Audubon, PA

I might have been keen to shake the dust of New York City from my shoes if there were any dust, but the sidewalks are hosed down each morning and it was a bit of a drizzly morning.  But this was the start of my drive West and I was keen to see the miles ticking by, but there was just one more thing to do before I really put the right pedal to good use.  I wanted to get to see something of Audubon.

Heading through the Lincoln Tunnel into New Jersey there was only one choice of music – Springsteen, a New Jersey boy, himself.

My journey would take a couple of hours according to the journey planner and it probably would have done if it weren’t for the difficulty of reading a map as a sole driver and spotting the signs and having a feel for the route.  But it took more like 5 hours to get to where I intended.

Admittedly I stopped for gas and tried to stop at Vera’s Family Restaurant for breakfast – but Vera’s was clearly a great place for breakfast and there was a long queue.  So I carried on down the road to the Chalfont Family Restaurant which also was busy – but had space for me.  I wonder what I missed at Vera’s?  After my country omelette I was pointed in the direction of Ralph and asked him to point me in the direction of Audubon, PA where John James Audubon had once lived.  Ralph pointed me helpfully in the right direction.

John James Audubon was sent to live in Pennsylvania by his father – probably to avoid having to fight for Napoleon against our own Duke of Wellington.  He arrived in PA at the age of 18 and stayed for a few years – farming, sketching and studying the local wildlife.

If he hadn’t been a draft-dodger maybe he would have died at Waterloo, bayonetted by a Coldstream Guard, and the world’s most expensive book would never have been produced.

Audubon’s Birds of America is a priceless work of life-sized prints – although you have a chance of purchasing a copy if you have a spare $11.5m on you – the price one sold at last December.

The admission to the Audubon Centre in Audubon PA is, by contrast, a very reasonable $4 (and I could have got in for $3 if I had been prepared to lie about my age – upwards!).  There is an exhibition of the great man’s work in various forms including a quarter-sized, four volume copy of the work.  I looked at all the warblers.

The plates are very beautiful even if not a patch on Sibley or Peterson for accuracy.  This work was at the time a stupendous achievement and Audubon sent far and wide for skins of birds which he then painted.

I looked at the Bachman’s Warbler carefully as I am never going to see one in the flesh – it’s a gorgeous rendition of what I assume was a gorgeous bird.  The Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet (which we will get to, eventually) and other extinct American species are illustrated.  At the time of his work Audubon could not possibly have predicted which of these species would by now have exited the planet.  I imagine Passenger Pigeon, present in its billions and well-known to Audubon himself, would have been way down his list of threatened species if he had had such a list.

The Museum is small but intimate.  You can sit and draw from stuffed birds as Audubon himself did if you care to, and looking out of the upstairs window I wondered how often this great artist had looked out of the same pane.

At 39 ” by 26″ the Birds of America is no pocket guide – but the plates are stunning in their beauty and breathtaking in their vividness considering that the artist was dealing with skins and bodies for the most part.

If you are in the area, do go visit.  But do your research as to how to get there – it’s very near the historic site of Valley Forge but not well-signposted at all.

I took away a little book of postcards of the warblers – for far less than $11.5m.  But I also took away a great deal of pleasure in finding out a little more about one of the world’s finest artists and most admirable draft-dodgers.


Liberty and the pursuit of happiness

I was in Central Park by 630am – and it may have been too early.  There weren’t that many birds around.  I added Magnolia Warbler to my list for Central Park but saw few other warblers.

I added cream cheese bagel and coffee to my waistline and got a cab south down Broadway.

Walking the last few blocks I came to Ground Zero.  I was struck by the buildings around it, still standing close to where those horrific events that killed 3000 people took place.  What must it feel like to go to work next to this site every day?

There’s not much to look at – but plenty to think about.  If you didn’t know about what had happened here it would look like just another building site.

Turning my back on Ground Zero, physically but not emotionally, and taking a few steps West, I could see the Statue of Liberty, designed by Frenchman, Frederic Bartholdi and built by Frenchman, Gustave Eiffel, this symbol of Freedom  has welcomed immigrants and visitors to the USA, and specifically to Ellis Island for 125 years.  Inside there is the inscription which includes the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ by Emma Lazarus.

I walked through Battery Park enjoying the sunshine and popped into the National Museum of the American Indian. Here I learned that a good horse had been worth 8 buffalo hides or 15 eagle feathers or 10 weasel skins or 3lb tobacco or a rifle and 100 loads of ammunition in the early 1800s and that many Indian tribes called horses, brought to the New World by the Spanish, after dogs; Big Dogs, Elk Dogs, Red Dogs, Mystery Dogs or Holy Dogs.

