Wednesday, May 25, 2011

117: Watertown: Mt. Auburn Cemetery

There are certain rites of spring for birders in Massachusetts. Ok, there's only one universal one: Mt. Auburn.

Honestly, the month of May is the biggest conundrum faced by birders at this particular latitude. While many tell themselves that they'd like to be at Point Pelee, or wouldn't it be nice to be in Colorado or perhaps in Oregon along the Pacific flyway, the fact is that while the warblers are running, it's nearly impossible to tear yourself away from your own stomping grounds.

Birders have a particular superstition that makes them stay put. It's spotting spot fidelity. If in 1975 a Tennessee warbler appeared in a patch of trees in Marshfield, then every time that birder passes that spot for the next forty years, he has to look to see if there's another Tennessee warbler there. He can't not look. Its weird. Maybe it's why we show allegiance to sports teams. The players change, sometimes on a yearly basis, but we can't pull ourselves away from watching the games because somebody did something good in those clothes four years ago.

Back to Mt. Auburn. On this particular day, we walked (May 24) for more than three hours. It was at the end of a ten-day stretch of rain, and, as such, the lawnmowers were out in force. Not a good thing if you're trying to listen for tiny little birds singing from hidden perches in trees and shrubs. We did luck into one rarity, a mourning warbler - perfect for a cemetery - and were able to get all of our program participants "on it," as we say.

And you can bet that for the next 35 years I'll be walking by that bush every spring on my annual trip to Mt. Auburn and saying, like Danny Vermin in Johnny Dangerously, "I saw a mourning warbler in there once. ONCE."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

115 & 116: Dover and Sherborn: Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary

So, in one day, I wiped out both of the Mass Audubon sanctuaries with "Broad" in their names.

A few years ago, when I wrote Images of America: Mass Audubon, I studied more than a dozen sanctuaries in depth, this one being the most confusing. It took numerous land purchases to puzzle-piece together what is now the sanctuary. I remember the first time I tried to figure it out.

I looked at the deeds. I got a headache. I took an aspirin and laid down to rest my eyes for ten minutes. When I woke up an hour later, I looked at the deeds again. My eyes started to water, so I went outside for a walk. I vowed never to look at the deeds again, then went inside and gave it one more shot. I still don't think, if my feet were held to the fire, that I could successfully and adequately describe how they came together without the help of my book.

But, the beauty of this story, is that every piece of the sanctuary has its own story, rather than just one old family homestead for the whole place. There were mills, and farmhouses, praying Indians, ancient arrowheads and even a George Washington reference. That's all on top of the plain old natural beauty of Broadmoor.

With so much land, and an hour to walk it, I expected a surprise - and got it. My first blue-winged warbler of the year sang near the tree swallow boxes where I unsuccessfully tried repeatedly to photograph a swallow in flight. Fast little buggers, they are.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

113 & 114: Uxbridge and Northbridge: Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor

I moved from south to north along the river, starting in Uxbridge and ending in Northbridge.

I started, in fact, at River Bend Farm. That choice put me in direct contact with the waterway, as I walked right along its edge, greeting other walkers taking advantage of the wide open trail.

The fact that it was a farm was made even more obvious (there was a huge restored barn, after all) by the system of tubes running through the woods at waist height. Sugar maples here have been tapped, and in a complex way, with sap flowing from numerous trees down into a central feeding tube, which runs to the barn. I craved pancakes.

After salivating like a chump, I moved down the trail to an old crossing of the river where a bench now sits. Turning around there, I moved to Northbridge.

Much like I was a slave to the name Purgatory Chasm, so, too, was I held captive by the name Lookout Rock. I walked up the trail, found a rock, and thought to myself that it was the same old story: there used to be a great view from here, but the trees had grown up and swallowed it. I moped away from the rocks and up another trail. That's when I discovered the real Lookout Rock.

Problem: fog. Only after peering deeply into the distance could I see a hint of the Blackstone River. The one thing I could see clearly was that I would be coming back here again someday, probably the same day I walked Purgatory Chasm from end to end.

