Kids’ Almanac (Nov. 28-Dec. 5)

Vassar screens autism documentary Wretches and Jabberers

On Wednesday, December 4 at 4:15 p.m., Vassar College presents a screening of the documentary Wretches and Jabberers, followed by a question-and-answer session with the two primary people profiled in the film, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette. Like many children with autism in the 1960s and 1970s, Thresher and Bissonnette grew up unable to speak and excluded from normal schooling. They faced a future of social isolation in adult disability centers. In the early 1990s, both men’s lives changed dramatically when they learned to communicate by typing. Bissonnette notes, “Nothing I did…convinced people I had an inner life until I started typing.” Their world tour message is that the same possibility exists for others like themselves.

I think that this is an incredible opportunity for our Hudson Valley community. It’s so neat that Vassar is hosting this event, and the messages in this film transcend the specifics of autism and connect with something inside each of us. From beginning to end, Thresher and Bissonnette inspire parents and young men and women with autism with a poignant narrative of personal struggle that always rings with intelligence, humor, hope and courage.

Wretches and Jabberers will be shown in the Villard Room of the Main Building at Vassar College, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie. For more information, call (845) 437-5370 or visit www.vassar.edu. To learn more about the documentary, visit www.wretchesandjabberers.org.

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Ornament your holiday season with birds

Thanksgiving is traditionally considered to be a time of gathering, and often involves a certain bird around mealtime. So I started thinking: What other opportunities exist here in the Hudson Valley for individuals and families to gather together, and involves something from nature, like birds? The John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS) came to mind immediately, because it facilitates regular nature outings for the public.

I contacted the organization to learn more, and as president Mark DeDea answered some of my questions, he suggested tagging along on a field trip – except that I’m not a birder. But I went anyway, because as many of you reading this know, once you start talking to Mark (also known as “Mark at the park” from his role at the Forsyth Nature Center in Kingston), you get really interested in whatever the topic is that you’re conversing about.

So I showed up to Kingston Point on a recent early Saturday morning, and as out of my element as I felt, since I can identify only approximately five birds, I immediately felt like I was among friends. I was warmly welcomed and included in the various bird conversations.

DeDea explained, “Our field trips are the vehicle to express our passion and knowledge for the natural world, and we provide that to the public free of charge and encourage non-member participation. I think in the past there was a contented feeling in just making more bird nerds, but today an individual has so much at their disposal (in their hand in the field or at home on the laptop) that folks could easily find their way to a love/knowledge of the outdoors on their very own…which is cool and how many of us did it that way anyway…although without modern technology.”

That is precisely how I experienced the bird outing: The joy of spotting one feathered creature to another was magnified by doing it with others. “Ah, my first junco of the season,” happily remarked one birder during our walk around the park. I learned that, while many of our local winged friends head south for the winter, juncos come north: a sign of the transitioning seasons.

I picked up small bits about birds – not as an abstract fact, but right while I was looking at them, as one birder or another would share something interesting about them; which is what DeDea is talking about: the real sense of camaraderie that JBNHS field trips can provide, aside from the information disseminated. “We are now trying to do an annual bio-blast and a bio-blitz to highlight our value to municipalities, school districts et cetera, for citizen science work, which I hope then opens eyes to utilizing JBNHS for homeschoolers or Scouts who need to meet badge requirements et cetera.”

When I got home that day, I began to channel my inner Pete Seeger as I sang, “Little bird, fly through my window,” slightly adapting the words to invite them to my feeder. And I can’t wait to go on another outing – possibly even with my own “bins” (binoculars) this time.

I asked DeDea why John Burroughs matters so much: “I think John Burroughs, his philosophies and writings have come to represent a natural pace, be it pruning your apple trees or catching trout in a small Catskills stream, that the world craves today. When JB was a ‘rock star’ in the early 20th century, it was because his writings appealed to folks more accustomed to an agricultural existence than life in a factory during the Industrial Revolution. The fact that he spent so much time in Ulster and Delaware Counties make his experiences tangible to locals: We can see where he grew celery, shot woodchucks or is even buried.”

I asked DeDea how he got started in birds. “So now that you’ve gone and used bins, you will also have to start calling it birding. Once you buy bins, go on a trip to bird primarily, have a life list, it becomes birding…before that, when you fill feeders and look out the window, you are birdwatching. I have been seriously birding for about 25 years. Before that, I was pretty interested for a kid, and my Dad kept the feeders stocked in the winter. I had the great fortune to grow up in the ‘70s when evening grosbeaks would invade feeders in the winter. They were bold, raucous, colorful birds that would empty a platform feeder before your eyes; and then, when you went back out to fill up the feeders, they would often land right around you as if to say, ‘Okay, thanks, now get out of the way.’ I would look forward to snow days when I could sit by the big kitchen window, almost nose-to-beak with the birds, and draw them for hours. Sadly, they do not show in numbers like that in this area anymore, so I really consider myself lucky to have had that to spark my interest.”

