Monday, June 1, 2009

Book Review #1: Season at the Point

I will regularly review Cape May-related books as part of the mission of the website. I'm not going to review 'new' books necessarily -- chances are many of these books will be 'new to you', so newness is not something I am going to worry about. To that end, here's my first review.

Season at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May, by Jack Connor


If you are anything like me, then your first thought when it comes to the topics of birds and Cape May is that – seagulls. Alternatively, you may be a Cape May visitor who is well-aware of Cape May Point’s distinction as a birder’s paradise. Either way, I highly recommend Season at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May, by Jack Connor.

Published in 1994, Connor tells a timeless tale that was years – evolutionarily-speaking, thousands of years -- in the making. Connor spent the late summer and autumn of 1988 living in Cape May, and observing one of the largest gathering points for birds of prey, or raptors, in the country. Each year, thousands upon thousands of hawks, falcons, eagles, owls, and other assorted birds stop in Cape May Point, on their way to parts southward. Why these birds arrive at the Point during their migration is a mystery, although Connor reviews all known rationales.

This book is not just about birds, however. The people, and history, of the Cape May Point Birdwatch are just as interesting to the reader as the birds themselves. If you love Cape May – and the fact that you are reading this column makes that self-evident – then you know there are characters up and down Cape Island’s coastline. This book introduces you to several of them; all are memorable in their own way.

One of the more remarkable characters is Al Nicholson, who Connor smartly introduces the reader to very early in the work. He must be read about to be believed:

[Al] Nicholson had been studying raptors at the Point since the 1930s, and he seemed a man from an even earlier age. He was a landscape painter who worked with oil on canvas, always outdoors under natural light. His favorite theme was the play of sun and clouds. When the weather was good, he painted outdoors as often as possible from May through November at various spots around the peninsula. On rainy days and evenings he pored through collections of nineteenth-century photographs and studied the clouds and trees in the background. ‘Look at that,’ he’d say, tapping a landscape from Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War. ‘Look how the light is striking that maple. That’s really interesting.’ His most treasured book was Bird Studies at Old Cape May, Witmer Stone’s two-volume natural history of the South Jersey peninsula. . . . Nicholson spoke frequently of places Stone had known – Bay Shore Meadow, Two Mile Beach, Price’s Salt Pond – areas whose names only the oldest local residents now recognized because they had been changed beyond recognition or had disappeared entirely.

Away from his easel, Nicholson spent most waking hours, sometimes forty or fifty hours a week, battling and raging against countless adversaries . . . the joyriders who raced jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks through New Jersey’s last remnant of dune forest at Higbee’s Beach, the County Mosquito Commission whose helicopters sprayed insecticides and whose ditches drained marshes throughout the peninsula, the County Planning Board which year after year allowed tracts of woods to be replaced by malls and shopping centers . . . the state of New Jersey which in 1954 had extended the Garden State Parkway into Cape May County and so encouraged destruction by increased population pressure, and the City of Cape May which in 1942 had constructed the Cape May canal and so cut off the City and the Point from the natural life of the rest of the peninsula like a man sawing off the tree limb he sat upon. Nicholson was tireless.”

A man like Nicholson should be remembered, and Connor’s book more than accomplishes the task. Through vivid descriptions like this one, Connor makes the people and places of Cape May Point’s bird chasing history come alive.

Connor matches these character studies and historical reviews with vivid descriptions of the here and now. Much of the book discusses the banding operation which goes on at the Point. Young men and women called ‘banders’ briefly capture the hawks, eagles, and other raptors, band them at the leg so as to track them should they be trapped in another part of the world, and then let the birds go on their way. One of the most vivid chapters in the book, simply titled “Golden,” details the ninth capture of a golden eagle at the Point in twenty-two years:

The eagle’s torso has an athlete’s lines – rounded muscular shoulders and a broad back above a narrow waist – and, as the bird spreads its huge wings for balance, it seems Stahler might find herself airborne if the bird flapped hard. But the bird looks self-assured, even haughty, as it folds its wings, shakes them into place, and turns its head left and right to look around at the crowd and then off into the distance. The plumage is dark, as black as a vulture’s, though here and there the edge of a white feather catches the light. The hackles on the back of the head are erect and pale gold. The gold continues over the crown of the head down in a V over the dark eyes, so the bird seems to be frowning. As the hackles blow in the wind, the eagle has the look of a long-haired conductor glaring at an audience that has interrupted his concert with their noise.

The excitement felt by the banders comes through on the printed page by way of Connor’s deft description. If you close your eyes, you can see yourself on the Point, watching the powerful golden-headed bird fly away, over the bay.

Connor does not just paint a rose-colored picture of the birders of the Point. He spends time elaborating on the disputes that make up any endeavor, even one that seems so peaceful as bird-watching. Among the raptor counters, there are longstanding disputes over how hawks should be counted, and whether the numbers of birds counted at the Point are inordinately high or low. Perhaps more heated, however, is the dispute among bird-watchers regarding the banding operation at the Point. Many counters consider the trapping involved with capturing a bird to be inhumane. In describing these different factions, Connor does his best to describe both sides positions fairly and without playing favorites.

At the end of the book, one is surprised to have learned there is so much going on up in the skies of Cape May of which the annual vacationer may not even be aware; much more there than just seagulls cawing and fighting over boardwalk grub. In looking forward to the next trip, it is hard to imagine not stopping by the Cape May Bird Observatory and meeting the men and women of the book firsthand, and hopefully seeing a sharpshin or two.

In Season at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May, Connor turns a topic some may consider at first blush to be dull into a page-turner by combining history, biography, geography, psychology, anthropology, and of course, ornithology. The result is a book which rewards the reader with new insight into the topic which brings you to CapeMay.Com – Cape May.

Season at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May, by Jack Connor, was published by The Atlantic Monthly Press. You may find it online at Amazon.Com, and other on-line book retailers. Most likely, the booksellers of Cape May will find it for you, as well

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