A my name is Alice

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When was the last time you jumped rope?

:-)

I loved it as a kid, not as much as roller-skating, but more than playing cops-and-robbers with the neighborhood boys. The problem was, there were never enough of us girls, and the boys were too boyish to jump rope, so we (my best girlfriend and I) had to make do by tying one end of the rope to a garage door.

:-(

I remember doing it on the playground at school, too – waiting in line for my turn, the silly songs we sang, and the occasional challenge to try double-dutch, with two ropes swinging in opposite directions.

Do schoolgirls still jump rope at recess?

A couple weeks ago I came across a group of young girls – they were an official neighborhood competitive double-dutch team – during a sort of street festival here in Atlanta called “Streets Alive”. The lady in the photos was having so much fun – and I imagine was remembering her own childhood just like me – that it made me want to give it a go. But for my bum knee, I’m sure I could have done it!

Sweet memories.

How to: play hide and seek

Hide and Seek (beachnesting bird version) is a game where threatened and endangered chicks attempt to conceal their location in order to grow up and survive. It’s pretty basic, but various challenges have arisen throughout the years making the game more difficult. All you need to play are a few beachnesting friends and some hiding and spying skills. This game is a great way for chicks to practice real-world survival skills!

IMG_0941Step one: find a suitable location

An outdoor location near the coast works best and it should have plenty of sand and pebbles or clam shells. It will be necessary to set boundaries for hiding or you will have chicks running off to too many far-off locations. It’s not called Run a Mile and Go Seek!

  • If you’re playing with your parents around, make sure they know what’s going on. They may not want you hiding in the driftwood at the wrack line, under the lifeguard stand, or too close to the water.
  • Try to play in different places every time. If you play every game in the same spot, then the birds who play “it” (predators) will remember the good places and search there first.

IMG_1033Step two: select the players and set down the rules

  • If you have players of different ages, take this into consideration. Younger chicks can fit more places, but they sometimes choose less-than-brilliant places to hide and don’t have the longest of attention spans.
  • If you do not set down rules, you will have chicks running to places that shouldn’t be hidden in — either unhatched eggs end up breaking or another pair’s territory gets intruded upon — or someone gets eaten by a laughing gull.
  • Make sure everyone stays safe. You don’t want your friends running out in front of loose dogs or hiding beneath a fish crow’s perch.

IMG_0992Step three: choose someone to be “it”

  • Working out who is “It” can be done a variety of ways, for instance: the youngest chick might be “It” first; or the chick who is closest to fledging can be “it” first; or use an elimination word game, such as “One Potato, Two Potato” or similar game. Or just pick a number out of a hat, and #1 is “It”.

IMG_1112When playing with chicks, an adult is often a good person to be “it”

  • If one chick is older than the rest, they might make a natural “It.” Adult birds have longer attention spans and can think outside of the box better than their offspring.

IMG_0713Step four: start counting out loud

  • Once the bird who will be “It” has been chosen, he or she closes his or her eyes and begins counting out loud to a decided number at a steady pace. Or they could say a rhyme or sing a song. Anything that kills some time so everyone else can go hide!
  • Make sure there’s no cheating! The bird who is “It” needs to have their eyes closed, wings over their eyes, and preferably facing the water. No peeking!

IMG_0721Step five: start hiding!

  • All of the chicks who are not “It” should run off and quietly hide from the bird who is counting. The bird who is “It” is not allowed to peek at the birds hiding from him or her. Make sure you’re quiet as you’re hiding or “It” can use his or her ears to tell the general direction you went.

IMG_0619Once you find your hiding spot, be silent and still

  • You don’t want to give yourself up once you’re hidden! . If you’re noisy, even the best hiding spot won’t conceal you.
  • Remember the goal is to be invisible!

IMG_1000When a young chick is “it”, don’t hide too well…

LETE chick copyor the game can get too frustrating for them

  • The younger you are, the more frustrated you could get with other chicks who are really good hiders.

IMG_4083Step six: keep your eyes open and start searching!

