Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts through Birds. John R. Nelson. 2019. Bright Leaf, University of Massachusetts Press.
Voyagers, Visitors, and Home. Dale Monette. 2020. Highland Press. Athol, Massachusetts.
Birding travel teaches that exoticism—applied to birds, places, or people—is all about perspective. (p. 7, Flight Calls)
Massachusetts is quite a small state, squeaking in at number 45 in a list that starts with the behemoth of Alaska, the largest state. Alaska clocks in at a whopping 1,477,953 square kilometers. If Alaska is a Great Cassowary, then Massachusetts is a mere American Robin. You could theoretically drive from Provincetown to Pittsfield in about six hours or less, providing there were no lights, traffic, or "staties." Granted the Bay State may cover only 20,202 square kilometers, but jammed in that relatively tiny area is a wealth of natural attractions, and that means a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. Below are two books about the birds of Massachusetts, each from a very different geographical perspective. One author calls the rocky shores of Cape Ann his home turf, while the other author's home patch is based in the forests of North Quabbin. Both authors have very different styles of expressing their love of Massachusetts wildlife; one is a writer and essayist, the other is a photographer. Taken together, they create a loving portrait of the state's remaining wild areas.
"Through the gulls, owls, and warblers of Cape Ann, I've found the cultural history of this place called home." (p. 51, Flight Calls)
John R. Nelson is a professor emeritus at North Shore Community College. He is a published writer, typically of essays, and Flight Calls is a fine collection of his pieces that focus on the birds and birders of Massachusetts. A number of these have appeared previously in publications like the Antioch Review, Harvard Review, Birdwatcher's Digest, and, of course, Bird Observer.
Nelson came to birds rather late in his life, and this gives him a different perspective than one reads in work penned by hard-core birders obsessed since their childhood.
"I turned to birding only after a midlife run of orthopedic insults ended my amateur careers in basketball, touch football, and tennis." (p. 3)
It was while he was recuperating from the surgeries in Monteverde, Costa Rica, that on a whim he decided to try a professionally led bird walk. He enjoyed it and something clicked. When he returned to his home on Cape Ann, he took up bicycling as exercise and began to notice all the birds he passed on his outings. A birder was born. But Nelson's writing is never just about the birds.
After I returned, I looked to combine my newfound love of birds with my long-standing love of literature. I hatched a plan to write a grand book tracing the history of American literature from a birder's perspective. After several editors persuaded me I'd never find a publisher, I kept reading anyway, partly as research for essays, but mostly out of curiosity. (p. 113)
Because of this passion for literature, Nelson's essays are filled with references to other writers. Sometimes these become the focus of the essay itself, and there are wonderful sections in Flight Calls about Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and their connections to birds and birding. Sometimes it may be just an offhand reference that adds color and interest to the essay: "Eastern Point is where T.S. Eliot spent his summers from 1895 through 1909, the last of these in a house his father built by the moors above Niles Beach." (p. 57)
John Kieran, surely the only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame (as a sportswriter) with a bird sanctuary (in Rockport) named after him, described one ‘dignified' gull standing aboard a floating ice cake like ‘a ferryboat captain in command of his gallant craft.'(p. 53)
This "love of lit" means that Nelson is curious about the human side of birding and what motivates birders to have such a singular passion. The depths of a birder's obsession can seem a bit crazy to a nonbirder. "Beyond birds themselves, I'm fascinated by what people make of birds—the ways various species have been envied, spiritualized, imitated, and reviled in human myths and literature and painstakingly studied by both professionals and amateurs." (p. 9)
Even though I lived in Worcester for my entire birding life, when I began birding in the mid 1970s, I was immediately drawn to the North Shore and the birders who could be found on Plum Island and Cape Ann. Through the 1980s, I learned the basics of birding, identification, and how to lead a trip from a welcoming crew of hard-core East Coast birders. Many of these prominent birders, who influenced young birders at the time, make an appearance in Nelson's essays. For an entire generation of birders, spotting Bill Drummond leading a classic Plum Island BBC trip, or getting the latest bird news from Judge Larry Jodrey and Jerry Soucy, was as expected as finding Purple Sandpipers on the rocks of Andrew's Point in winter. Sadly, many of these people have passed on, and Massachusetts birding is the poorer for it. Reading a number of Nelson's essays, as a birder of a "certain age," I found myself feeling nostalgic for what now seems a Golden Age of state birding.
Getting old and how that affects you as a birder is a topic that Nelson embraces in several essays. In "Convalescence" (p. 245–49), Nelson writes about the birds he experiences under the influence of serious pain killers. After yet another surgery, he writes about what it's like to be laid up recovering when your heart and mind yearn to be outside looking at birds. In "Further Adventures in Four-legged Birding" (p. 250–53), Nelson describes getting out into the field with crutches. It is somewhat comforting to read that he has been as reckless as I have been when recovering from an injury: "One winter's day I crutched the full length of the granite slabs of the Dog Bar breakwater. Mary walked with me to make sure I didn't go over the edge." (p. 250)
As you approach and then pass 70 years of age, you realize you are no longer the spry "anything for the bird" lister you were in your youth. If you have suffered a catastrophic illness or serious accident, your birding may be similarly affected but at a much earlier age. With luck you have developed interests other than birding as the decades have passed, and these inevitably temper your youthful single-mindedness. As a senior, you may think twice about bugging out of a friend's wedding because a Brambling has just shown up in Massachusetts. You may still think about it, but you won't actually do it. The reason may be that just ticking a bird on a list is no longer the main reason you enjoy watching birds. But it's not just your mind that matures. Your body is also now a lot creakier than it was 40 years back. Getting up at 3:00 am to make a run to the coast at dawn may not be the easy decision it once was. These are all common issues that are unfortunately rarely written about in the birding literature. In "Geezer Birding" (p. 254–58), Nelson is brutally honest about how ageing really affects your birding acumen and how to live gracefully with the realities of becoming a bona fide geezer with binoculars.
"I don't have this problem with another topic: birding while old. As a certified geezer birder, I know I have plenty of company." (p. 255)
Though Flight Calls' main focus is on the North Shore, a number of Nelson's essays range over the entire state and describe visits to other locations like Quabbin and Cape Cod. Nelson's subject matter is as varied as the species mentioned. There are essays on birding by bicycle, the odd street and place names of Cape Ann, and historical pieces on people like Edward Howe Forbush. One piece describes John's being mistaken in the field for another John Nelson who is also a birder. "For Birds and People: The Brookline Bird Club" (p.134-55) is a must read history of Massachusetts' oldest and most popular bird club. This endlessly fascinating essay describes the grand old days of birding in Massachusetts, back before the Internet, smartphones, and digital photography. The BBC would arrange 3-day excursions to such exotic locations as Cape Ann or New Salem. Club members would travel by train en masse to "far flung locations like Newburyport" (p. 141). There were even club trips to Martha's Vineyard to view the last remaining Heath Hen. By describing these activities of one bird club, Nelson also traces the evolution of birding in all of Massachusetts.
Throughout each essay in Flight Calls, Nelson is interesting and erudite company. It is a book to dip into and enjoy whenever you have some quiet time. His knowledge of literature is matched by his passion for local history and art history. This makes Flight Calls a book that is never just about the birds, but also about the people who have written about birds and the places where those birds are found. His last chapter, "The Birds After Us" (p. 293-307), addresses the elephant in the room of environmental degradation and global climate change. It's happening all around us and affecting the birds we seek, yet many birders often act like nothing is happening.
The "sorry truth", says Scott Weidensaul, is that "birders as a community have been woefully neglectful of the conservation side of the birding equation." In 1962, Roger Tory Peterson told a friend that birders had been "playing at conservation." People who didn't care about birds were aggressively destroying the country he loved. "We have to got to be far more militant," Peterson said. (p. 305-6)
Though Nelson is justifiably alarmed by the current dire situation, he refuses to succumb to a paralyzing depression, and his final paragraph offers up a slight glimmer of hope. Flight Calls is the perfect book to enjoy while you defrost by a fire after a winter's morning birding.
Photographing birds offers a way to share my passions for our modern-day dinosaurs." (p. 8, Voyagers, Visitors, and Home)
It is surprising to realize that just 20 years ago very few birders carried cameras. Film was expensive and you wasted so much of it on the often uncooperative birds. You had to depend on professionals to develop your photographs. If you wanted to develop your own color photography, that was another extremely complicated and expensive enterprise involving creating a darkroom, getting special papers, and lots of chemicals. Thanks to the digital revolution, we all can now photograph birds, if only just for the "record shot." All you need is a decent camera (or just a phone!) and a computer, and you can fine tune and edit your shots in the comfort of your home. No middleman, no chemicals. Because of this proliferation of cameras, serious photography for potential publication is an avocation many more people are now taking up. Very good photographs of wildlife seem to be everywhere, so the field of wildlife photography has become crowded and very competitive. Birders with bulky cameras crowd around every rarity found, as they jostle each other for that perfect shot. Sometimes they become an annoyance to other birders. Sometimes they actually harass the bird. It's the birding world we now live with.