Before I took the return trip on the Staten Island Ferry – best value attraction in New York – it’s free, I remembered the billboards and news coverage I had seen telling me the world was going to end today.  Maybe it will – there’s still time – but I’m reasonably confident there will be a blog tomorrow.

Within these few blocks of downtown Manhattan I had been made to think about people’s lives ending out of the blue at Ground Zero, their ways of life drastically changing as the native American culture was largely overwhelmed and America giving many a new start in life on Ellis Island.  Anything is possible here.


Birding with the Empire State Building as background

I had a nice day’s birding today.  And I think I saw another warbler species.

I went to Jamaica Bay – over the Queensboro bridge from 59th St Manhattan, then get lost a bit, and you are there!

A walk through some scrub and then you are looking out over a wetland.

Many of the usual birds and some new ones besides – Glossy Ibis, Osprey, Yellow Warbler, Towhee, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Willet, Forster’s Tern, Canada Goose, Brown Thrasher, Laughing Gull and more.  The new birds for the trip were Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Ruddy Duck, Lesser Scaup and Black Brant.

And this warbler.  Help me out here US birders, please. It had a very obvious double wingbar, was yellow and olive green, generally unstreaked and had a partial yellow eye-ring.  Prairie Warbler I think – am I right? As soon as I saw it I thought ‘I haven’t seen one quite like that before’.  What I didn’t notice was any white on the tail but it might have had some.  Does the location and date fit or not – looks like it does actually?  And if not, then what was it – I don’t think it was a female Blackpoll – far too yellow and green.

I met three other birders – which was nice because each stopped to chat.  The first lady had seen a few warblers and was happy.  The second lady struck me as a good birder – just by the way she spoke about the birds.  She was very pleased to have seen a Willow Flycatcher – I tried to look pleased for her too even though I have not much idea what that look like.  She had also seen Dunlin and Red Knot (neither of which did I see) but she didn’t mention Ruddy Turnstone or Willet (maybe because they were not worthy of mention? but both of which I did see).  She had heard there was a Black-billed Cuckoo around and was keen to see it.  I hope she did – I didn’t.  And the third birder was a bloke who told me a bit about what he’d seen and the best path to take.

We are a band of brothers and sisters we birders.  Almost all of the birders I have met have been much chattier than the average English birder – it’s nice.  Loosen up, you Brits!

I drove down to the ocean.  I knew of a site for Piping Plover and when I got there the beach was fenced off to give the birds a chance to nest in the dunes.  I saw Oystercatchers and Least Terns but in the rain there were no Piping Plovers.

But I did look out into the Atlantic and thought that home was 3000 miles that way.  But I was going 3000 miles the other way, West, and I would be seeing another ocean in three weeks time.

In some ways, after one more day in New York, my journey would start.  It was due West from here, in the direction that the continent was opened up (not that it was closed to people before), in the direction of European progress or exploitation – depending on your view.

But tomorrow I will visit Ground Zero, take a look at the Statue of Liberty and spend my last night in a big city for a while.  My last bite of the Big Apple.  And why is it called the Big Apple? – click here.


The living and the dead

I walked north 8 blocks to Central Park and on the way saw countless house sparrows and starlings – I won’t keep going on about them but it is really striking how common they are here.  Indeed, Greg Butcher, from National Audubon, made a good suggestion – that Audubon and the RSPB should do a joint study of the species to try to elucidate the reasons why they do so well over here in the middle of big cities which look, on the face of it, very similar to our big cities.

More by luck than judgement I came across the part of Central Park which is best for birds – The Ramble.  So I rambled.  There were plenty of others rambling too – with cameras and binoculars.  Earlier there had been a Bittern (that’s an American Bittern) apparently but I think it had gone.

I met a man who said it was rather quiet because after 4 days of rain and northerly winds there was nothing about.  A good birder yesterday had, apparently, only seen 15 warbler species in the day and that had taken a lot of effort.  The norm would be around 20 or so.

Well, I saw 11 and they were: Redstart, Yellowthroat, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Ovenbird (sounding like a very loud Marsh Tit – Wallace Kornack taught me that one in Rock Creek Park), Canada, Blackpoll and Nashville.  Of these, I had my best-yet views of Black-and-white (which is a little like a Treecreeper or Nuthatch in manner – always edging along the branches and trunks) and Nashville (one of which was singing its little heart out).  And I added Black-crowned Night Heron to my USA list.