  • Once the bird who is “It” has finished counting, he or she yells “Ready or not, here I come!” At this point, they must try to find all of the other chicks who have hidden. Be sure to look with your eyes and listen with your ears!
  • If you are hiding and “It” is close to discovering you, move deftly. Crawling or slithering are the best options. However, if it is too late, be still and silent. The “It” can actually overlook you and go away.
  • The chicks who are hiding can move or switch hiding places, if they so choose. It’s a good idea to change positions and go hide in a place the seeker has already looked. That’s called a survival strategy.

Good luck and have fun!

Rice, milk, sugar, eggs

I would love to be able to share the recipe for this most wonderful rice pudding, but I’ve been forbidden to do so. According to my sister-in-law, it’s a “family” recipe and not meant to be shared with the world. She insists that only her dad could make it really right and that the recipe would self destruct if made to perfection by anyone but him.

: )

His recipe is unique in the quantity of rice used, I think, and leads to a thick milk custard with an understated presence of rice. Because I can’t leave well-enough-alone, the second time I made it, I dressed up the rice/milk mixture with a bay leaf, as well as the expected vanilla. It adds a little something nice.

I also tried my hand at flan this afternoon, another dessert made with the same basic ingredients – milk, sugar, eggs – but the jury is still out on that science experiment. It was easy to make, but for the caramel…

What’s your favorite dessert?

A counting

There’s 92 species of birds on the list for the year already; some favorites are American Pipit, Loggerhead Shrike and Wilson’s Plover. I’ve never kept a year list before. I don’t generally “do” lists, but thought it might be entertaining for a while. I’m wondering what a reasonable expectation for the year might be… 200? 250? Any additional birds will accumulate slowly until Spring, unless of course there’s travel involved. 2013 was a good year for new birds for me and I took a couple nice trips that added to my (only in my head) life list.

 

In February, we went to Sanibel Island, Ding Darling NWR, Cape Coral and Ft. DeSoto. The weather was crappy and the drive was interminable, but I hope to get back to that area sometime. Lots of neat birds…

Common Ground Dove – easily overlooked, but striking when they show their rusty wings.

Monk Parakeets feeding in the same field we found this Burrowing Owl; hard to say which felt more unlikely to this Jersey Girl.

: )

We also saw Nanday Parakeets and a Long-billed Curlew on that trip. Talk about impossible to imagine birds!

This Vermillion Flycatcher was probably the least expected bird I added to my nonexistent life list last year – just gorgeous! A friend of a friend on FB gave me directions to a town just west of Tallahassee and I found it in the exact tree where he said it would be – imagine!

I’ve no idea what new birds 2014 holds for me…

Happiness doubled by wonder

Cape May Point, Sandhill Cranes

It’s easy for me to forget where I am sometimes and get excited about birds that I shouldn’t. Eastern Phoebes and Pine Warblers, for example. They merit a FOS (first of season) post heralding the arrival of Spring to the local birding group in NJ, but here they’re regulars and spend the winter without anyone getting excited. The opposite of that almost happened with these Sandhill Cranes passing over Cape May Point… in Atlanta you can see scores of them heading south along the interstate on any fall day, but in NJ, they’re something special. In my heart, they’re something special. The wild sound of their cries drifted back to me long after they’d soared out of sight.

While I would’ve loved to visit all my favorite places and all my favorite people, there just wasn’t enough time. There was a visit to Sandy Hook for a very-far-away Snowy Owl and a drive past the coastal ponds that hold ducks all winter long. There weren’t many ducks yet, but those familiar places felt good anyway.

Stone Harbor Point, Snowy Owl

At Stone Harbor, we walked slowly, scanning the dunes and grass for what we knew was there, and found it facing a small rise that served as a windbreak. Snowy Owls may occasionally perch in trees or on a fencepost, but they are birds of wide open places and prefer to rest on the ground. This is not my first Snowy Owl, but as with all birds of prey, I’m impressed with the indifferent serenity of this predator with few fears, beyond the local pair of Peregrine Falcons.

