are, in fact, good ways to avoid biting insects, a manifestation of true Adirondack love. Just a few days earlier, we had hiked at Streeter Lake on a sunny day that was quickly warming to buzz. We soon began stopping less to look for birds, because stopping exposed us to parties of mosquitoes and black flies overjoyed at the smorgasbord of fresh meat garnished with binoculars. And so our pace was necessarily brisk as we waved, fanned, slapped, and swatted, the air and ourselves in an almost maniacal manner.

We started jogging a few times to attempt some break from the bugs, and were giving up on birds altogether. But when the flutter of warblers caught my attention, I was reminded that this was an Ornithology class, after all, and we should probably look at something with feathers. I pointed to the birds and those with me turned to identify them. We never did. We were met by a Paparazzi of black flies swarming so dense at our heels that the birds vanished in their haze as if it was their defense tactic. “Okay, that’s it,” I choked on several of our assailants. They were in our faces, noses, and eyes, as if for that moment we were watching the world on some old, grainy television and nothing looked clear through the black dots. We double-timed it back to the vans.

Hiking through bogs can be an equally buggy business, and I watched our crew toxify their skin in the vain attempt to be stingy to our local chapter of Mosquitoes for a Better Tomorrow. Bugs or not, bogs are an excellent place to find boreal birds, and an Adirondack must. The boreal species are, after all, a reason many people come to the Daks to bird, since the ranges of many of these northern birds reach their southern limit in the Adirondacks, and birders come to see them there and avoid a longer trip further north into Canada. Walking along the old railroad bed that cuts through Massawepie Mire, the largest bog in the park, we did indeed feel as if we were in Canada—surrounded by open sunny bog mat, bordered on all sides by phalanxes of spruce trees and tamaracks. There on the shrubby bog Lincoln’s sparrows sang from hidden perches, while palm warblers hopped along low trees along the dirt road, incessantly bobbing their tail and rump in a comical, yet strangely mesmerizing rhythm. Magnolia and Nashville warblers sang from forested areas – each an explosion of mate-finding fervor somehow packed into an eight and a half gram body that had flown over two thousand miles from the tropics.

We saw the boreal specialty birds too: gray jays and black-backed woodpeckers, as well as both red and white-winged crossbills. Crossbill numbers in the Daks fluctuate widely from year to year, but were fairly high this past May. They have the unique ability to move their jaws side-to-side, allowing them to pry open tough cones to access the nutritious seeds where other birds can’t reach them. Since crossbills nest early in the year, we found family groups of both species with fledged young on several occasions - clustered at the tops of conifers, and pulling seeds from the green cones.

Some of our best views of their novel x-shaped bills came on top of Blue Mountain, where a large group of white-winged crossbills, comprised of several such families, moved in a wandering, almost aimless pattern on the sunny breeze, alighting here and taking off there.

We had hiked Blue Mountain for Bicknell’s thrush, a notoriously slippery bird to find, and a species of conservation concern across its range. Until recently, Bicknell’s was considered a subspecies of the gray-cheeked thrush, which breeds much farther north in Canada. Since Bicknell’s breed only on the fir-topped mountains of the northeast, their population is naturally scattered in small clusters across the landscape, and Blue Mountain is an excellent place to find them.

Thrush surveys are best conducted before day break when the birds sing the sun above the horizon and are easiest to count, but fearing a 4am hike in the dark would not create the positive vibe I wanted in the class, I opted for an hour more suitable to human happiness. And although our timing at the peak was not optimal to find the thrush, the beautiful day had our spirits high. Some bird activity soon had several of us off the trail, working along the edge of a blow-down, kept from going far by the impassable maze of fallen trees and branches criss-crossing each other in our path. We were balancing precariously on these logs to gain a better view when we spotted what we thought was a thrush fly low and disappear. Only Paul saw where it had landed. Unable to get to his vantage point, he had to be our eyes. “I can’t see the front of it,” he began. “But its tail looks redder than its back.” “It should,” I replied and like that the bird was gone. Hardly a look at its butt-end. Bicknell’s are skulkers.

While waiting for a reappearance of this mysterious bird, a sudden outburst of Bicknell’s chatter from the nearby trail sent us tripping along our balance beams as fast as we could. There were several of them this time. We divided forces and spread out for angles to peer into the balsam-laden gloom. My brother – an excellent birder who came up from Philadelphia for such Adirondack birds – and Paul stayed down trail, and I a few others spread up the trail recruiting a few other class members who had given up on our initial pursuit along the Pick-up-Stick forest.

The birds called again, a fluty buzz just off the trail behind a vale of green balsam needles. We crept closer from each side – wary to frighten them as they bickered in thrush talk in the darkness – we used hand gestures to communicate. The calls came again – almost directly on our left – we could hear the needles moving and getting kicked by the birds. Then another bird called on our right. We were right in the middle of them, the pinchers closing between our two parties in a flanking maneuver that would have made Stonewall Jackson proud. We had them.

I was on my toes, neck straining, holding my binoculars just below my face for instant use. My ears were tuned to the softest sounds, and my eyes were catching every movement, making me flinch at each small flying insect. It’s the birdwatching equivalent of a cat about to pounce. I saw the shuffle of thrush feet, hopping near the base of the trees. I heard the flutter of thrush wings. The balsam nodded and twitched. The birds were moving right behind that branch. I could hear them moving right behind that trunk. They were right, right, in that shadow. They were just out of sight. They were right, just…silent. Still. Gone. Vanished into those uncanningly frustrating places birds go when they want to make birders feel humble. Our bodies relaxed in disappointment.

We waited around the peak, hoping to hear them again, but we did not. And we waited some more, eating an early lunch while waving away a growing contingent of black flies in the warming sun. Finally we had to go. It was too late for Bicknell’s and our brief glances had to suffice. Back down the trail we went, stopping again at the small tree cavity where the boreal chickadees were flitting to and fro in a frenzy of almost silent activity – perhaps the highlight of our day.

Before we had left the peak, Paul grabbed a stone and scratched “Darn Thrush” on the bare rock face beneath the fire tower that marked the summit, echoing the sentiments of the rest of us, and the feeling that all birders have felt at one time or another. Birds are wonderful, but sometimes you just want to kill them. They don’t always let themselves be seen like me and my egotistic, anthropocentric view on life think they should. After all, it’s easy to want to see them all. Birding is truly addicting, and an Ornithology class is a little like one addict leading others astray into a life of dependency.

The students had bought what I was selling, and had fixed their eyes on the species record of my previous class who themselves had hoped to put their list out of the reach of others. That proved not to be the case on our final evening, when we eclipsed the record by one species, due in large part to an immature great horned owl sitting on a telephone wire - granting Tim big-time props for spotting it.

But it’s not the competition that drives this addiction. Bird watching ushers us into an array of shapes, songs, sizes, behaviors, and patterns that speak of a creative power far beyond our own. The sheer variety—perhaps initially frustrating for my students—draw us into the colorful weave of a world which makes us stand back in awe, all the while fine-tuning our senses to notice the seemingly insignificant parts of the world we’ve often overlooked.

That’s why the class jumped around excitedly pointing to direct me to where their first scarlet tanager perched, wanting to know what this alarmingly red bird was. It’s why we sat and laughed at the incessant and brazen calling of the Virginia rail who came to protest the claims our tape player was making on his territory. Loudly patrolling the edge of the reeds with his pumping calls, he copulated multiple times with his mate to make sure we fully understood that both this swath of marsh and his mate were his and his alone.

It’s why we all abruptly stopped as we walked across a field when we stumbled upon an American bittern far from its camouflaging cattails. The large bird stood with its bill pointed directly at the sky, in an attempt to be a motionless reed, while watching us with its bright yellow eyes. It subtly shifted its feet, keeping its nose straight in the air, until it was eventually facing away from us, and then with several great flaps, rose and wheeled with a hoarse croak towards the safety of the neighboring marsh.

And it’s why we watched transfixed as a mother woodcock fluttered about as with a broken wing to distract us while her downy fluffs of chicks scrambled on tiny, newly-hatched legs to cover. She twittered in the open, drawing us to herself, until, deeming her chicks safe, ceased her charade and flew to shelter.

It is the rhythm and richness to this sort of discovery that trumps any string of names or record number of species. It is waking early, spending hours in the field, and hearing bird calls played throughout the campus lodge and dorms. It is a privileged immersion into another world, joining in an exuberance of life that only a hormone-driven Virginia rail could possess, praising its Creator with joyous outbursts of territoriality.

And so perhaps this is an addiction to life, to what screams at us from the marshes, forests, and hills on all sides in glorious praise and an inexorable call to join the celebration. And so we fight clouds of insects, surmount beaver dams, and climb mountains, all for a chance to be poised motionless in muscle-tensed anticipation for the chance to see a…a…it could be a...”Aw no! A black fly just flew in my eye!” And we wouldn’t have it any other way.