Was that an eastern wood-pewee? What do you know, my first of the year.

112. Sutton: Purgatory Chasm State Park

Like I had any other choice?

I think I would have done well in the 1920s. The automobile was finally coming into full vogue, and becoming more useful than ever. No longer did one need a partial degree in engineering to get from Boston to Worcester, nor did he need driving gloves, goggles and scarves, although that is, admittedly, a good look for me. Tourism, at least automobile tourism, was in its infancy, and the wonders of the natural world still held the imagination of many people in the palms of their hands.

Purgatory Chasm was surely one of the places that brought people from far and wide. Its formation had even by that time long been debated. Did an ancient sea run through here, or an ancient river? Even today, the story is somewhat unclear.

But I can tell you one thing. This place is cool.

I wanted to walk the chasm, but was met with a pre-emptive rebuff from a state Department of Conservation and Recreation employee. "Have fun in the park," she said, "but whatever you do, don't walk through the chasm." It sounded, at first, like a script from a horror movie, but then she added, "It's wicked slippery." Ah, Boston.

So I walked up and over and around the chasm, knowing I would someday have to return t o walk through it. Maybe I would do so in a 1920s roadster, with a big picnic basket and a red and white checkerboard blanket. And maybe my wife.

111. Grafton: Marsters Preserve

The rain doesn't really bother me that much, as I'm a Pisces. It's only when my feet get wet that I get uncomfortable. That's also a part of being a Pisces. But enough astrology.

The walk down the old farm road to the Marsters Preserve was wet with morning dew and mist, and the grass was tall. I knew the second I set foot on the path I was done for. Oh well. It was a nice walk anyway, with a grand old farm field to one side. The signs for the preserve marked the entrance to the woods, into which I dove.

Had it not been for the birdsong, I might have been disappointed with this site. It had nothing to do with the land trust that has so lovingly cared for this place; nay, it's our need for speed. The sounds of the highway roaring in the background take away an important element of peace that should come with our natural places. Sadly, this place will always be tainted by the stain of progress.

But you couldn't tell that to the black-and-white warbler that was singing up his own storm this morning. Perhaps he was putting extra oomph into his call, knowing he needed to drown out the passing big rigs, or maybe his volume knob broke and he got stuck on "high." Either way, he was blasting out his song as loudly as possible, making it near impossible for me to consider focusing on any other natural sounds. If I was a female black and white warbler, I guess I would be more than impressed. 'Tis the season, after all.

110. Millbury: Deering Wildlife Management Area

The map looked intriguing. A single road ran into the sanctuary, looped around and came back out. What was the destination? Only one way to find out, of course. As Bill Cosby quipped, in his famous bit about Stepin Fetchit, "Feet, do your duty!"

Despite the rain, it was a birdy morning in Worcester County, or, as it's pronounced locally, "Wista." The woodland birds - red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers, black-throated green warblers, overbirds, eastern towhees - kept up their chatter as I walked the trail. That trail wound up to the right, and soon I came to the island on the map. It all came together.

First, signs of human life revealed themselves. Straight lines in the woods can't lie. Just like nothing is perfectly round in nature, nothing is perfectly straight, either. And neither was the stonewall I was looking at, but then, it was probably more than a hundred years old. I'll be damned if I'll be standing up straight the day I become a centenarian.

I could see a clearing behind the trees, in the center of the island. I looped around the right side, and made the discovery - old house site! Good old Martha Deering. She probably loved her life here.

The site, though, brought to mind a query. How many historic chimneys, devoid of the rest of their historic homes, now stand across Massachusetts, as the final sentinels of the history of their owners? How many in the United States? Did I just find my new blog, Or does that one already exist?

109. Worcester: Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

Add another hashmark in my quest to walk all Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries in 2011.

We're still socked in with wet weather (these eight walks took place on Wednesday, May17), sometimes under siege from downpours, most of the time mistily pushing through fog...or foggily moving through the mist. At this point, it's all personal perspectives. I decided, with a 1 p.m. meeting in Boston, to get on the Mass Pike and head west until the spirit moved me to take the next exit. That led me to Worcester, and Broad Meadow Brook.

