Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sad news

Sunrise at Gate 12, Quabbin

The birding community around the Quabbin lost a great member recently when Chris Ellison died suddenly and unexpectedly. It was a great shock to me to hear of his death last week. It seems like I just saw him and he was so full of life but now he is gone. He was always such a fixture on Hampshire Bird Club trips into the various areas of the Quabbin, the trips just will not be the same without him. He and I would usually be the very first people to show up at the meeting spot for the trip and would spend some time seeing what was around before the rest of the participants showed up. Many times we would be there an hour before anyone else just as the morning was coming alive and we always seemed to find something good. He was a unique character that truly shared my love of the Quabbin area. I know he enjoyed reading this blog to see what I was seeing around the Quabbin and I hope his spirit is out there enjoying it still. My posts could never hold a candle to the descriptive explanation Chris would have of his outings and I think anyone who has run across one of his posts would agree. If you will all indulge me a bit I will include one of his posts. It is a lengthy but a great read and I will miss reading new ones from him in the future. Chris, you will be missed.
A post from Chris Ellison on a trip at Quabbin Gate 40, early May 2006 (from the East Quabbin Bird Club site)

"As the first swell of daylight envelopes the landscape, I quickly extinguish the car’s headlights. Large numbers of startled birds scatter explosively from the edges of the highway. I slow my pace, roll down windows, and allow my ears to sift through a rising tide of bird song. Easing into the secluded parking lot, a delicious jumble of flute-like thrush madrigals, electric warbler buzzes, effervescent sparrow trills, sedate vireo intonations, and brusque woodpecker hammerings fills my ears. Leaves suffused with the warm, soft green of newly formed vegetation soften the outlines of tree branches swaying against a pastel blue sky checkered with cirrocumulus clouds. The forest’s upper canopy is quickly dotted with the animated shapes of birds energetically sprinting about, immersed in the first throes of morning feeding. I bring binoculars to bear upon what appears to be a crisp, diamond-shaped leaf. A tiny bill sprouts from a corner, splits, rears back, and bursts into song. Warm brown flanks and black upperparts reveal the morning’s first Chestnut sided Warbler. Glassing the surrounding trees produces even greater numbers of this species. They advance steadily out of the underbrush and into overhanging branches, and are soon nimbly thinning the ranks of unsuspecting insects. The most energetic birds seek out prime nesting territory and alight on prominent perches, the air vibrating with their clamorous singing. A Common Yellowthroat’s earnest
WITCHITY-WITCHITY-WITCHITY-WITCHITY fills the air. The center of a dense shrub parts, and its jaunty black mask outlined with white dances to its top. The bird’s complete outline emerges, only to be swallowed whole by the blur of motion created by rapidly arriving cars. Accompanied by Tree Swallows chattering overhead and the unrelenting whistled notes of a Northern Cardinal, I finalize the morning’s trip roster and we set out in earnest.
Proceeding along the battered asphalt of Petersham Road, the group gradually comes to a halt and investigates the persistent singing emanating from the dense stands of Red Pine. Yellow-rumped Warblers come into view, rich slaty-blue upperparts accented with yellow gaily ornamenting the pine boughs. A compact flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds briefly fills the austere dead branches of a gaunt pine, allowing us especially fine views of the females’ tobacco-colored wings. The penetrating, low–frequency stutter of a drumming Ruffed Grouse and the sibilant call of a Brown Creeper receive our attention. Pausing at a substantial clearing, our ears are riveted by what appears to an enthusiastic Warbling Vireo. Scoping the treetops, we detect a Purple Finch, crisply outlined against clear blue sky, and determine it is the source of the vocalization that drew our interest.
While investigating the newly cleared perimeter of an old apple orchard on the north side of the road, the wildly erratic calls of Winter Wrens prove engrossing. Despite our dogged pursuit of an especially vocal individual along the periphery of an impenetrable tangle of Bittersweet, our efforts to flush the bird into view prove unsuccessful.
Our determined hiking brings us into closer proximity to the mixed woodlands stretching north of our departure point from Petersham Road. The emphatic call of a Great Crested Flycatcher proves worthwhile compensation. We return to the roadway, and are delighted to discover the nest of an Eastern Phoebe above the doorway of a compact outbuilding. A bobbing chestnut tale atop a nearby Barberry quickly divulges the architect’s whereabouts. Underway once more, we investigate an unfamiliar vocalization. Benefiting from its unremitting repetition, we discern a pattern of rapidly acquired momentum and a sudden ending. A clean white eye-ring appears on a branch above us, followed by a gray head and back. Flitting continually upward, a patch of white appears between the bird’s legs. Immaculate yellow saturating its belly and flanks, an exceptionally obliging Nashville Warbler comes into full view. Entertained and enlightened, the group resumes hiking, accompanied by the persistent whine of Red-breasted Nuthatches.
Greeted by the stentorian croaking of a Northern Raven upon reaching Dana Common, we swing northwest onto Skinner Hill Road. The group instinctively splits in two, the eyes of each unit soon fixed upon the luxuriant undergrowth on either side of the road. A ventriloquil, prolonged two-part buzz proves most absorbing, and we engage in a spirited probing of the low nearby shrubbery. Our gaze proves misplaced. A demure gray shape sporting a striking black eye line and gleaming white wing bars appears in the upper reaches of a Bittersweet tangle. The disembodied outline quickly assumes solid form, a Blue-winged Warbler relishing the growing numbers of Black Flies. Bolting overhead and landing in the top of an Ash, it pauses briefly, creating a striking profile against a backdrop of rapidly graying clouds.
Eyes now riveted upon the surrounding vegetation that produced the Blue-winged Warbler, we peer into its depths. A furtive movement holds our attention. A seven-syllable song fills the air, its repetitive patter resembling a stone skipping across open water. An electric yellow sprite flits to the end of a supple branch, rich brown breast stripes achieving a lustrous sheen in the bright sun. Clinging tenaciously to its precarious perch, a Yellow Warbler peers at us intently. Shifting position to gain a better view of our group, it finds surer footing three feet above the road, again launching into an extended song. Departing, it arcs over the highest shrubs in the direction of steadily calling Least Flycatchers. Poring over the barer branches of trees abutting the road soon yields fine views of this species. As one particularly accommodating specimen flutters to and fro before us, a dark, fan shaped tail springs from the edge of a branch. A tiny shape, uniformly black above with arresting orange accents on its wings and tail, utters half a dozen sandpapery syllables, their pitch tilting sharply upwards as its song concludes. Displaying all the agility of a miniature gymnast, an American Redstart executes successive pirouettes while hungrily gulping insects. Singing ever more boldly, the group concludes he is aggressively seeking a mate and if successful, will soon stake out nesting territory.
Closing in on Graves Landing, the ringing call of a Pileated Woodpecker shatters the stillness. We arrive at the reservoir’s edge, finding it mirror smooth. Low squat shapes materialize towards Leveau Island, and we are treated to extended calling from a pair of Common Loons. Moments pass, and three additional birds appear. A flawlessly plumaged adult approaches within thirty yards of the shore. Seen through a telescope, this individual provided viewing of this species simply unparalleled in this birder’s thirty years of observing, a high-magnification eyepiece yielding better than “in-the-hand” views! Still reveling in our good fortune, we direct our attention skyward, a distant speck advancing steadily towards us. Rapidly taking on more substantial dimensions, its flat profile at first presents the appearance of an eagle. Quickly discerning bold white and chestnut facial markings and comparatively slender wings, the group enjoys splendid views of an Osprey, the bird wheeling inquisitively over our heads before receding from view on a southwesterly course. While scanning the distant shoreline of Leveau Island, massive wings flap ponderously, and a beefy silhouette takes to the air. Effortlessly gliding northeast, it vanishes into the branches of a White Pine at the water’s edge. Patient study reveals the unmistakable outline of a juvenile Bald Eagle. Pleasantly wearied, participants disperse. Having obtained satisfactory views of the huge raptor, the trip’s remaining participants gradually succumb to an onslaught of Black Flies and begin the slow trudge to the highway, skin welcoming the first stray drops of the anticipated afternoon rain.
I duck under a canopy of hemlock branches and savor the relief provided by a fresh layer of fleece and a lightweight rain jacket. Comfort restored, I continue my solitary slog through an unbroken drizzle.
Arriving at the top of Dead Man’s Curve, I am delighted to detect bird song at this time of day and under adverse conditions. As Least Flycatchers call ceaselessly, I carefully scan nearby upper branches and discover a striking specimen. Training a telescope upon it reveals a perfect eye-ring and smooth gray upperparts tinged with green. Glancing downward, it studies me briefly before flying away. I decide to leave the roadway and wait out the mild shower, encouraged by the easily obtained view of the diminutive flycatcher. I establish an observation point in close proximity to former logging areas on each side of Skinner Hill Road. Blotches of sun haphazardly illuminate the dank forest canopy. As I conceal myself further, a bedraggled American Robin announces its presence, fluffing its feathers indignantly before leaping skyward into rapidly parting clouds. Unimpeded sunlight coalesces into a potent silver beam, reaching the tip of a squat, distant pine. A riveting, climbing buzz reaches my ears. Intrigued, I shift position, doing my best to remain out of sight as I plod down the shallow slope. It repeats, the song’s effervescent trajectory at last fully reaching my ears. Scoping the terrain produces a yellowish dot at the top of the now sun-drenched pine. Its face and breast dotted with black, I soon recognize the Prairie Warbler at the tree’s tip. As lighting improves, the bird gently pumps its tail, perhaps optimistic that the present dreary weather interval is nearing its end. Sunlight intensifies. The warbler shrugs spasmodically, its dampened plumage flushing silver as the gleaming orb of the sun passes overhead. Brightening conditions having supplied sufficient inducement to investigate feeding and nesting opportunities elsewhere, it streaks into the depths of a distant stand of young birches. Yearning to step out from underneath my makeshift shelter of dripping branches, I hike towards the road.
