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The Explorers Club

Explorers Club
A young boy looks for birds in a park. Photo by Hatchapong Palurtchaivong/Shutterstock

My journey as a birdwatcher (the term “birder” had not been coined yet) began in the woods and overgrown fields behind my parents’ ranch house in Whippany, New Jersey. To save you a Google search, Whippany is located about 25 miles west of Manhattan. It sits atop the eutrophic remains of glacial Lake Passaic and precisely where, I estimate, the retreating Laurentide ice sheet dumped its biggest load of rocks. Ask any of the kids who had to clear them by hand so their dads could have the flat, green lawns suburban homeowners dream of. Adjacent to my parents’ rockpile was several hundred acres of publicly owned hardwood forest in early stages of succession, with red maple, pin oak, and white oak dominating.

The “Big Woods” were bisected by a powerline cut we called “the Meadows.” Beyond were the three “Brickyard Ponds” and beyond that, several thousand acres of forest and wetlands known as “Troy Meadows.” In sum, this was my playground and bird laboratory. The only rule in the 1950s and ’60s was to be “home for supper.” Otherwise, my time was my own, and from the age of 7, I was free to wander as far as “the ponds,” a quarter- to half-mile from home.

It occurs to me that as the only surviving member of the Explorers Club, as we neighborhood kids called ourselves, I may be the only person alive who still recalls such hallowed points of discovery as “Big X Swamp,” where the Mallards nested; “Bee Hive Hill,” where the screech-owl lived in the hollow old beech tree; and “Island Eight,” in the third brickyard pond, where the Canada Geese nested in 1957. I write this article so that this precious storehouse of lore may not pass into obscurity.

Big X Swamp was a mere quarter-mile from home but a slog in the spring. It was named for the crossed drainage ditches dug by the mosquito commission that we (the swamp’s self-appointed guardians) were obligated to dam every spring to keep the swamp properly flooded. In winter, we’d ice skate between the tussock grass and swamp maples and capture spotted turtles swimming beneath the ice. It was because of this endeavor that I learned not to put wet shoes in the oven to dry in time for Sunday church service. All you get is crinkled leather.

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The Meadows were a marvel: part broom sedge, part brushy tangle, home to Field Sparrows, Maryland (now Common) Yellowthroats, Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers, and in fall, the overhead powerlines attracted migratory kestrels. They never let you get close enough to be sure of your identification. But that’s what they were.

The Brickyard Ponds were a treasure trove of fun and discovery. It’s where I saw my first Pied-billed Grebe and Belted Kingfisher, and where a blue-eyed boy once stood eye to eye with a golden-eyed Great Blue Heron. Both of us were too startled to move. The cove, just west of “Heron Beach,” later renamed “Stevie’s Beach” in honor of a local kid’s many impromptu beer parties, was the place I saw my first Ring-necked Ducks. The flock pitched into the pond during a blinding March snowstorm and swam to within 10 feet of my crouched form — close enough for me to see the burnished copper ring around the neck of the drakes (the first and only time I’ve seen the bird’s namesake trait). We were forbidden to swim in the ponds, so of course we did.

“Bullhead Cove,” “Black Duck Cove,” “the Hidden Road” — the list goes on until it disappears in the growing mist enveloping my mind. So, I commit these names to paper and to you, the newest member of the Explorers Club. The club meets every Saturday afternoon in McDowell’s basement, where, after adding new items in our natural history museum, your membership will be made official by attending club officers. Insofar as we need a quorum of just one, me, and since you already have my vote, your membership is assured. Feel free to bring any shed snake skins, deer antlers, or abandoned bird nests for the collection. We already have nests of American Robin, Maryland Yellowthroat, Baltimore Oriole, and (gasp, sigh) even Cedar Waxwing. Just don’t do something stupid like falling out of a tree to gain some prized exhibit. And fair warning. Bald-faced hornet nests may look empty but often are not. In winter, the insects are just dormant, and the heat in the basement is enough to make them active.

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Other useful information: In summer, when drought drops water levels, the shores of the First Brickyard Pond often attract shorebirds; otherwise, summer birdwatching is pretty dull. But in July, a few migrating birds appear. My first Yellow-throated Warbler was on the trail to Heron Cove on July 4. You need not, as I long did, anguish about confusing the bird with Blackburnian Warbler. They’re like apples and oranges, it turns out. The Hidden Road is a good place to flush grouse, and the screech-owl on Bee Hive Hill often sits at the entrance to his hole to catch the morning sun. Deer? Sometimes in the Meadows at dawn; red fox, too. The local crow with the touches of white in its wings is called Silver Wings. It likes to perch on the transmission towers and has a hoarse call.

In August, hummingbirds sip from the tubular blossoms of the spotted touch-me-nots that flourish in the wet areas beside the abandoned railroad tracks. In winter, the brushy edge of my parents’ property is packed with American Tree Sparrows, and the marshy area east of Big X Swamp hosts wintering Fox Sparrows. You’ll hear them scratching in the leaves. Vesper Sparrows? Never found one, but Song Sparrows are common.

I should mention that my grasp of birds and their habitat needs was limited back then, accounting for my inability to find the grassland-dwelling Vesper Sparrow in woodland habitat. On a good year, you should find 50 to 60 bird species around home. And by the way, a bird that I’m pretty sure is a mockingbird has moved into the overgrown lot across the street. I know the range map says it ain’t so, but there it is — white flashes in the wings and tail and all.

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A closing note: Adults seem ever to anguish about getting young people involved in bird study. Actually, nothing could be easier or more natural. Just give your budding John James Audubon or Rachel Carson binoculars that fit their hands (6 to 8 power are fine) and a field guide. Their natural curiosity and Ma Nature’s capacity to captivate will do the rest.

No courses, no organized field trips, just the latitude to let kids discover. The geographic parameters you set are up to you. Despite the latitude to wander at will that I enjoyed, most of the new birds I found were in the flowering oaks around our backyard in April and May. Birds love suburbia, that hybrid habitat where birds and humans meet. Just add curiosity, and you have a world of wonder to engage the next generation of explorers.

This article was first published in Pete Dunne’s “Birder at Large” column in the November/December 2022 issue of BirdWatching.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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