On the last full day in the woods, we hiked back to the beginning of the trail, knowing we would have to find a spot to sleep before dark, something preferably a half-hour before sundown, since we needed time to set up our tent. We passed wide paths, sprinkled with fallen or crooked trees on the sides, staying alert for a chance to see birds; we could hear them, but we couldn’t see them. The trail blended in with the wide forest and the undulating hills, at times going upward or downward. I wondered if sundown would be upon us soon, too lazy to check my phone, which was buried in my backpack.
I grew bored watching the trail, which had turned narrow again with lengthy trees on both sides, producing a type of tunnel vision. Sometimes one of us would trip on a cleverly hidden hole, covered by dry twigs. What followed were steep hills (though not so steep in retrospect), and since I had two sticks, I didn’t tumble down like a fat rock, considering I was carrying a heavy backpack, weighing 30 pounds. The walking sticks I found were surprisingly the right size, and sturdy enough for my weight. We walked quickly, set on finding a camping spot. We passed a decent area, but since we still have enough time, we decided to hike a little more. If we made up the distance there would be less walking the next day, which I was hoping for. Back at the tree trunk bridge I saw a flat, elevated spot just next to a small creek. The first time I walked over the tree trunk sitting above a creek with mostly pointy rocks, I thought how dangerous that people had to cross a makeshift bridge, though firmly in place, it did not give much confidence, since there was only a rope to hold onto. We settled our stuff and set up our tent on a flat area was surrounded by tall trees that didn’t overcrowd us, so we could still walk around and we had enough open space to peek at the sky. Further down there was a sandy spot, closer to the creek.
It was building up to be a cold night under the stars. Not even the canister’s fire kept us warm. There was a fire ban in De Soto National Forest because of the recent wildfires in nearby states so we couldn’t build a campfire. After much preparation my lentil soup was warm enough to eat. I could finally hide inside my sleeping bag. After dinner we walked through twigs, ducking under the trees, using our flashlights to illuminate the way. Finally we arrived at a spot where a tree trunk lay across the ground, allowing us to sit down and stare at the dark blue sky. I felt cold despite my gloves and sweater. I had lost all my winter resilience thanks to the warm days in New Orleans.
The sky was dotted with an unending number of stars. I tried to connect the dots in my mind to imagine a constellation of my own. I thought about the Pleiades or Seven Sister star cluster I had learned about recently. To the Incan and Andean people of Peru, the rising of the star cluster signaled the beginning of the Incan Year, but also the dimness of the stars hinted at the amount of rainfall in the next months following the month of June, which would let farmers know when to plant crops. When the thickness of the clouds obscured the Pleiades, it informed the farmers a dry season would follow, forcing them to wait. Scientists have correlated the weather pattern to El Niño. I wondered where Pleiades was now, during our fall season. Somehow with these observations of nature and Astronomy, I felt more grounded and lucid. Something as simple as sleeping in the woods under a tent allowed for a feeling of meaning and place.
Some weekends ago I took a bus to Alabama to visit a friend. It was an eventful weekend of driving to the beach, hiking, and exploring what is left of downtown Mobile. I say what is left because the downtown area appeared mostly empty. People are not lying when they say there’s nothing to do out here. I don’t know much about Mobile’s history. I think of it as a mini New Orleans that the founders wanted to turn into a busting place, but left undone and adopted New Orleans instead. Mobile shares some of Nola’s streets, the oak trees and architecture. Walking around, I realized downtown could be a community for artists and families, but from the looks of it, a lot of shops have shut down—also it was Monday when I visited, but still, it appeared desolate.
We met a family who was equally puzzled trying to find something to do. The main museum was closed. The family of three: a mother, dad and their daughter were passing by for the day, and they used some of their afternoon hours to sit under the shade in Bienville Square Park and complain about the heat. “We’re from up North.” They were from Massachusetts and they were sweating. “I could use a drink right about now,” said the dad, chuckling. When I told them, I moved from NYC to live in New Orleans, he said, “Oh I know about those New York folks.” “Be careful, they can destroy you with their thumbs,” he said looking at my friend.