And into the rain, of course. The trails that leave the nature center drop back in switchback fashion into low wetlands, and then back up into a powerline, if you want them to. It's your choice. I followed the all-persons access trail, a snaky monster that is slowly and happily growing across all Mass Audubon sanctuaries, mostly to avoid the mud that was deeply accumulating elsewhere. I reached the end of the boardwalk to find a sign saying that there was more to come, but then ran headling into a recently downed tree, most likely overnight, that blocked anybody from using the trail beyond it at all. It was time to turn around anyway.

It was a wet start to the day, but a fun one. I busted open the atlas I bought at the gas station on the Pike and thumbed my way to the local towns of the Blackstone River Valley. Hmm, where to go next...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

108. Cohasset: Whitney/Thayer Woods

If you haven't heard by now, I'm into boulders. I'm in to the whole glacial erratic thing. I dig big rocks.

Cohasset is strewn with them. There are three major conservation lands - Wompatuck State Park, Wheelwright Park and Whitney/Thayer Woods - that are hotbeds for geologists. The evidence of the last ice age is just spread all throughout the town.

The best part about it is that most of the boulders are named. That's a dangerous things with animals that aren't pets, like the turkey that walks in and out of your yard during the winter. It's one thing if the turkey eventually gets hit by a car, but it's another if it's Charlie. Anthropomorphization is an awful thing for conservationists to deal with.

Big rocks in wildlife sanctuaries, though, they're not going anywhere, and they're as much landmarks as buildings are on our city streets. They can hold names in perpetuity. I could send you a letter to give to your great-great-granddaughter with GPS coordinates to Ode's Den or Rooster Rock with instructions not to open it 'til 2095, and she'd still find them. They might, by that time, be surrounded by an overflow parking lot for the new Galactic Stop & Shop, but they should still be there.

It's a handshake across time. Staring at Bigelow Boulder today (March 11) I could honestly say I was standing in the footsteps of the man for whom it was named, E. Victor Bigelow, author of the first history of Cohasset. He wrote that book more than a century ago, and he probably knew he was looking at something the local Native Americans had gazed upon for centuries.

Big rocks rock!

107. Hingham: Wompatuck State Park

There are some paths that are just old friends. You don't walk them. They walk you.

I don't know how many times I've walked Pleasant Street in Wompatuck State Park in Hingham, and I don't care to know. I've been walking it since I was in my teens, and I'll probably walk it for another forty years.

It's a straight shot, from the outside world to the heart of the park. There's a little stream that runs under the road, and small, dense concentrations of pine trees that harbor odd little birds like worm-eating warblers. There used to be a star bird here. I'll be able to look back on this brief little period in my walking life on Pleasant Street and say "Forty years ago, for five years, a hooded warbler used to sing from that tree right there!"

Despite the wind and the clouds and the mist, the birds are singing up a storm. And well they should be. It's May (the 10th) and they've all just returned in migration. Whether or not they've reached their mating grounds, they've got to sing. Mates must be attracted. Nests must be built. The next generation must hatch.

Yup, I can do this for another forty years.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

106. Weymouth: Webb Memorial State Park

Raw days have their value, and so far this spring, eastern Massachusetts has certainly had a raw deal.

It was cold when I walked the trail at Webb today, one that I've walked now dozens of times. It never gets old. That's the power of the sea.

The site has family ties of which I only have vague notions. My uncle served in the region in the Army in the late 1950s, at the very height of the Cold War. Webb park was, in its most recent previous lifetime, a NIKE missile launching site. Ugh. The thought is enough to make one's skin crawl.

I wasn't alive for the worst of it, but I do have certain strong memories of the Cold War. I remember being in a friend's house in Hull walking through the living room - probably with an armload of GI Joe figures - and catching a glimpse on the television of the expected blast zone of a nuclear bomb hitting Boston. Yup, there was Hull. Obliterated. In a way, it's sickening to think that we bring children into a world in which they, too, may be obliterated before they're even cognizant there are other countries, other agendas.