First through binoculars and then with the spotting scope, we watched the owl’s half-closed eyes and mottled feathers, the head swiveling around occasionally in a smooth, liquid fashion as if it might just come unhinged at the next turn. The bird’s presence, despite the crowd of onlookers, was such that it seemed to transform this popular beach into tundra. When you see a bird like this, one that is so unconcerned, so self-contained and so strikingly beautiful, it is hard to turn away. The desire to see every detail and to keep looking is strong. The temptation to get closer is almost overwhelming. Instead we take photos, perhaps to assure ourselves later that the bird was real.

Near the 2nd Ave. jetty in Cape May, invisible Snow Buntings

Walking the beach with the Cape May lighthouse in the distance, a flock of Snow Buntings came flying right at us. There must have been at least a hundred of them and right before it seemed that they would mow us down, they parted and we were surrounded. Their colors seem copied from fields where snow drifts hide all but the tops of the tallest weeds… large spaces of pure white touched here and there with black and gray and brown. All I heard was the rustle of wings and the ocean… it was glorious. I felt lifted up and then they disappeared back into the dunes.

Forsythe NWR, Northern Harrier

Gosh I miss marshes and the harriers that haunt them! The sight of this one, troubling shorebirds as they fed on the mudflats of the refuge, had me laughing and singing to myself, “Watch while I make these Dunlin nervous…” which is a random reference to a Wheeler Boys song…

Forsythe NWR, Snow Geese

These birds, too, belong to a far away winter world. It was late afternoon and I was standing out in the cold waiting for the Snow Geese to fly across the road from one side of the refuge and over my head to the other side. It is one of the most spectacular things to witness… the gigantic flock of them, the lowering sun coloring up the white of their undersides, the noise of them. I love seeing them this way on a winter’s day too, with the hotels of Atlantic City as a backdrop. There might be a hundred different things in your head: things to do, worries and hopes, resentments and regrets. But it’s all forgotten listening to the noisy waves of geese and I felt my mind go clear, silent, here.

These words are here just to remind myself now. I was there. I was happy. Has it been a month already?

Almost perfect

I’m home now from Thanksgiving in NJ… tired but happy. I’m glad to report that vast quantities of mashed potatoes were consumed (as was a piece of Brian’s homemade cheesecake). I found my winter coat and was thankful for it. Surprise of all surprises, I found time amid the holiday craziness to see some good friends, as well as some good birds. Thankfully, we did not forget the Brussels sprouts or the mashed turnips. There was a beach walk and lots of wide-eyed staring at the places I miss so much. I thought about my dad a lot.

A loggerhead boil

“Take a walk with a turtle. And behold the world in pause.” 
 – Bruce Feiler 
I’d imagine that most of us (birders, naturalists, outdoorsy-types) have read a lot about the value of a real-life, hands-on nature experience to convert the rest of the world to our ranks. Be it hand-feeding chickadees or swimming with dolphins at Disney, I’d almost come to think of myself as superior to this type of experience, somehow beyond the magic of another “wildlife encounter”.  I’ve watched over endangered birds in the blazing hot sun, boxed up and delivered hawks and gulls to wildlife rehabilitators, rescued baby birds and bunnies from all sorts of self-imposed mischief, etc.
But I was not prepared to fall in love with baby sea turtles!
Years, now, of visits to the GA coast and FL panhandle had at least made me aware of their plight, but I’d never thought I’d be lucky enough to chance upon a real-life encounter with any. What are the chances of that, right?

A part of our beach-arrival ritual is to dip our toes in the sea, no matter the weather or time of day; it feels like coming home to me! On our first night of an experimental summer camping vacation, we walked the beach on Jekyll at low tide. It was empty and quiet, but for the almost full moon and a couple people out with red lights checking the sea turtle nests. We happened to talk to a couple of them, volunteer turtle nest monitors, and they directed us to nest #62 which looked as if it might hatch that night, in the next hour or so.

Really?!?

Squee!!!

So what if it was nearly midnight… we were on vacation and had nowhere else to be!