Massachusetts has a number of very fine wildlife photographers, but one of my favorites is Dale Monette. He has been passionate about birds since he was in high school. "My discovery of birds came in the 1960s during the spring as a fourteen-year-old, eighth-grade science student of Robert Coyle." (p. 8)
Eventually Monette worked for the Metropolitan District Commission, now known as the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Quabbin Reservoir became his workplace. It was at this time Monette got to know William (Bill) C. Byrne Jr., state wildlife biologist and wildlife photographer, the person to whom Voyagers, Visitors, and Home is dedicated. Through Byrne, Monette learned the basics of photographing wild subjects.
For years now, Monette has been wandering the wilds of North Quabbin, often sitting unobtrusively in some quiet spot he loves, for hours, waiting for some mammal or bird to put in an appearance. Over the years he has learned where some of the best spots to watch wildlife are located, information he only shares with close friends. Several times a week, through the entire year, Monette makes a trek into Quabbin just to sit and watch and hopefully photograph the wildlife he loves. His patience is inspiring.
Voyagers, Visitors, and Home is his second published collection of his photographs. His first book of photographs was Secret Lives of the Quabbin Watershed, published in 2017 by Haleys. Secret Lives' focus was the wildlife of only the Quabbin watershed. Voyagers, Visitors, and Home features a number of photographs taken in places other than Quabbin. At the Turners Falls Power Canal in Montague, a well-known birding destination in winter, Monette photographed the 19 Tundra Swans that put down there one day. There are also several stunning shots of the postbreeding Great Egrets that fed along the canal. Monette raced out to photograph the 10 Sandhill Cranes that dropped in for just a few hours at the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust Eagle Reserve in Royalston. Farther afield, there are photographs of a Great Gray Owl found in New Hampshire, beautiful shots of a Snowy Owl on Plum Island, and some impressive photographs of a bull moose from Cape Breton Island.
Nesting Great Blue Herons © Dale Monette.
But the north Quabbin area remains Monette's home base and the location of some his best, most personal, photography. Monette has participated in several of the official loon counts there and has amassed an amazing collection of shots of pairs of loons through their breeding season. He also documents the activities of a small rookery of Great Blue Herons found at one of his favorite beaver ponds. Besides birds, he is particularly passionate about watching and photographing the signature mammals of north Quabbin, including eastern coyote, bobcat, beaver, and particularly the river otter.
In Voyagers, Visitors, and Home every photograph is captioned with several sentences that detail how Monette got the shot as well as describing some aspect of the bird or mammal's behavior that is seen in the shot. "The beaver cruised by the heron, turned around and went back. As soon as he got beside the heron, the beaver smacked his tail hard in the water and scared the daylights out of the heron. I chuckle every time I look at the image." (p. 33)
There are longer introductory essays to sections of photographs dedicated to a single species that describe their behavior and occurrence in Massachusetts. This makes Voyagers, Visitors, and Home not just a collection of beautiful and entertaining color photography, but also a fine introduction to the ecology of the wildlife of Central Massachusetts. An important feature of this book is the centerpiece photo-essay "Reintroduction of the Bald Eagle as a nesting species in Massachusetts, 1982-1988" (p. 62-77). Through a series of full page annotated photographs taken by Monette as well as Bill Byrne, readers are shown the long process of how the Bald Eagle was successfully reintroduced to Massachusetts thanks to the considerable efforts of a dedicated team that included Monette.
Bald Eagles imprint on the area where they grow up and mature sexually between the ages of four and five years. Experts theorized that they would return to nest, raise young, and call Quabbin home, becoming the first nesting bald eagles in Massachusetts since 1906. The first year, MassWildlife brought two six-week-old eaglets from Michigan and released the chicks into the wilds of Quabbin after they lived for six weeks in the thirty-foot-tall hacking tower. (p. 64)
Barred Owl © Dale Monette.
This Quabbin-based hacking program has to rate as one of New England's most spectacularly successful wildlife reintroductions. Today, Bald Eagles breed in a number of locations across the state and are regularly seen by even casual observers thanks to this program.
All of Monette's contemporary photography is beautifully and crisply reproduced in Voyagers, Visitors, and Home. This is a beautiful collection of photos, taken by a dedicated and indefatigable photographer. But this is more than just another coffee table book. Through his photography, writing, and lectures, Dale Monette has become a passionate advocate for the remaining wild areas of Central Massachusetts. Voyagers, Visitors, and Home shows the reader why these places are so special and need to be preserved.