Uncle Billy was a young man when it all started, and came from Kentucky to work at sites such as this one, Turkey Hill in Hingham, and Hog Island in Hull. He came back a few years ago and couldn't believe the changes. His memories of this place will forever be different from mine. And mine will be different from my sons. I hope he's as interested to ask me about it someday as I am to ask my Uncle Billy.

105. Quincy: Squantum Point Park

It's hard to describe how it feels to research the history for the writing of a book, and then to walk the land on which that history happened.

The best analogy I can offer is family discovery. Imagine you're touring an old house, and someone drops the bomb on you: your great-great-granfather was the man who built the house. You get an instant sense of awe. The place suddenly feels different. It's no longer just another old building. Perhaps that corner of the living room is where he had his favorite chair and an old radio that entertained him after dinner. And dinner! Perhaps the worn spot in the floor in front of the sink was carved out by great-great-grandma herself.

I coauthored a history of the Squantum Naval Air Station with a friend a few years ago, and I never tire of visiting Squantum Point Park. The main portion of the park, the large grassy field, once served as Runway 3 for the old airfield. It's no stretch for me to see the pilots of the '20s, '30s and '40s taking off in their small fighter and observation planes, looking for German U-boats approaching Boston Harbor.

The place has not been quiet for three quarters of a century, and probably won't be for a long, long time, at least until we perfect teleportation. Planes appraoching Logan International Airport cross the field, roaring over every minute or so. It's an entirely different sound from the prop planes of World War II, but it's something.

Places like this one pull at my heartstrings. I feel like I've been here before - not last week or month, but in another lifetime. Such is the life of an historian, I guess.

Monday, May 9, 2011

104b. Falmouth: Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary

In order to keep my promise to myself to walk every Mass Audubon property in 2011, I had to take on another two-walk combo in one town. And I'm glad I did, as it was a mood-lifter for sure.

Ashumet Holly is a fun and a funny place. One of the first sights one finds when entering is a barn swallow barn, built specifically for the little guys. These little daredevils love living in buildings and feel no compunction to slow down when diving through an open window into a building. I once had one circle around outside an observation blind until I moved my head; when it saw I had cleared out it blasted through the open window and circled the interior twice before deciding it wasn't for him, or, more likely, her. I'll bet she was looking for a nesting site.

Tree swallows were nearby, not so brave as their cousins, living in a series of small boxes spread across a field. Still, though, their frantic flights, in search of yummy bugs, made for quite a show.

There's a pond at Ashumet, called Grassy Pond. There's a vernal pool, a franklinia tree, and, of course, American holly trees. The previous owner collected them, first the varieties that appeared naturally on Cape Cod, then others that grew around the world.

It's a happy place, there's no denying that fact.

104a. Falmouth: Crane Wildlife Management Area

With a walk through Falmouth, I finished off Barnstable County (on March 7).

It was a sad one, though I was with friends. I led a group from Mass Audubon in search of a certain species of bird that is all but gone from Massachusetts, the northern bobwhite, and, unfortunately, the walk went as expected: completely devoid of bobwhites.

We're quickly killing off the planet's wild critters, and bobwhites are a perfect example. Massachusetts hunters killed them in such great numbers over the past century that the state had to begin stocking them on state wildlife lands, so the hunters could continue to hunt them. That strategy backfired, though, as the birds they chose were from the south, and could not survive Massachusetts winters. I guess that after this winter, especially, it should be no surprise that there were no bobwhites to be found at Crane this spring.

If you haven't seen a bobwhite in the wild in Massachusetts to this point, you may never see one. The same goes for ring-necked pheasants (which have a side story, being an introduced species). And soon, we'll be saying the same for American kestrels, for reasons other than hunting, more to do with development. And they're just the tip of the iceberg. All around the world our excesses - hunting, dining, collecting - are causing the sixth great extinction of wildlife on earth. Bobwhites are just one, small, local example.

Yup, there was lots on my mind as I walked today.