ON THE SCENE: A birder’s paradise in the Adirondacks
Did you go out and count the birds you saw this past weekend? The 24th annual Great Backyard Bird Count was held from Feb. 12 to 15, organized by the National Audubon Society and various partner agencies.
Whether people count them at their bird feeder, standing in a frozen marshy meadow or hiking up Cascade Mountain, the birds people identify help researchers determine how bird populations are holding up, shifting about, and being impacted by changes to their habitat.
The best-known birder around the Olympic Region (Lake Placid and Keene) is Larry Master, who has been intensely interested in all living creatures since he was about 8, living in a suburb outside Philadelphia. At the time, Larry had three assets: a bird feeder outside his window; nearby fields, marshes and woods; and a mother who tossed him outside with instructions to be back in time for dinner. Into the wetlands and forest he went, looking for salamanders, frogs and whatever else was nature’s living bounty at time.
The family story, though, is a tad different. Larry had much older siblings. One time, his teenage brother was trying to make out with his girlfriend and future wife, a situation dampened by Larry being in the room avidly watching on. Desiring privacy, his brother told Larry to go outside and watch the squirrels, so Larry did just that, finding them far more interesting than his amorous brother.
Larry became so interested in watching the local birds and animals that his parents gave him a pair of binoculars while in grade school. Still, it wasn’t until joining a natural science club and participating in field trips led by the biology teacher that ninth-grader Larry got seriously hooked on watching and photographing birds. As he didn’t have a telephoto lens, the bird feeder just outside his window enabled him to get close-up shots. A harbinger of his future career is that he got a prize for one of his photographs.
Soon he was out every weekend with a couple of friends looking for and photographing birds, a time that turned out to be his height for birding for some time to come. In college, participating on a rifle team damaged the hearing in his ears, resulting in his inability to hear high-frequency sounds, critical to locating and identifying birds. It then took 20 years before a hearing aid was invented that enabled Larry to once again listen to their distinctive chirps, shrills and songs. Even so, his passion for photographing birds never waned.
Larry’s advice is to get your kids avid about loving and protecting nature: Start them young.
“One time, I was sitting at a table with a bunch of biologists,” said Larry. “We got asking each other, how did you get started in birding and conservation? Almost everybody grew up with a wetland near their backyard where they went mucking around looking for frogs and salamanders. It’s interesting how many people started that way as I did.”
Larry and two other local birders he holds in high esteem, Joan Collins of Long Lake and Derek Rogers of Westport, said that birders can tell you the name of their first bird, the one that got them hooked on birding.
“Many people have a spark bird,” said Rogers. “All of a sudden, you notice it, having never noticed it before. It then sends you down this never-ending quest to see, document and learn about birds, their song, habitat and way of life. What got me into it was a cedar waxwing I saw as a teenager living on Long Island.”
For Joan Collins, founder of Adirondack Avian Expeditions, her spark was a white-winged crossbill, which she describes as an interrupted bird, meaning one that shows up when there is a bumper crop of their favorite food present. Her spark moment took place in the winter of 2000-2001 when crossbills arrived in droves to reap the benefits of a bumper crop of spruce or tamarack cones. This experience inspired her to take up not just birding but guiding others to see birds.
When Larry was a kid, he loved watching the various birds feeding on a suet birdfeeder his parents hung outside their second-floor bedroom window. One day a small bird that he hadn’t seen before showed up. What caught Larry’s attention was the red spot on its head. It took him a long time to figure out what it was, a ruby-crowned kinglet, a bird he not only hadn’t seen before but that he’s never seen since eating at a suet feeder.
“That was the very first bird on my life list,” said Larry.
Following university, Larry was hired to help develop a nature heritage program with The Nature Conservancy. He remained there until the science division, Nature Serves, split off, and he with it until his retirement. Fundamentally, Larry’s mission was to protect biodiversity, an ultimate international initiative developed by the environmentalist pioneer Bob Jenkins. Larry, now a zoologist, was part of a team whose task was to catalog a state or province’s biodiversity, identify which species are endangered and most imperiled, and determine the precise locations of best examples of ecosystems in the region’s landscape.
“I was privileged the start the Michigan heritage program and then move to New England to help start the New Hampshire and Vermont programs and oversee support for all programs throughout the Northeast,” said Larry. He then moved on to become the Conservancy’s chief zoologist, which took him around the world.
“Larry was one of the first people I met when I got the birding bug,” said Collins. “He’s my favorite person to talk with about climate change, birds and mammals. Larry loves mammals. He loves everything. If you study birds, you become a naturalist; you have to because birds are very habitat-specific. So, you have to know the plants, the trees, everything really. And that’s Larry. He’s a wonderful person.”
The heartbreak is that, overall, the sheer numbers of birds are rapidly declining. In the United States and Canada, birds have declined over 30% since 1970. Because of climate change, we in the Adirondacks will soon lose our boreal forests, and with them the birds and other critters endemic to that habitat.
“I love all things alive,” said Larry. “I photograph them because I want to turn people on to nature and help them appreciate what’s around us. If people appreciate what’s around us, they might work, give money, or use advocacy or whatever to conserve it. The last four years have had such a devastating impact on the natural world in this country that we need more people to become concerned.”
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)