I'm back. You may not have noticed my absence, but I'm back. In the course of trying to set up a little project that I hope to be telling you about shortly, a few days back I took a little spin up to western New York. It had been a long time since I'd been in that part of the world--fall of 1980, as a matter of fact, when my brother and three of our friends (Karen, Celia, and Annie) took my mom's Oldsmobile Omega for a college-research trip. I wanted to see Yale and Dartmouth and Princeton, while Annie wanted to visit the Coast Guard Academy and Karen was interested in a look at Cornell. Our first stop was at the latter, a school about which I knew nothing at the time, but once we piled out of the car in Ithaca, NY, I knew one thing: the place was absolutely beautiful. Cornell sits high on a hill overlooking the town of Ithaca and the waters of Lake Cayuga, and when the fall foliage is in full color, the scenery is pretty close to incomparable. It's not bad even in high summer:
But on that long-ago autumn day, we toured the campus, viewing some of the famous and precipitous gorge(ou)s that cut through the hilltops, and learned a little bit about the school's strong points, including its veterinary school and its hotel management program.
But somehow I never learned about its ornithology program.
If I had, perhaps I'd have applied, but as it was, I ended up applying to only one of the schools we visited--Yale--though we enjoyed our on-campus stay at Dartmouth the most of all. (The availability of beer in the basement of the frat house where we stayed may have influenced our thinking in this regard.) And that was basically all I learned about Cornell until some years later, when I began to get more seriously into my lifelong hobby of birding. Names like Arthur Allen and Louis Agassiz Fuertes (not to mention Carl Sagan and Vladimir Nabokov) gave me good reason to pay more attention to the reputation of the Home of the Big Red.
And that's how I ended up spending seven hours in the car last Tuesday heading up to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Yes, it's actually called the "Lab," not "Laboratory.") The Lab itself is an enormous wood-metal-glass structure sitting in the famed 200-acre Sapsucker Woods preserve. There's a small lake, a number of small wetlands, and plenty of forest, with several miles worth of trail cut through so that visitors can wander about and see what might be of ornithological interest. That's not to mention a whole lot of feeders and nestboxes set up near the Lab building, which houses quite a few things: there's a visitors center featuring viewing areas (mainly of the lake and the feeder station), a small auditorium, a gift shop, a library with a bank of computers, and artwork and photography everywhere
(That's the library visible on the second floor, with the big viewing windows beyond it; those run all the way down to the viewing area in the atrium on the first floor, where you can see a few people checking out the pond from the comfort of the bench.)
Beyond the public areas of the lab, however, there are places for actual science (including a sizable bioacoustics lab) and places for publicizing the lab's efforts, including the home of the celebrated online birding guide All About Birds
, and the editorial offices of Living Bird Magazine
This last was of particular interest to me for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the editor of Living Bird
is Tim Gallagher, who is not only an expert birder, an experienced falconer, and an excellent writer, but is one of only a handful of people on earth who has set eyes on a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As chronicled in his book The Grail Bird
, Tim and his companion Bobby Harrison were drawn to the Cache River area of Arkansas by reports of an unusual bird, and they were lucky enough to get what no reliable source had gotten in sixty years: a brief glimpse of the "Lord God Bird" in its natural state. Tim also proved to be a friendly and generous guide to the lab and the Ithaca area, and he was even nice enough to personalize a copy of his most recent book, Falcon Fever
, for me. I got to meet a variety of the folks who work at the Lab and on Living Bird
, and during lunch I even got to sneak off to the nature trails to get what was probably the best look at a Rose-breasted Grosbeak I've ever had:
All in all, it was a delightful visit, made even better by a wonderful visit to Ithaca's downtown--including tapas at Just a Taste (with the best raspberry-lime ice you'll ever taste--trust me, it's like a Slurpee brought to orgasm) and lunch at Brotchen (where my roasted pepper/artichoke/feta sandwich with gazpacho was so beautiful I had to take a photo of it:
I hope to be able to share the full details about my trip soon, but in the meantime, be sure to drive out to Sapsucker Woods if you're in the neighborhood. You won't regret it. And there's an excellent chance you'll see at least one of these guys lurking near the bird feeders: