A Trip Down Memory Lane/A Bit of Bird Photography and Personal History: the East Pond at JBWR and BIRDS AS ART « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

A Trip Down Memory Lane/A Bit of Bird Photography and Personal History: the East Pond at JBWR and BIRDS AS ART

The East Pond

The East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, NY was the place to observe and photograph North America’s southbound migrant shorebirds from 1975 through about 2010. Then, for reasons noted below, the place pretty much went down the tubes due to high water levels. At present, it seems that the folks at Gateway have gotten their act together; conditions at the pond are reported to be excellent this season. As detailed below, I have a strong connection to the East Pond. I photographed my first shorebird — a Semipalmated Sandpiper, there in August of 1983. I’ve been visiting for 45 years and have spent thousands of hours on the pond.

If you would like to learn to identify and photograph more than a dozen species of shorebirds on an In-the-Field Workshop in August, please shoot me an e-mail to learn the dates and details. The East Pond is best for photography for just three specific days in a calendar year … I will be there then. Here’s hoping that the East Pond will return to its former crown-jewel glory.

Homer Bald Eagles Winter 2021

Yes, this is an expensive (but competitively priced) trip. The price of the boat and the price of the fish have risen astronomically since my last visit in 2020. But the photography is beyond amazing. Flight photography with any lens till you cannot raise your arms, creative set-ups, lots of snow, we hope (earlier in the season is best for that), and lots of opportunities for point-blank head portraits and talon shots. If you are seriously interested in joining me for the world’s best Homer/Kachemak Bay Bald Eagle trip(s) — mid-FEB thru early MARCH 2022, please contact me immediately via e-mail for dates and details.

What’s Up?

I need to do a bit more laundry, charge camera batteries, and begin packing for Wednesday afternoon’s trip on the Auto Train. Next will be a seven hour drive to Ronkonkoma on Long Island where I will be staying with daughter Alissa and her husband, Ajiniyaz. I will probably stop for the night at a Staten Island chain hotel to avoid the BQE and the LIE during rush hour! I will be photographing often at Nickerson Beach and at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

Today is Tuesday 27 July 2021 and I have lots of work to do. Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I hope that you too have a great day.

Remember that you can find some great photo accessories (and necessities!) on Amazon by clicking on the Stuff tab on the orange/yellow menu bar above. On a related note, it would be extremely helpful if blog-folks like me, who spend too much money on Amazon, would get in the habit of clicking on the Amazon logo link on the right side of each blog post. As you might expect, doing so will not cost you a single penny, but would be appreciated tremendously by yours truly. And it works seamlessly with your Amazon Prime account.

This blog post took about three hours to prepare and makes 211 consecutive days with a new one. Please remember that if an item โ€” a Delkin flash card, or a tripod head โ€” for example, that is available from B&H and/or Bedfords, and is also available in the BAA Online Store, it would be great, and greatly appreciated if you would opt to purchase from us. We will match any price. Please remember also to use my B&H affiliate links or to save 3% at Bedfords by using the BIRDSASART discount code at checkout. Doing either often earns you free guides and/or discounts. And doing so always earns my great appreciation.

Getting Started Birding at JBWR

In May of probably 1977, I went birding, really for the first time, with my then and now former wife Dana, and my two daughters, Jennifer and Alissa. I had along a copy of the Golden Field Guide, Guide to Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins and Bertel Bruun. I learned years later that it had been a wave day as dozens of Myrtle (now Yellow-rumped) Warblers in breeding plumage flitted about in the trees and shrubs. I can remember being thrilled when I was able to match the color and patterns of the tiny birds in the tall bushes with the painting in the book. I had a pair of lousy binoculars that my Dad had gotten sometime in WW II. They were terrible at best.

That August I visited the refuge on my own and checked the log. One of the entries listed American Kestrel, male in the log. I found the bird in my now trust companion, the Golden Guide. A blue and orange falcon in New York City? You gotta be kidding me. I walked around the West Pond, saw a male American Kestrel, and followed it blindly when it flew between two rows of tall trees halfway around the pond. I got a better look at the bird when I was startled by a horn honking. A ranger, who later became a good friend — Bob Cook, called me over and explained that I had gone past a Do Not Enter sign. I apologized and we chatted. He said to me, “If you want to get close to the birds, check out the East Pond across Cross Bay Boulevard. There are no restrictions there.”

The next morning I was on the pond early and spotted a large, cinnamon-colored shorebird, a Marbled Godwit. As I wrote in Shorebirds; Beautiful Beachcombers and elsewhere, I had no idea that seeing that single bird would change the course of the remainder of my adult life, but that is exactly what happened. I had been captivated by the godwit’s long, upturned bill with an alabaster pink base. Shorebirds would quickly become my favorite bird family and I wound up spending several thousand hours on the East Pond over the next two plus decades.

The late Thomas H. Davis Jr. and Suzanne Kleinbaum at a Guy Tudor Christmas party in 1974.

Photo courtesy of Peter W. Post

My Shorebird Mentor, the late Tom Davis

As a beginning birder, Tom Davis was a mysterious, mythical figure to me. All 6 foot seven inches and 145 pounds of him. He was an extremely knowledgeable top-notch birder, and served as the voice of the New York Rare Bird Alert. For several years I walked by him on the shores of the drawn-down East Pond looking for and studying shorebirds. He never once glanced at me. Tom often had a huge Novoflex telephoto lens with him. It had two pistol-like handle grips that were used to focus. Anyhoo, one day, for no reason at all, I walked by him and he said, “Hey, Artie, how’s it going?” I almost fainted. Within minutes he was down in the mud drawing stick figures of Baird’s Sandpiper for me and giving me lots of birding tips. When we got back to the parking lot, he shared his baby picture album with me. His babies were the juvenile shorebirds that visit the pond beginning in mid-August each year.

High as a kite, I went home and excitedly told Dana that Tom Davis had talked to me. The next week when I saw him he walked by me without saying a word. Over time, we talked a lot and Tom taught me everything that I know about aging shorebirds, separating juveniles from adult and breeding and winter plumage. Sometime in early 1984, I believe, Tom suffered a crippling cerebral aneurism in a doctor’s office. He became hemiplegic, completely paralyzed on one side. I visited him often at his care facility in Far Rockaway. In 1985, I was blessed to find and identify New York State’s first Red-necked (then Rufous-necked) Stint on the East Pond in July of 1985. Several of Tom’s friends took him by stretcher to the East Pond to see the bird. On his first attempt, the bird could not be located. He returned soon afterwards and saw the bird.

I was in California during the summer of 1986. I called the Rare Bird Alert to make sure that I was not missing any rare birds at the East Pond. Birding friend Tom Burke had taken over the alert when Tom Davis was stricken. As soon as I heard Tom intone in a very sad voice, “This is the New York Rare Bird Alert for July 20 …’ I knew that Tom had died. The stint had been his last life bird.

artie in the mud at the East Pond, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, NY

Original film image (slide) courtesy of the late Max Larsen

The East Pond and artie

Inspired by Tom Davis’s baby shorebird images and moved to action when I attended a Tony Manzoni slide show at South Shore Audubon Society, I began photographing birds at the East Pond in the later summer of 1983. I had no clue. The late Max and Nellie Larsen were very kind to me when I was a beginning birder. Max was quite a handsome man with a shock of Roger-Tory-Peterson-like white hair. Max took this image of me at the East Pond and kindly shared the slide with me. I spoke to Nellie at least five years ago. Max had been gone for a few years and she was well into her nineties.

