If you were to consider nature to have a front line, it would have to be as diffuse as the terrorist front line: wherever man comes into contact or conflict with nature, all over the world. Some of it would be as fraught with danger as any war zone; think of the battle against elephant poachers in Africa, tiger hunters in India, or rain forest levelers in South America, for instance.
There’s another, quieter front line, though, wherever people who don’t have much experience or knowledge of nature come to learn more about what they’ve seen or heard or experienced. Manning this line are the teachers, naturalists, field trip guides, park rangers, and nature center staffers that are all around us, but especially in places where nature is particularly rare, important or beautiful.
One such place is Cape May, New Jersey. Above is the entrance to the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory on East Lake Drive in Cape May Point, at the very southern tip of the state. I’ve been manning the quiet front line there by helping out in the center for a few hours once a week since 1990.
Going up the walkway, past the bird and butterfly garden and feeders, you come to the front entrance of this small center, once the private home of Anne Northwood, who donated it to the Society in her will, thereby preserving an acre or so of rare dune forest in the center of this small residential beach community. On the left is the news and activities board, on the right (in the fall) is the daily postings of the official Hawk Watch count from the state park a quarter mile down the road. You can’t see it here, but on the railing off to the right there are a few crows looking for their daily handout of cat food. These are the only birds you’re likely to see here in the middle of a summer day.
Inside, as you turn right, is the volunteer desk and cash register for the shop, here with Barbara Nuessle at work, I’m about to replace her. In the summer, more than half of the people that walk through the door are not bird watchers, or perhaps even nature lovers, just summer tourists, stopping on the way to or from the beach. This is where the front line is. The shop is full of nature books, binoculars and scopes, bird feeders, nature art and crafts, and more. Some come to shop, but often they have questions. That’s what the staff, and especially the volunteers are there for.
Here’s the bookstore manager, Jason Guerard. He’s a fine birdwatcher and naturalist as well being knowledgable about everything carried in the store. If you want a little brush to clean the openings in your hummingbird feeder, or are considering spending a small fortune on top-quality birding optics, you’ll get the same level of cheerful attention from him.
I’ve done all sorts of things at CMBO, as we call it for short, but most of the time I sit behind the volunteer desk answering the phone, making store sales, and giving out whatever information I can to those in search of it. One common question in the summer is, “Where do you see the birds here?” If the questioner is expecting cages of captive avifauna, I gently explain that we don’t do that, but I can direct them to the county zoo, if that’s what they’d like to see. If they want to know where to see wild birds in the area, I’ll point out some hot spots on the local birding map that I created and maintain for the center (from work originally done by Pat Sutton, I should add).
Two of the hardworking staff are Sheila Lego, the Administrative Director of this center, and Laura Guerard, the website manager. Sheila and her partner Marleen Murgitroyde are about to go to England to promote CMBO and Cape May at a birding festival there. Laura is still adding material to the new website she launched last month, which you can find here.
If you want to read more about Cape May, that’s a good place to start. For further reading, I’d recommend the new book by Pat and Clay Sutton: “Birds and Birding at Cape May.” Here’s a link, if you’d like to buy it on Amazon.
One sort of question I get at CMBO is the “Can you identify this for me?” question. Unfortunately, the person asking doesn’t usually have enough information for me to tell them what they want to know. Today, a phone caller said, “I have this bird singing in my yard every morning that sounds like it’s saying ‘Weep Weep Weeper.’ Do you know what that would be?” It wasn’t enough information for me to even hazard a good guess, but I threw out the possibility of a Great Crested Flycatcher. “Oh,” she replied, “I live in a residential area. We don’t have any interesting birds here.” I’d bet dollars to donuts she’s wrong, and that bird she’s hearing every morning is a good clue. But at least she’s asking the question. Maybe she’ll take my advice and look for a CD of bird songs at her local library. Maybe she’ll even come to CMBO some day to look for more information. It is, after all, on the front line.