I laughed innocently, as if agreeing but not really. I hardly think of myself as a tough New Yorker. My friend and I sat down to rest then walked around quickly to get ice-cold water. We passed a bank that had a large thermometer on the outside; it measured 93 F. We passed an old bookstore that seemed to have only hardcover books about baseball and old white men. There wasn’t much shade and I was getting a headache from being in the heat, so we settled on eating pizza, which was surprisingly good. I took some quick photos, so as not to stay outside for too long. There was a mural painted over the bottom part of an abandoned building and a small peanut shop where I bought Spanish peanuts. The walls inside were decorated with memorabilia, plaques, and newspaper articles recounting their glory days.
The day before we drove to the Gulf Shores beaches where we hid from the sun under a small umbrella. When that didn’t work we ran to the beach and stayed there for a long time, floating with the waves. We dove down to the bottom to see the fish. My friend saw gray and blue fish. I couldn’t believe they were right below me and I refused to participate, but after many tries I finally saw one. I didn’t take many photos that day, but I do remember loosing an earing after taking off my goggles. It fell right by the shore, and it was tiny and black, resembling many of the broken shell pieces on the sand. It was gone forever.
The next day we headed to the Historic Blakeley State Park, which has nature trails, cabins, and historic sites. In the 1820s the Town of Blakeley had a population of 4,000, more than Mobile at the time. But with the yellow fever epidemic and land speculation, people starting flocking to Mobile. During the Civil War it became a fort housing soldiers and weapons. The last battle after the Confederate general surrendered took place here in 1865. Now it’s considered the “loveliest ghost town.” The town’s center was part of the trail with only one structure remaining (most likely reconstructed) but plenty of witchery trees, crooked and dark.
We could hear the birds, but we couldn’t see them. We hiked about 7 miles but it was only in the second half that we saw the beautiful bulbous trees and the Tensaw River where we stopped to rest on a bench. Yellow black butterflies passed our vision and flew behind the trees. We walked along a boardwalk and that headed back to hiking path. The walk wasn’t all that rigorous but the heat made it hard at times. For lunch we went to a Cajun restaurant that had an outdoor balcony facing a long expanse of swampy terrain and skinny trees (which was only temporarily ruined by the highway in the distance). Lunch included a mysterious waitress from Minnesota with black eyeliner and a singer with purple hair streaks, who had a nice voice but was singing kitsch songs. It was contrary to an otherwise swampy afternoon in the south. At least two twin boys with matching pink shirts had their eyes glued to the stage.
Upon returning to New Orleans, I asked my uber driver, how the weather had been for the past few days. “Mostly hot; we haven’t received much rain lately,” she said. I thought about my plants, and their probable deaths. I doubt anyone in my house had remembered to water the garden.
Some weeks ago I went to Floyd Bennett Field and Marine Park with the Brooklyn Birding Club. Apart from the mad journey of getting there, hiking in the area was relaxing. It was my first time birding in a big group. Usually I bird alone or with 2 or 3 people at most. I don’t know many birders, so it’s all the more reason why being there was a necessary learning experience.
The initial trip was hectic thanks to an email confusion that made me late. Once I arrived to Floyd Bennett and stepped off the bus, I was in the middle of nowhere. Some part of me asked: is this still NYC? It was no man’s land at the edge of Brooklyn. I felt far away from urban life. Only the road with the fast cars on the side reminded me. Up ahead was the aviator building followed by a parking lot. I asked a park ranger which way was North 40 and he directed me to walk past the circus tents. I advise anyone going to Floyd Bennett, to get there by car.
I walked to the entrance of North 40 where I was greeted by Red-winged Black birds and a large group of Canadian Geese. I was in the right area. The sun was hitting the cement, getting hotter, but up ahead near the foliage it was cool. I walked to a small trail up ahead, as I waited for the group behind some tall trees for a short while. My phone was without service, so I decided to take a peek out, and there I saw a large group of people in the field with binoculars, large cameras and binocular tripods. I used by binoculars to inspect them and they did the same in my direction. It was the Brooklyn Birding Club. I greeted the organizer and smiled as I walked toward her. Someone from a far said, ” I don’t think I would have made it this far.” I was starting to feel like a soldier coming from Queens. The driver introduced me to the other guy in our car—“this is our lost passenger.” Would I go by that nickname the whole way through the hike?