One birder told me that when he starts seeing Blackpoll Warblers it signals the coming end of  the migration season.  I thought it appropriate that a black-capped warbler marks the coming death of migration until the fall season, or for these warblers, in their finery, until the next year’s spring. 

Rather luckily my ramble ended just where I wanted it to finish and I was facing an imposing statue of President Theodore Roosevelt sitting astride a horse with two native Americans by his side at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History.

Roosevelt lived from 1858-1919 and served two terms as President.  He set up the USA’s National Parks, with Yellowstone (where I intend to be in early June) being the first of all.  As I queued to buy my ticket I read inspiring words from the great man on the walls around me.  I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single UK Prime Minister who has been eloquent about the environment – but they haven’t been a very eloquent bunch since Churchill.

I eschewed the dinosaurs and went straight to the gallery of ‘Birds of New York’ which was a dry old exhibit of the stiff and the stuffed, the dull and the sad.  I walked quickly through here only pausing to look at the Passenger Pigeon case which was rather well done with 11 PPs in it and a nice commentary.

Onwards to the display of American birds.  This was rather good – including, as it did, a number of tableaux of scenes from different habitats  with the relevant birds in them.  There were Bald Eagles and Limpkins, Sage Grouse and Cormorants and I enjoyed looking at them.

But the warblers came out badly in their little display.  They looked so small and lifeless.  The Black-and-white somehow looked half the size of the one which had been clinging to a tree trunk 10 feet from me not half an hour before.  It was as if the absence of life had drained the birds of their very essence – which I guess it had.  And the Cerulean Warbler – the only one on display which I have not yet seen – certainly did not send my pulse racing as I am quite sure a live one would.

I then spent some time in galleries dedicated to eastern American woodland native Americans and Plains Indians.  Is it just me who finds it bizarre that these peoples of the continent are rather treated as another form of wildlife alongside African Mammals and Primates?

So it was with mixed feelings that I enjoyed gathering some knowledge about Native Americans.  I was particularly struck by the Societies of Native American culture.  I knew nothing of these and was struck by the Arapaho Dog Society (whose members had to remain fixed to the spot under certain circumstances – whatever the personal danger) and the Arapaho Crazy Society whose members acted in bizarre ways and said the opposite of what they meant – that does take us back, perhaps, to UK politicians.

As I left the Museum I was thinking of live and dead warblers and live and dead native Americans, and live and dead Presidents but as I walked down the West edge of Central Park, heading to meet my niece for lunch (nice niece, nice lunch, not for this blog) my mind turned to another day when presumably Central Park was full of joggers and tourists, the streets were full of yellow New York cabs, NYPD officers were directing traffic, the sharp-suited were walking briskly through Manhattan, people were picking up coffees from Starbucks and two planes crashed into the skyline and the world changed.

Presumably some, perhaps many, of the people I passed were here then, having a normal start to the day which then went apocalyptic.  I’ll go to Ground Zero over the next couple of days to…I don’t know what exactly.  But it would seem wrong to mourn the passing of the Passenger Pigeon, as I do, and not mark, in some way, the much more recent and personal extinctions which took place on 11 September 2001 a few blocks from where I am writing this blog .


I’m driving in my car

Actually, I’m not, as I am still in New York, although gas is so cheap and parking so expensive, and the traffic moves so slowly, that driving around Manhattan might work out cheaper than parking!

‘My’ car is a tank! It’s a Dodge Grand Caravan – which would easily seat 6  people.  It’s very comfortable, quite a nice drive (for an automatic transmission – I never did say that PRND is Park Reverse Neutral Drive did I? But you probably knew that any way) but not what I ordered at all.

I spent quite a lot of time choosing between hire car companies on the basis of the fuel efficiency of their cars on offer and then I get upgraded to a comfortable tank!

There was a moment of confusion when I picked the car up at Union Station in Washington DC and was told I could have a van but we got over that.  Although it is a white van – so I am white van man in the USA.

The upgrade will cost me quite a bit in extra fuel and the planet too for the same reason but I mustn’t grumble as I was lucky…I’ll tell you that story when I am safely home.

And when home – which is ages away – I will work out the carbon expended on this trip – the amount will be huge.

And when back home – which is ages away – this blog will revert to commentary of the UK environmental scene.  Remember I have a book out of previous blogs which is selling well and will help to pay for the fuel on this trip and a newsblast which will start in July. So cough up for the book and sign up (free!) for the newsblast.