thar she blows

I’ve been landbound nearly my whole life. I’ve never been so far from a shore that I couldn’t see it, unless I was in the air. And after marrying into a family of seasick landlubbers, I’ve hesitated to test myself on the open water. But Long Island is a finger extended far into the ocean, and the ocean means more than beaches.

It means whales.

This past Sunday, some friends and I joined a whale-watching-and-research-survey cruise hosted by the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. Midmorning, we chugged out of Montauk Harbor at the very tip of the south fork of the island, heading toward Block Island about 14 miles away. I kept thinking, “I don’t know anyone who’s seen this view of Montauk Lighthouse.” As the lighthouse, and the WWII radar tower, and the headlands of my island faded behind us, even the gulls abandoned their seats on the tour. Block Island loomed, and then shrank to a hovering mass on the horizon. The coast of Long Island disappeared.

Montauk-Point-Lighthouse herringgull

It takes a long time to cross that distance over water. Hours, I think, though I wasn’t checking. The ocean quietly scintillated around us, the sun beat down, and the ocean-going birds must have been somewhere else. I almost thought the whales were too. But no. We idled a few minutes. Then the captain suddenly threw the engine into gear, the PA system hummed with the voices of the spotters, and we plowed toward distant cones of steam. Fin whales blowing. Three of them.

two-whales roll finbackdive

There are only so many pictures you can take of a 60-foot sleek grey back cutting the ripples, steaming exhalations through enormous nostrils, yards of a mostly unseen body sliding past, arching up, slicing the air with a blade of fin, sinking smoothly out of sight. It all looks the same on screen, but each instance feels different. Olympic divers would be envious: 70-odd tons, and not a hint of a splash. Fin whales are so powerful, they don’t have to lift their tails out of the water like other whales. They don’t need any extra boost of power as they dive. They whip their flukes unseen under the waves, and disappear. All they leave behind are wide slicks of flattened surface water, anomalously out of sync with the rest of the wind-riffled waves.

They’re so fast they escaped the first great age of whaling, only to become the most tempting prey in the ocean once our hunting technology caught up with them. Their populations are only recently starting to recover in the North Atlantic.

Our guide, Dr. Artie Koppelman, doled out bits of information in these snail-paced doses. He told us that the whales empty their lungs at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. Fwoom. Being inside those giant lungs as they exhale would be like being flattened by a train, I thought. He told us that Fin whales are assymetrically colored: the right side of their face is white, contrasting with the rest of their grey-brown bodies. I didn’t catch sight of that feature, the whales surfaced, breathed, dove so fast. He told us we had seen a mother and a calf pair, and that the calf, at nearly six months old, would soon set off on its own. We watched the calf roll, lifting a fin out of the water, using the torque of its rotation to close its mouth against the 18,000 gallons of water it gulped to strain for food.

We only saw three of the giant Fin whales, though other tours have seen dozens of other whales and dolphins in the same patch of ocean. They’re big enough to find from miles away, and yet somehow the ocean isn’t big enough for them anymore. Once there were hundreds of thousands of Fins. And hundreds of thousands of Blues. And all the others, an ocean literally teeming with flocks of the most enormous creatures ever seen in the universe, and all the other things in the ocean that fed them. It teems much less now.

Eventually, we let the whales go on without us. The boat turned west, back toward the lighthouse that waited for us on Montauk’s reinforced cliffs. Sun-tired and listless, most of the passengers stopped watching the ocean, until someone spotted a dark fin cutting the water, and another blade of fin sinuously trailing it in languid figure-eights.


Can you see it?
Can you see it?

A real, live Hammerhead shark! In the ocean! The same ocean I swim in all summer! I wanted to put on a snorkel and trail my head in the water all the way back to port. The surface was quiet the rest of the trip, but there had to be more. I wanted to see them.

Naturalists develop the habit of visiting specific patches of earth often. Different times of year, times of day, different ways of being in the same place yield way more insight into the way other things live than a once-and-done pass through. I’ve seen more species in my patches throughout the years than I think I’d see if I chased every rare-bird sighting, or toured all most popular spots on the island.


