Most birders have a sentinel patch or first sighting that opened up the world of birds for them. It may have been a solitary moment in the wild or just a momentary glance out the kitchen window. It might have been the inspiration of a gifted bird guide or perhaps the emulation of a parent or friend. In any case, I’ve found that many birders fondly remember that moment.
For me this moment occurred some 50 years ago while traipsing through the fields adjacent to our family cottage on the shore of Keuka Lake in Upstate New York. What is that secretive bright yellow bird with the black mask that suddenly popped up from the grass, took a look at me, and quickly dove back into cover? This was not a usual feeder or yard bird, but something entirely new. Petersen’s bird guide clued me in; it was the Common Yellowthroat, clearly illustrated on that page. I was hooked and a birder was born.
The name of this post is the title of Arch Merrill’s venerable and folksy tale of these Finger Lakes, written in 1951. The six major lakes from west to east are Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles. Each are long, narrow, and deep, oriented north and south, and cover a large area of central New York State. Old Iroquois legend claims the “fingers” were formed when the Great Spirit pressed his hand onto the gentle rolling hills, blessing this land for the Iroquois Nation. Our current scientific lore describes their origin from the gouging, retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age.
Today these lake are lined with cottages. Some are palatial, but most, like ours, are more modest gathering sites for generations of families. The clear lakes are dotted with pleasure craft and the bordering hills are adorned with vineyards and numerous small wineries. There are quiet shaded glens and impressive waterfalls. For a few short months of every year there is no place that I can think of that is more suitable for pleasant living.
I was beckoned back to the region this September for the 40th reunion of my medical school class in Syracuse. The cottage was perfect lodging for the occasion and gave me a chance to spend time with my New Mexican brother who was also responding to the lure of our childhood home. He, in fact, had trailed an old classic sailboat across the continent to renew our joys of tacking back and forth between Keuka’s shores.
There are two 50-75 acre fields adjacent to our cottage. One is mowed yearly and the other has been left untouched for 40 years. These represent a laboratory model of ecological succession, comparing the results of a yearly disturbance with the progressive succession of plant life in an old undisturbed field. By September the mowed field had become an array of typical grasses, weeds, and wildflowers with Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, and Batchelor’s Button most prominent. We have observed the succession in the other field from these initial weeds and grasses to later clumps of small Sumac, Cedar, and Pine. Years later we now have crowded stands of tall trees including Sweet Gum, Cottonwood, Birch, and Red Cedar, all intertwined with Poison Ivy and Virginia Creeper. These fields and the dirt road which divides them are my sentinel patch.
Over these 50 years the patch list has grown to a modest 56 avian species. Birding was slow last week but my non-birder brother reported seeing a Golden Eagle. I wondered if it may have been an immature Bald. I got a brief distant look at the large dark bird and it was clearly an eagle, but the exact ID was still indefinite; maybe it was a Golden. The hedgerow along the dirt road did yield a Wilson’s Warbler with its fading black cap, a new bird for the patch.
There was standing room only at the feeder with Black-capped Chickadees, American Gold and House Finches, and Downey Woodpeckers most numerous. I heard but did not see a White-breasted Nuthatch. Its been several years since I spotted the sentinel Common Yellowthroat there. It seems that neither field habitat is conducive to its needs. It all makes sense; field succession begets wildlife and bird succession. Nothing stays the same.
They say that you can never go home. That’s not entirely true as long as you allow some inevitable newness to creep in among the vestiges of the old. Just as fields undergo succession and medical students age, our childhood haunts and homes will never be exactly as we remember them. The cottage is a perfect example of this. My sister and her husband have “modernized” it, while faithfully preserving some past structures, furniture and pictures as a reminder of 60 years of family history. It remains a lure for us to come home and for future generations to enjoy. The lakes, fields and hills continue to beckon the birds as well as us crazies that yearn to observe and photograph the same species, every year, over and over again.