DeDea makes birding accessible to anyone: “I think birding is unlike many other hobbies, as it can be whatever you’d like to make of it. Many people enjoy the solitude of an early morning walk with nothing but the birds and their song; some people make a real sport of it and try to see as many species in a state, a year et cetera. Most of us enjoy the camaraderie of sharing stories of rare birds or helping others with identification challenges as well.”

DeDea’s tips on getting started:

“First get a pair of binoculars, then a good field guide (I like David Sibley’s NAS Guide to Birds, and stay away from books with photos). All area bookstores have a pretty decent selection. Then visit www.birds.cornell.edu, start e-birding (www.ebird.org) and consider getting involved with Project Feederwatch (www.feederwatch.org). By all means join JBNHS on a walk (they are free and open to the public); visit our site, www.jbnhs.org, or Facebook page to find out about local birding locations and rarities or to help with identification. You can definitely come visit me if you have any questions, and I hope that the public will someday recognize the Forsyth Nature Center as a hub for local bird knowledge. When I am gone I want to be considered the Johnny Appleseed of Ulster birding!”

Feed:

“Offer a variety of food from a variety of feeders. I have a covered platform feeder low to the ground for sparrows and cardinals (and as a sacrifice to squirrels too); then I have tube feeders hanging on a cable between a tree and pole that squirrels can’t access, with Nyjer seed (black thistle) for finches and black sunflower for winter finches, chickadees, titmice and blue jays. I also keep baskets on the tree trunk for suet cakes for the woodpeckers and nuthatches. In the warmer months you can feed hummingbirds and put out oranges and pet hair or string for orioles. Birdscaping your yard will be rewarding, too, and can provide natural food sources for the birds nearly year-round.” DeDea recommends Lucas Pet Supply for birdseed, and I get mine at the Natural Pet Center in Gardiner or at Agway.

Binoculars:

“As far as optics, the only place that has anything close to quality optics is Gander Mountain. A great idea is to send folks to the Cape May Bird Observatory [CMBO], where you can get the best bins/scopes in hand to use and find out about, with a portion of sales going to the CMBO (a trip to Cape May is almost always a clincher to becoming a more serious birder). Not trying to push the reader to spending a ton of money, but the old adage about getting what you pay for totally applies to optics. The more you spend, the better things will appear and the less difficult it will be to identify birds and the more fun you will have.”

I can attest to this. “I don’t see any cormorants out there,” I protested, staring at the seemingly barren marker on the Hudson River through some borrowed binoculars. DeDea gestured for me to look through the scope on the tripod, and Shazaam! There they were! It’s like an entire corner of the world suddenly came to life for me. The entire birding outing – my first one – felt exactly like that: Small hidden treasures would suddenly appear on a branch or a wire, or take flight. Within about ten minutes of arrival to the birder outing, I mentally updated my holiday wish list to include a pair of good binoculars.

John Burroughs Natural History Society:

I’m impressed by DeDea’s description of some of the accomplishments of JBNHS: “Each year, JBNHS sends two youngsters to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation camp, which often propels these individuals to a greater appreciation of nature. Papers have been written in the past, and Flora of Ulster County, New York was published. A bird checklist is updated periodically, and we are currently conducting several citizen science projects in-county (like Christmas Bird Counts, Winter Waterfowl Count, NABA Butterfly Count). We also are excited to help the US Fish and Wildlife Service with Breeding Bird Surveys and the creation of a butterfly checklist for the refuge.”

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I encourage everyone to check out the John Burroughs Natural History Society website at https://jbnhs.org. This site is full of useful information, such as upcoming field trips, including all-age outings, and a list called “Where to Bird in Our Area,” such as Esopus Meadows and Kingston Point: great places to bring the kids and a few pairs of binoculars and just look around, and the perfect free activity to do during this holiday weekend or anytime. If you are interested in a personal membership or gifting another person or family, the annual dues are only $15 per year; but as DeDea mentioned, most activities are open to non-members. You can connect with DeDea yourself through the JBNHS website, on one of its nature outings or at the Forsyth Nature Center.

Erica Chase-Salerno doesn’t usually like to boast but is proud of her ability to identify five local birds on sight. She lives in New Paltz with her husband Mike and their two children: the inspirations behind www.hudsonvalleyparents.com. She can be reached at kidsalmanac@ulsterpublishing.com.