Ocean sunfish!
Ocean sunfish!


I wish I could make a patch of the ocean, and as of this trip, I’m going to rate myself sea-worthy enough to take a stab at it. There’s no such thing as a whale-watching season pass, but I’m going to do my darndest to get out there as often as I can. It’s a big ocean, and there’s still a hell of a lot to see in it.

bird by bird

birdsofnorthamericaA few weeks ago, I asked a question on Twitter: How many North American birds could you name by sight? For many of my friends, the answer turned out to be, “More than I thought, now that I’m counting.” And over the past few weeks, some of them have returned to the question, realizing, over time, that they know more birds than they imagined. Great Blue Heron. Gull. Robin. Chickadee. Blue Jay. Pigeon. Flicker. Sparrow. Turkey. Crow. Red-tailed Hawk. It comes as a surprise, it seems.

And I wonder if the same question occurs to them as occurs to me: how exactly did I come to know in the first place?

Bird-minded folks sometimes ask one another, “What’s your spark bird?” It’s a beautifully phrased question about our origins, and among the disciples, it can be revealing. Was it a humble robin? An exotic or elusive bird? A particularly striking warbler? Some birders remember a specific feathered individual. Me personally, I can never nail down the moment.

I remember one warm summer evening at my grandparents’ house on the bank of the Rock River. I was about nine or so, exploring the yard in torn shorts and long braids. I sat alone on a splintery picnic table under a sprawling silver maple, watching dusk fall on the river. Out of the summer hum of crickets and cicadas, I picked up a sound I was particularly tuned in to: a kitten, crying in a lilac bush. Though I couldn’t find it, I ran to the kitchen to tell my grandma, who is also tuned in the key of cat. I led her across the yard to where I’d found the kitten, which I’d already claimed and named, but when she heard its voice, her face fell. “Oh geeze,” she said. “It’s only a catbird.”

“What’s a catbird?”

“It’s a bird that sounds like a cat!” She turned back to the house.

I stayed, and peered into the darkening bush, trying for a glimpse of this bird that sounded so much like a kitten that it’d fooled its namers, too. Catbirds are difficult to spot when they don’t care to be seen, and it was years before I actually caught sight of one, a slaty grey skulker. Years more before I discovered their bright red bloomers. But after that encounter, I never stopped looking.

I remember how my mom knew the names of the birds who visited the feeders she hung outside our dining room—flicker, cardinal, sparrow, chickadee, blue jay, starling. And the names she recalled, but couldn’t hang decisively on any of our visitors: grackle, finch, blackbird, nuthatch. We were not a family of naturalists, and I’m pretty sure birds weren’t on the school curriculum. Most likely she learned from her own mother, she who named the catbird. But how did she know? And who taught her? Few of my friends knew any birds beyond robins. The knowledge always felt like a special family trait, even though its source is a mystery to me. I’m not exactly sure I want to know the true history.

I remember the house finches, too, or at least their painted likeness on a certain glossy page. My other grandparents kept a copy of the Golden Guide to Birds on their coffee table. I would leaf back and forth through the book when I visited, admiring the colors, the weight of the paper, the way it settled open to particular species in my palm.

My grandparents never actually pointed out any birds to me, but they did pass on an old guide they didn’t use any more. It grew dusty and creased as old paperbacks do in the hands of middle-schoolers. Those guides were probably published with that well-worn and well-loved patina, anyway. Somehow the illustrations came to life in the mind of a suburban girl, far distant from their home habitats. The stripedy-purply finches in the field guide’s paintings occupied my imagination for years, until the day I finally saw them in real life. I recognized them instantly, as well as others I finally met in person years later: sandpipers, kestrels, bluebirds.

I suspect that lots of folks have lived similar stories. Instead of a feathered coup de foudre—a lightning strike of love—our minds stayed quietly welcoming and open to a growing awareness of the nature of things. All the creatures crept into my consciousness undercover, by way of books and backyards. And I realized how many I knew by name only when I started looking.

How about you? Do you have a spark bird, or were you a slow learner? And while we’re on the subject, I wish someone in my life had been a fan of fungi, because I’d be much better off if I’d gotten a head start as a kid. Are there any critters or plants you wish you’d known about long ago?


I borrowed the title of this post from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” which is excellent.


It’s 5:45 a.m., and the rising sun is warming everything, including a cluster of sleepy Hog Island campers. We met for a bird walk during the dawn chorus, but we haven’t made it past the front yard. We’re all staring at a veil of stringy lichen hanging off a skinny pine branch. All the trees in this part of Maine are so adorned, but this clump is special.

“See, right there? About two-thirds from the end of that stick?” Someone points, and I see instantly, because a bird just landed on the clump, and it explodes with jingly chirps and wiggly begging. There’s a pocket-nest tucked in the lichen, and it belongs to a bird who’s the landside soul of Hog Island, the Northern Parula.

parula1Look at your thumb. Now imagine a bird as long from beak to tail as that thumb, nail to palm. (Unless you have long fingers. Then you should omit a knuckle.). Now imagine that this tiny sprite laid tinier eggs that hatched, after two weeks of warmth and waiting, into teensy, naked chicks. And now grow those chicks for ten days, open their eyes, cover them with soft, grey feathers, and arrive at the morning they’re ready to fly.

Good morning.

Mama Parula comes back to the nest every couple of minutes with a caterpillar, and the chicks go wild. They’re strong now, and their bouncing is starting to pull their nest apart, the pocket-mouth wide now enough that we catch glimpses of pert chick faces gazing out between feedings.


Julie Zickefoose, artist, camp instructor, and baby bird maven extraordinaire recognizes the signs. “These babies are ready to go,” she says. “Today’s the day.” Hopefully they know it themselves, and not a moment too soon. They’re sitting ducks, flightless in the nest, as we’re reminded by the appearance of a questing chickaree squirrel. The chipmunk-sized chickarees, cute as they are, will snatch the nearly fledged chicks right out of the nest. This one seems to be cluing in that there may be a snack nearby.

“If he gets any closer, I’m gonna do something,” Julie growls. I’m feeling growly too, so I start looking for a rock to throw, just in case. Usually I abide by nature’s order, but today I’m rooting for the parulas.

chickaree2Papa Parula is around too, though we’ve heard more of him than we’ve seen. Mama’s doing all of the feeding, as far as we can tell, but Papa catches sight of the encroaching chickaree and flits into view, scolding and chasing the bemused squirrel up and away to another tree. Maybe we won’t be throwing rocks today after all.

parula2 parula3 Anyway, the question of rocks becomes moot quite suddenly, as the nest heaves and shakes, and one of the chicks lights out fast as a blink. It doesn’t fall like a rock, either. It flies, tailless and stubby-winged, miraculously, right out into the safety of the world. Minutes later, a sibling follows, and now the whole family pops around the pine trees, cheeping to each other as parents carrying fresh meals seek the exploring (and napping) chicks on the boughs.

All day long, I mull over what the world would be like if we lived more like these birds, and I give thanks they’re not more like us.

Papa Parula’s song accompanies all our home-base activities for the rest of the week. His accelerating, buzzy zee zee zeezezezeZE ah-CHOO is printed on my soul. A bird that sneezes? Must be my spirit animal.

Throughout the week, I become very accomplished at spotting the adult parulas working the tree branches while I sip my morning coffee. And I wonder, and hope, after the babies. The fourth morning after the chicks fledged, I step onto the balcony of the building where I’ve been sleeping. I can peer right into the canopy of a three-story birch tree, and a clamor of cheeps and squawks draws my attention to a bough right in front of me, where I see, of all things, one of the downy grey parula chicks fluffing and squatting for a nap.

parulachickI think they’re going to be alright.