Tag Archives: bird watching

Schodak Island State Park, Schodak Landing, New York

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I didn’t pick this campground! Flood plain location, built on dredge spoil, near two rail lines AND under a turnpike bridge. Really, who decided to put a state park here? Just as well I didn’t know all of that in advance.

Schodak Island State Park turned out to be great! For starters, it’s close to the mighty Hudson River, so beautiful and historic. The State Park is relatively new, so the bathhouses are nicer than anything I saw in other New York state park campgrounds. The bathhouses were helpfully marked “shelter here in case of inclement weather”. I’ve experienced enough “inclement weather” in my camping trips to be very grateful for clear advice.

After flush toilets and hot showers, what makes a good campground? At Schodak Island, the campsites have been improved with a layer of sand, so securing tent stakes is easy. The camping area is blessed with tall trees and wildflowers. With only 66 sites, the campground felt cozy.

The highway and train bridges near the site are very, very high. I never heard the highway traffic. I heard the train engines moving past, but only once in three days did I hear a shrill whistle.

Management and staffing are important. At this state park, facilities were clean and functional. Our main contact was a friendly campground host, who not only answered questions but also delivered wood and ice for a nominal sum, whenever we wanted it. Delivering wood is smart management, as scavenging by campers can be destructive. The ice delivery was a GREAT luxury in a campground that’s relatively isolated. If there was a convenience store within 5 miles, I didn’t spot it.

So how did we spend our time in the woods? The usual… eat and talk… talk and eat. Plenty of casual hiking and bird watching. Bicycling for the more ambitious.

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A little north of the State Park, I saw my first pileated woodpecker! (Photo from Wikipedia. I was in a moving car…)

Some of us are diehard public transit enthusiasts, and Schodak Island is, in fact, quite readily accessible, by (you guessed it) TRAIN. There’s a station about 20 minutes to the north (Albany Rensselaer) and another a little further south (Hudson). Three campers took advantage of this.

So I take back some of what I’ve said about New York state campgrounds in the past. (It wasn’t nice.) I’ll be happy to return in the future.

PS! Almost forgot something very nice! We found a shelf of books on the outside of the bathhouse – a “free library”, so if it rains and you forgot to bring something to read, there it is! The reaction of most of our group was “I should have brought some books”.

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“The Birds of America” by John James Audubon – the most valuable book in the world!

Copies of the elephant folio version “The Birds of America” by John James Audubon are very rare. The Library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia was a subscriber to the original edition of this mighty work. And you can see it whenever the Library is open, which is almost every working day!

I visited the Academy last week. At 3 pm, it was announced that the daily page turning was about to take place. The folio rests in a climate controlled cabinet. Each day at 3:15, it is opened and a Library employee wearing white gloves turns a page so a new print can be appreciated. To me, there’s something magical about a really old book, especially one that is in such lovely condition.

I was not the only spectator for the page turning. I chatted with another guest and also the employee who turned the page. He was not well informed about the bird revealed (a gallinule), being a historian rather than an ornithologist, but he willingly went on line to check when I asked him if the folio included a picture of the black vulture, the newest bird on my (non-existent) life list. Yes, Audubon painted my favorite scavenger.

Turning one page each working day means the entire collection of 435 prints can be viewed in about two years. Not more than 200 copies of the elephant folio were produced, and 119 can now be accounted for. Thirteen are in private hands. The value of a complete set is about $12,000,000, but they are seldom sold.

What makes this book so wonderful? There’s the artistry. The plates were produced by copper etching and aquatint, followed by hand application of water color. They are detailed and very beautiful. The birds look alive, although they were painted from skins and mounted specimens.

Audubon later produced smaller prints of the original works, and now, of course, all is available digitally on line. But there’s nothing quite like gazing at the old, fragile pages and enjoying their color and detail. Go and see this treasure! It is breathtaking.

“Walden Warming – Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” by Richard Primack

Henry David Thoreau has been part of my life for a long time. My mother quoted him. So did my minister. We read some of his writing in high school, more in college. And I am a New Englander. Walden Pond is located in woods just like those I played and camped in as a child. But until I read this book, I never thought about the impact of global warming on Walden Pond, and on “my” woods.

Dr. Richard Primack is an academic botanist with decades of research experience, but his work around Walden Pond began only about ten years ago. Looking for an “angle” from which to study the impact of climate change on plants, Primack learned that Thoreau, most commonly thought of as an author and philosopher, was a dedicated naturalist who kept detailed records about the plants and animals around him. The crucial pieces of data related to dates – when did the winter ice leave Walden Pont, when did plants leaf out, blossom and set fruit? Having an “old” data set allows for comparison with present conditions. Yes, it can be documented that climate change is having an impact on plants. (And so are many other actions, especially development.)

Primack moved on from plants to insects, using data from Thoreau and other early naturalists. When he ran out of records, he turned to the world’s great insect collections, reading the dates on specimens, from which emergence data can be construed.

Primack repeatedly referred to “analyzing” data, but didn’t really say how. I assume he looked for statistical correlations, but wonder if he also engaged in mathematical modeling, to me a mysterious but potentially useful “black box” endeavor. 

Primack also studied climate impact on birds, bees, butterflies, fish and frogs. Only a person with tremendous energy and a steady supply of graduate students could cover so much physical and intellectual territory.

I was totally taken by surprise when Primack discussed the impact of climate change on humans by analyzing data from the Boston Marathon! 

His last chapter, on solutions to global warming, wasn’t really needed. So many people are addressing that topic. But I would say Primack is entitled to hold forth, since he produced so much well written discussion in Walden Warming. His ideas about introducing southern wild plant species to New England are intriguing.

This book, which I highly recommend, is right on the line between “popular” and “scientific”. I hope Primack continues to write in both veins, since he has valuable information to impart.

New environmental classic?

Crow Planet: Finding Our Place in the Zoopolis by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, 2009.

This book has two titles. The one I just entered above is from the title page that downloaded into my Kindle. But on Amazon, I see Crow Planet: Essential Lessons from the Urban Wilderness, and in fact that’s what shows up in the home page list of my Kindle. Wait, maybe the problem is the unlaut, the double dot that sometimes shows up in German. The second “o” in “Zoopolis” is supposed to have an umlaut, no doubt to let you know the word has four syllables, not three. Maybe Kindle text hasn’t got the umlaut? But I digress.

I do like the word “zoopolis” (however you choose to pronounce it). It refers to the city as a place occupied by both humans and other living things, generally including crows. Haupt considers crows a type of “indicator” bird. They thrive alongside humans better than most birds, so they become very numerous when other birds are unable to persist. In other words, too many crows are a sign of trouble.

Haupt makes the point that we can study “nature” even when we live in the city, starting with the study of crows and moving on to other birds, insects, invertebrates, and the mammals that live in cities. (I will never voluntarily study a rat.) Her advice on how to be a naturalist (#1 – study!) is sound whether you plan to explore urban nature or a national park. She made a personal decision to carry binoculars whenever she goes out in the city, just as she does in wilder places.

Haupt makes multiple references to Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac was first published in 1949, before the word “environment” came into common use. His comments on the ethics of how humans interact with their surroundings still ring true after 60 years.

Toward the end of her book, Haupt addresses the issue of fear. She’s afraid of what the future holds. So am I, sometimes, and so are some scientists I know personally and respect. But Haupt finds reasons for hope, despite the daunting prospects we all face.

A new classic? Maybe. In the meantime, a good book, because it reminds us that nature is here, not somewhere else where we can only hope to visit once in a while.