Hiding In The Dark, Observing Regular Burds & Exceptional People

Paul Napier tickles the Cooper's Hawk, and, it appears, he likes it.
Sunrise At The Cape May Raptor Banding Project
Sunrise At The Cape May Raptor Banding Project. Paul Napier & Kathy Clark like to get an early start being heroes.

It’s a rare day that I’ll leave this precious Island. But when Kathy Clark, New Jersey’s legendary biologist and The Great Mother Of All Cool Things In New Jersey That You Can’t Shoot With A Gun says “come to Cape May,” I leave the Island before even asking when, where, or why. That’s just how amazing any opportunity to learn from Kathy is. And knowing how important her life’s work has been to the wild side of LBI puts her invites above all other reasons to leave the Island, including “jury duty” and “hospital”.

Turns out it was time to pay a visit along with Kathy to another great hero of New Jersey’s wild-side: the honorable Paul Napier; The Puppetmaster and El Presidente of the Cape May Raptor Banding Project. If you are not familiar with CMRB, it is basically a Monster Canning & Cuddling Facility in Southern New Jersey. You are encouraged to see pics from last year’s visit here.

Morning in the Blind: Bald Eagle does not appear to want to be cuddled this morning; she's busy with the crows.
Morning in the Blind: Bald Eagle does not appear to want to be cuddled or canned this morning; she’s busy with the crows.

As it turns out, most Raptors were too busy this particular morning to be cuddled & canned. Light Southwest Winds made for an unusually quiet, but still quite beautiful, morning in the blind.

We were joined this particular morning by Janet: a colleague of Paul and a great bander of Passerines; a fancy scientific term for “Regular Burds”. I was attempting to explain to Janet why Regular Burds were so boring compared to LBI’s Beach Birds, when something suddenly hit our mist net. Turns out, it was just some Regular Burd; a Phoebe she called it. When Janet went outside to free it from the net, I decided to join her. It had taken almost 32 ounces of WaWa coffee to get me from LBI to Cape May in time for sunrise, so I reasoned that maybe the boringness of this Regular Burd might take some of the edge off.

While Janet had quietly tolerated my disparaging remarks about the boringness of Regular Burds all morning, once she had the Phoebe in hand, she called me over and slowly, patiently, started showing me its tiny details.

Like its adorable little hooked beak that it uses to catch flies.
Like its adorable little hooked beak that it uses to catch flies.
And its ultra-light tail feathers that it likes to pump and slap.
And its ultra-light tail feathers that it likes to pump and slap.
Janet 'n Phoebe. Wait... what? Did I really just take a picture of a Regular Burd? Notice Paul in the blind, most likely anxious for us to stop goofing around with the Regular Burd and get back in the blind so we can catch something awesome.
Janet ‘n Phoebe. Wait… what? Did I really just take a picture of a Regular Burd? Notice Paul in the blind, most likely anxious for us to stop goofing around with the Regular Burd and get back in the blind so we can catch something more awesome.

I now realize Janet had pulled off an extremely well executed Jedi Mind Trick. Rather than try to explain to me why Regular Burds were not boring, she, like the greatest of all educators, simply showed me instead. And before I could think about what I was doing, I was snapping pics of that Phoebe because I’d become “interested.” She schooled me without me even realizing it. Well played Janet, well played. And that’s how it came to be that there are now three photos of a Regular Burd on Readings From The Northside. I hope you are all still awake.

And then suddenly, BOOM.
And then suddenly, BOOM. “Sorry Mr. Northside,” says PuppetMaster Paul Napier… “this is just a Regular Hawk.”

Finally something substantial hit the net. Could it be a Peregrine? A Merlin? An Eagle? Nope. Turns out we got a Cooper’s Hawk. Now you need to remember that not all Raptors escape the Regular Burd designation and join the elite group of animals we count as true friends because they like to hang out on the Beach with us. While we do get some Cooper’s Hawks on Long Beach Island, they mostly hide in trees and pillage bird feeders, and so their failure to hang out on the Beach with us has so far kept them out of the Awesome Burd Club.