So we sat.

And we waited…

(for all of about 5 minutes)

before Jay thought he saw some movement and…

Sure enough, those baby loggerheads were boiling out of their nest! Coolest thing ever! It was pitch dark, but those little turtles knew their way to the ocean and we watched, and counted them, and cheered them on.

What luck!

So a couple days later we signed ourselves up for a “nest excavation” walk with the GA Sea Turtle Center. Their researchers dig up every nest on Jekyll a couple days after it’s hatched to record data about it. They count every hatched eggshell (51 in the nest we saw excavated) and they open each and every unhatched egg (49 in this case).

The unhatched eggshells were pretty gruesome and smelly. They estimate the stage of development each was in before it perished (the majority in this nest died very early in development.)

I’ve read that, historically, some people especially enjoyed the richness of cakes made with turtle eggs. Can you imagine?

Dead hatchlings are also counted – in this nest there were 2 – these are baby turtles that hatched, but died before making their way out of the nest and to the ocean.

Sometimes, live hatchlings are also found! There were 2 in this nest! I don’t know enough about Loggerheads to guess why they might stay behind in their sandy birthplace, refusing the call of the sea. Anybody know?

Two little Loggerheads were rescued from their sandy womb (tomb?) and pointed in the direction of the sea, with our cheers to urge them on. They didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, but with turtles, it’s hard to know.

; )

Sweet Sadie… ever patient and well-behaved, watched all of it pass her by at the tip of her nose.

(Tho there was one baby turtle she was determined to investigate as it made its way past her nose to the water that first night. I’m glad for any occasion to see her acting like a dog… but know enough to hold her very close!)

I was pretty surprised (pleasantly!) with how much this all touched me. There are devoted turtle-watchers who never get to see what we happened upon by chance and luck. 

I feel blessed.

A visit to Jekyll Island always manages, somehow, to be magical.

Our carnival life on the water

Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America — that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement… We never have the sense of home so much as when we feel that we are going there. It’s only when we get there that our homelessness begins.” ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again 

Hurricane Sandy wrecked communities rich and poor in NJ, from the Staten Island-meets-Miami style multi-million dollar homes of Bayhead to the blue collar bayfront bungalows near where I grew up. Its images were unimaginable and unbearable to me: of trashed boardwalks pushed into the sea, of an iconic roller coaster dumped into the ocean, of a road leading into the tide where homes used to be. From a thousand miles away and desperate for news of what was happening at home, it looked as if my childhood had been washed away and that the entire Jersey Shore that I knew and loved was gone.

Eight months later, towards the beginning of last month, I went home to NJ for a couple days expecting to find a ruined way of life there, but also hoping, still, to catch a faint whiff of the competing aromas that signal “home”at the Jersey Shore: the fried dough of zeppoles just before the powdered sugar goes on, the sweet muck of a local salt marsh at low tide, the extra garlic on pizza slices and the salt spray coming off the ocean. All of these live deep in the soul of NJ for me. I found all of it, at once, and witnessed small moments in the sad seaside ritual of rebuilding the storm-damaged communities that I hold dear.

I can’t pretend to be untouched by grief at the total destruction of the shore towns that are a backdrop to a thousand stories in my life. But the Jersey Shore is more than a place; it’s more than its wood-plank promenades and town squares on stilts. It’s more than its carnival lights. It’s more than a staging ground for summer. For many, it’s an identity and an attitude. I love the shore best on foggy days when you can’t even see the boardwalk or the ocean, but can only smell it. I love the dampness and the feeling that you can almost lick the salt out of the air. I love the dampness in the sheets at night when you go to bed. You’d never put up with that anywhere else, but at the shore, it just feels right! When you walk around at night, you smell the boardwalk everywhere. There’s always a far-off murmur of traffic. It feels safe. It feels comfortable. It feels like home. All of these things, thankfully, remain.

*Photo of where a house used to be in Union Beach, one of the hardest hit communities in NJ.