In the photo above I am using my first telephoto lens, the Canon 400mm f/4.5 FD manual focus lens. The only way to get close enough for a decent image was to crawl through the mud. Tom had been doing a shorebird survey at JBWR for about five years when he was stricken. The results were published each year in The Kingbird, the journal of the then Federation of New York State Bird Clubs (now the more prestigious New York State Ornithological Association). Here is a link to Tom’s 1983 article. I took over the survey, done for the then-Manomet Bird Observatory, in 1984. I did the survey each fall through the 1990 season, the last several years with help from good friend and now professional ornithologist David Mizrahi. By 1991, I was totally obsessed with bird photography and stepped away from the many hundreds of hours needed to do the survey. I needed more time for photography. For the curious, here is a link to the 1986 survey.

Beginning in 1983, I photographed regularly at the East Pond with friends Kevin Karlson, Rob Villani, the late Tom Vezo, and Johann Schumacher. Those, as they say, were the days. While you would never think of the NYC metropolitan area as a hotbed of nature photography, everyone above and yours truly went on to become noted, oft-published bird photographers. I would be remiss at this point to not give a shout-out to former refuge manager Don Riepe. So thanks for everything, Don! And the same could be said of the late Bob Elliot Kutner, founding member and past President of the South Shore Audobon Society. I just learned that Elliot was an heroic WWII veteran who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Bob led countless birding field trips with boundless and infectious enthusiasm. And he hooked countless folks — including me, on birding. He showed me my first Snowy Owl. At a desolate Jones Beach on winter days, I used to say that you could tell that Elliot was leading a bird walk when you felt the ground shake from the hundred or so folks that he had enticed into the field despite the frigid weather. The man had the most wonderful smile you could ever hope to encounter. Bob lived to 88. This from his obituary that I found this morning:

He was a special, kind, charitable, man deeply connected to his Jewish roots. He will be missed by the many lives he touched and loved in his 88 years. His enthusiasm for life was exceptional and contagious. Our lives will never be the same without him. I was blessed to know have known him.

Back to the subject of rare shorebirds at JBWR. In 1981 Tom Davis found New York State’s first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, an adult, on the East Pond. Two summers later he sighted what he believed to be the same bird! In 1983, Tom found a strange sandpiper that was definitively identified by noted Avian artist John Yrizarry as New York State’s first Little Stint. There was confusion at the time as to whether the bird was a Rufous-necked Stint or a Little Stint. I was there when John spoke to Tom after reviewing study skins of the two species at the American Museum of Natural History. He said, in his heavy Eastern-European accent, “It’s a shtint, alright, but is a Little Shtint.” I saw that bird several time but never had a chance to photograph it.

By chance, I was visiting Long Island in the late summer of 1998 and was privileged to see and photograph a juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper. The bird, a real North American rarity, was found on the East Pond by William Brenner. It was the first record of that species in the lower 48 states. Tom Davis used to say that if you lived long enough every migrant shorebird in the world would wind up being seen at the East Pond …

It was on a Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge IPT that I first met Patrick Sparkman, now a dear friend.

Over the past decade, I have visited the East Pond in August several times. But because of problems with the water control valve at the north end of the pond, combined with management indifference, the pond was almost always completely flooded; there was usually no place for any shorebirds to land. My understanding is that this year the valve has been repaired and conditions should be ideal for the entire southbound shorebird migration season.

While doing the research for this blog post I found a searchable archive for the Kingbird (1950-2018) here on the website of the New York State Ornithological Association. Each mouse-click brought back memories of old friends from my NYC birding days: Paul A. Buckley, Joe Di Costanzo, Thomas W. Burke, Manny Levine, Robert Villani, Kevin and Dale Karlson, Tom Hook, Georges Dremeaux, Rick Cech, Stephen B. Dempsey, Arthur Berland, Steve Walters, R. J. Kurtz, Tony Leukering, and too many more to list. It was a real trip down memory lane.

Scroll to What’s Up (above) if you would like to explore the possibility of joining me on the East Pond this August for some In-the-Field photographic and shorebirding instruction.


With all blog posts, feel free to e-mail or to leave a comment regarding any typos or errors.

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