Paul Napier tickles the Cooper's Hawk, and, it appears, he likes it.
Paul Napier scientifically tickles the Cooper’s Hawk, and, it appears, he likes it.
Kathy Clark helps to free this Regular Hawk while carefully hiding her disappointment that it is not a Peregrine.
Kathy Clark helps to free this Regular Hawk while carefully hiding her disappointment that it is not a Peregrine.
Cooper's Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
We Got One. Monster In A Can.
We Got One. Monster In A Can.

And so our Cooper’s Hawk was quickly, and lovingly, banded, measured, and recorded, as is the great tradition of the Cape May Raptor Banding Project.

While one Regular Burd and one Regular Hawk would be all we caught this day, I did observe something far more memorable hiding in the back of the dark blind. I observed three exceptional educators, three exceptional leaders, and three exceptional people.

I have zero background in science; I am just a garden variety Beach Bum from LBI. So to have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall, hiding in the back of a dark blind, and listen to the casual conversation of these Wildlife Management Legends is really unusual.

What I can tell you is that once again, most of the stereotypes held by many of us regular folk about scientists fall flat, quickly, when you hide in a blind and observe the scientists first hand. I heard about the sudden, rapid decline of American Kestrel in New Jersey, and I heard the voices and ideas of real people who were genuinely concerned about it; concerned about both the animals and about us. I heard about the new toxicities from pesticides and flame retardants showing up in our animals, and I heard Kathy & Paul discussing ideas to use the CMRB’s massive collection of data and feather samples to help other researchers learn more about these types of dangerous developments. I heard about the comeback of the Cooper’s Hawk and how they may be responsible for the decline of the Kestrel because they eat too many of them. And once again, I was equally amazed by what these masters knew as I was by discovering all the things they don’t know, so are working tirelessly to understand.

Often when I think vaguely about “Scientists”, especially “Wildlife Management” types, I think about people who think they know everything. The reality is the opposite, and I’m coming around to understand them as people who know that they, and we all, should know more, so work tirelessly to see that happen. I often used to think about Wildlife Management people as folks who advocated for some animal at my expense. But experiences like this show me I had that backwards; instead what I actually observed hiding in the dark in the back of the blind are passionate, smart, creative people with huge hearts and exceptional understanding who are attempting to help us help ourselves. Hiding in the blind, observing, measuring, studying, recording, they are watching our backs and checking our blind spots. Their work is not just about the animals. It is about us.

My motivation for leaving the Island was certainly the chance to cuddle a Peregrine Falcon. While that thrill surely never gets old for folks like Kathy, Paul, and Janet, it is clear to me that their motivation is something much, much greater than that. The animals are only part of the story of what goes on at the Cape May Raptor Banding Project and NJ Fish & Wildlife. The rest is about us.

Tell them I didntz eatz all the Kestrel!!!11!!!!!
Tell them I didntz eatz all the Kestrel!!!11!!!!!

Great educators, and great leaders don’t just teach you more about what you already think you want to know. They help you discover things and unlock interests you didn’t even know you had, wanted, or needed.

While I’m not willing to say that Janet single handedly opened my mind to the possibility that Regular Burds might be kind of interesting, I will confess that looked up the Phoebe on Google upon returning to the Island. And quite fittingly, it turns out the Phoebe was the first bird ever banded for study in North America by John Audubon. That great tradition continues to this day, and the incredible contributions made by the Cape May Raptor Banding Project (137,000 Raptors studied since 1967) is so completely invaluable to our future understanding of the world we live in. Anyone who is still reading this is strongly encourage to visit capemayraptors.org to learn more and make a small donation to this volunteer project.

But I also discovered, and will direct your attention, to the very first line about the Eastern Phoebe in the National Geographic guide to birding:

“The eastern phoebe is a rather dull phoebe found in the east and across central Canada.”

Source: National Geographic

Enough said.