Soft mists part, the luminous, umbrella shaped upper canopies of massive oaks standing out in stark relief against menacing dark clouds. I scan their glistening catkin-laden branches, glimpsing a blotch of yellow infused with soft orange sharply bordered with black. Pale wingbars flash. I run uphill, hurriedly bracing my back against a nearby tree trunk, steadying my scope in hopes of penetrating the depths of the newly formed foliage. My initial tremors of excitement dissipating, I canvas gleaming jagged teardrop-shaped leaves as tantalizing movement dances out of view. A sizzling ZEEEEEEEEEEE-URP pours out of the oak’s recesses. Wind parts branches, a haphazard eye-ring bouncing into sight. A pert bill, black above and beige below, widens into full-throated song. Having announced its presence, a feathered shape drops down, securing better footing on a stout branch below it. Allowing me to examine its bluish back tinged with green, the Parula Warbler turns to face me. Tipping its head downwards and fixing me with a quizzical stare, its black lores briefly assume a startling resemblance to bleary human eyes conveying acute fatigue. Our brief encounter ends in blurred wingbeats, the energetic bird departing for more enticing venues in which to stake out territory and continue to feed.
Eyes slowly readjusting to the shade of the soggy roadside, I slow my pace, reluctant to frighten any birdlife away from the restorative feeding and bathing to be found amongst the burgeoning dandelions and monstrous, elliptical puddles. A patch of bleached white stands out from the pockets of bedraggled black and brown leaves. I blink as it gently zig-zags through a mottled patchwork of light and shade emerging under an afternoon sun now free of the morning’s roiling clouds. Hesitant to attribute its origin to capricious light filtering through the bountiful canopy, I concentrate upon the edge of the puddle it is gingerly approaching. Its edge soon quakes with ripples. Taut toes emerge, supporting lithe legs. As if having been sired by the leaves themselves, the full outline of a Veery appears. The thrush is soon splashing vigorously, delighting in its ablutions. Its primping and arrangement of its feathers imparts smoothness to the bird’s plumage approaching that of the finest sandalwood. Raising itself upon its legs and craning its neck upwards, it takes in its surroundings. Uttering an especially emphatic VEEEE-UR call note, it bolts to the end of the roadway stretching ahead of me, attempting to drive off a competing bird. The two opponents quickly engage, becoming a ball of angry tumult. The dueling pair’s lightening-fast thrusts, feints, and dodges flash white and brown as they careen through stands of birch saplings, a torrent of abrasive exclamations filling the air. Emerging at last upon sunlit trail, one of the birds disengages, disappearing into blue sky. Having repulsed the interloper, the victor quickly regains its composure. Appearing unfazed by the preceding hostilities, it calmly alights upon an exposed, elevated perch provided by a robust young maple. The thrush’s elegantly modulated refrains of VEEEEEE-UR VEEEEEE-UR VEEEEEE-UR VEEEEEE-UR VEEEEEE-UR VEEEEEE-UR soon cascade effortlessly downwards, my ears embraced by the resonant, flute-like notes. I depart, allowing the extraordinary songster to establish further control over his hard-won dominion.
I leave the trail, treading up a challenging slope some distance from the battlefield of the brawling thrushes, pausing in the immense sprawl of shade created by an impressive maple. Against a backdrop of racing cirrus clouds, its mammoth gnarled branches thrust upward from the steep gradient as if hell bent upon securing a grip upon the heavens. A rasping, five-part call arouses my interest. Appearing to emanate from the tree’s upper story, I study the craggy dimensions of several spiraling branches. Neck soon cramped and with temples throbbing, I shift position to the rear of the maple. I focus upon a gigantic black gall swelling out from the elbow of the most substantial branch, the unwavering call’s creator continuing to elude me. Having narrowed the search area, I deploy my scope, carefully alternating from one likely point of origin to another. A dot of fungus proves of engrossing, bright white against the lower quarter of the gall. It twitches slightly, startling me. As I redouble my efforts, a patch of charcoal leaps forward. Chalk white transitions evenly into metallic blue.
A Black-throated Blue Warbler blossoms from the outermost curve of the gall. Astonished at my inability to visually distinguish such an impassioned singer at nearly point-blank range, I am grateful that the dapper minstrel has put itself on better display. Feet throbbing, I position myself on firmer footing, slowly forging a path downhill. Attempting to garner one last satisfying glimpse of the warbler, I turn to glass the tree once again. Positioning itself with its more subdued colors facing outwards, it has vanished once more, its strident song the only evidence of its presence."

Bald Eagle, Quabbin


  1. Larry, wonderful post and thank you for sharing one of his narratives which were always as full of spirit as Chris was. He will be very missed and it is a terrible loss for all. I think I will always think of him now everytime I am at Quabbin or Winamusett as I know how fond he was of both places.

  2. I know I feel the same way and will indeed think of him whenever I take a trip to Quabbin.