*Post title from “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” by Bruce Springsteen

No whining in paradise

Isn’t there a saying about a rainy day at the beach being better than almost anything…

: )

So it rained while we were in Florida and when it stopped raining it got so cold and windy that being outside on the beach was almost unbearable.

Almost.

We got to do all the things I was hoping for and it was still fun, but the weather did put a damper on things.

Florida is magical to me, regardless of the weather, really. During the many hours on the road, driving back and forth on I-75, I found myself remembering a road trip my family made to Florida when I was a kid. I don’t remember much about that trip beyond the rain and that I had to sit next to the leaky window in the backseat of my dad’s Cadillac.

Any trip to Florida still holds a certain level of excitement for the Jersey Girl in me. Growing up, the lucky kids got to go to Florida on vacation.

: )

But having been able, recently, to visit different parts of the state, I’m seeing it differently now and starting to form opinions about favorite places to spend time.

That’s a good thing, I guess. The magic isn’t at Disney anymore, but instead in the places that aren’t so developed. The roadside orange groves and blooming bougainvillea delighted me. The palm tree-lined streets are charming, but for all the traffic. The birds are amazing… I’ve never seen so many Osprey!

So… I came home without even so much as a sunburn. I’ve a bucket of seashells from Sanibel to sort through and some lovely photos of Florida “junk birds” like this Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. Plus the memories of a couple rainy days in paradise…

Nauset Light and around Cape Cod

Sometimes just looking up and seeing the light is enough.” 
~Terri Guillemets

Birders are a generous lot, as a rule. Mention on FB that you’ll be visiting a particular place and before you know it, birder friends will have dinner plans and an itinerary made for you, including convenient stops along the way from the airport where you can find whatever species of bird it is that you’re pining after.

I’d been pining away for Piping Plovers, it being March and all. March is the month when plovers return to NJ beaches from wherever it is that they’ve spent the winter months. March in the Northeast is the most miserable of months, I think, because Spring is so close on the horizon and you want it so badly, but the weather is dank and damp and mostly miserable, cold and gray.

On the tails of a short vacation in Florida, a couple days on Cape Cod in March seemed an impossibility… I’d given away most all of my cold-weather clothes before moving here and going from shorts and flip-flops to thermal underwear and gloves in the span of a week felt ridiculous! But… there might be Piping Plovers!

I spent an afternoon wandering around the city of Boston… remembering the cold and delighting in a Dunkin’ Donuts on almost every corner! Spring had the willows in Boston Commons that lovely green that willows know how to perfect.

Weeping willows are not very common here. Surprising that I should miss them…

The coast of Florida is, of course, beautiful and I’m glad for each and every chance to visit, but beaches there lack something that beaches in the Northeast have in abundance. It might be the wind that never rests. Or air that is thick with salt and the smell of low tide. Oh, how I miss that smell! Maybe it’s just atmosphere and the feeling of home. There are beautiful and scenic places where I live now, but no easy access to the ocean.

We met up with a local Cape Cod bird club and spent an appropriately cold and misty, rainy morning on the beach at Nauset Light (thanks for the suggestion Mojoman!) looking at winter birds. We wandered along dirt roads on the Cape looking at ducks and exploring the ponds that Mary Oliver described in her poetry.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast perched on Gull Hill in Provincetown… and scanned the harbor for breaching whales while we had afternoon wine and cheese and watched Northern Gannets dive into the ocean from the warmth of our rental car at Herring Cove Beach.

Race Point Beach had plover fencing installed, but no Piping Plovers, yet.

Compensation for the lack of plovers was found at the wharf in P-town, where we found Harlequins and Common Eiders within spitting distance! Eiders have always been one of those birds for me… I’d never had a really satisfying look at them before and anywhere that one can see Harlequins without a treacherous jetty-walk (like at Barnegat Light) is worth a visit.

Of course I didn’t have a proper camera with me, you know.

Silly.

I’d love to get back to Cape Cod in the summer someday… maybe even visit Nantucket. I’d imagine late September to be the perfect time of year… maybe I could catch the Piping Plovers before they depart…