We headed to the surrounding areas. First a community garden where I saw a goldfinch, plenty of house sparrows, a Northern-flicker and a Kestrel later during lunch, which no one took a picture of since it wouldn’t let you get near. There were rows of gardens separated by gray and white fences. The people working on them smiled at us as they kept fixing their small land. At some point, I got too excited thinking I saw a strange bird, and one of the experienced birders looked at it, and said “A robin.” It felt like someone had dropped a cement block on me. I only saw the bird’s backside, and the mix of bird noises confused me.
I realize for experience birders some birds don’t excite them anymore, since they see them repeatedly, so they search for the rarest. I see this with myself too, but I also don’t want to completely ignore the common birds that may need conservation. Ideally you should first get comfortable with the birds around your neighborhood and in your backyard, studying them (shape, size, color, behavior and sound), and then progress to rare birds outside your comfort zone. I’m at that level where I can easily recognize birds near my house and those at local parks. Also using binoculars doesn’t come naturally, so adjust, take your time, and don’t get too overly excited when you can’t spot a bird.
We took a drive to the nearby beach. The sun was in all its glory, raining down, without the shade of trees. We stopped at the walkway before the shore. The air was still breezy here. It was hard to concentrate just on one side of the beach. Some birders were looking far into the distance with their tripod lenses while us binocular-users concentrated on the ducks close by. Duck species are the hardest to determine for me, since I rarely see them. But luckily some of the other birders knew, and they were nice enough to share. In the distance we saw: wood ducks, American coot, buffleheads, among others.
I looked to the blue sky and these black birds were circling. They were vultures searching for a high post to perch from. When they flew closer to us we could distinguish their pink-red naked heads. I believe someone caught a good shot with their long lens camera. Looking around the area, I saw what appeared to be an abandoned airplane facility. It was wide, beige and filled with flying dust. Some of the windows were cracked and broken, rusty from old age. A vulture descended down on the roof of the building and faced us, only as a detective would.
We later headed to a marshy area. We came upon an almost barren beach marsh. Without inspecting much of the area, it appeared empty and dead. But there was life in the waters beyond: mallard ducks, American black ducks… The leader of the trip let me use her tripod binoculars, and I was able to see a kill deer. To the side there was an old building with graffiti with random drawing and letters. Nothing too discernible except for a quote about the seconds being wasted in sadness. The breeze later blended with the meaning of those words.
At the last spot in Marina Park, everyone was searching for the Pin-tailed Ducks. In the meantime we saw the hooded merganser, oystercatchers, forster terns, parakeets (someone released them in the 1970s), among others. After walking through the trail, I saw an osprey sitting on a nest above a long pole. And just as half the group was leaving the trail, I slowed down a bit, turned around thinking maybe the Pin-tailed duck would be there. A couple of minutes later my blind faith paid off. The few who stayed behind were able to see this cute duck.
I heard some rumors about the Prothonotary Warbler roaming Prospect Park. I had not seen any warblers in Floyd Bennett Field or in the marina. About half of the group went to Prospect Park, and I followed them. After a quick pizza slice, I trotted down to the park, running from one corner to another based on rumors from other birders. I caught the bird craziness, and now I was looking for a Prothonotary Warbler. A guy on a bike was trying to get a photo with his long lens camera, going from one site to another, meanwhile the rest of us were still trailing on foot, feeling slow as ever.
I had no clue what I was searching for until I saw a glimmer of yellow between some branches near a pond. The little Prothonotary was a quick fellow, but we were able to see it clearly when it perched from a branch sticking out of the dense foliage. Then it was gone. We hurried across to the other side of the pond where it was rumored to be. Just for our luck, the feisty bird was gone again; it went back to the other side. From this new angle we could clearly see it without other branches in the way. About 5-6 birders were looking at this tiny yellow bird across the pond, and right in front was a guy lounging—not fazed one bit by the bird. One of the birders later said, “2015 still life: bird and park lounger.” Birding is all about patience and going back for seconds. Just when I thought the warbler left us for good, it flew directly to the tree in front of us, and we all had a front row view and a good laugh. In all the Brooklyn Bird Club counted 60 species during this trip.