The B.A.R.B. at SongStar

The Red-footed Falcon
OR How to Do Martha’s Vineyard in 24 Hours

y Kathie Lambert

Yikes!! Where do I begin? Some of you have already read bits & pieces. This was also a remarkably uneventful trip, which is good for the participants, but doesn’t make for a great tale. Oh, what the heck I’ll start at the beginning.

Believe it or not, the seeds for this trip were sown in May. Before school started, I had several weeks off and figured I’d do as much bird watching as I could as I knew that my bird watching time would be nearly eliminated once school started. During the height of spring migration, I was able to run here & there to see whatever was dropping into various hot spots. Managed to put together my best spring migration list in years. Also got drop dead gorgeous looks at some birds that can be tough to see—a very cooperative Black-billed Cuckoo comes to mind. Rather than sating my appetite for birding, it only made me want more. ACK!!

School started & bird watching stopped. Cicadas came and so did the kites—not 1 but 2 species of kites (American Swallow-tailed and Mississippi) were seen at a location about 1.5 hours from my house. I figured that if I worked like crazy on a Saturday, then on Sunday I could make the run to see the kites. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, the prevailing winds were from the wrong direction and neither kite was seen that day. I did get to see the Pugsley’s, so it wasn’t a wasted day. The school load increased and I wasn’t able to carve out the requisite 4 hours or so needed to see the birds. 2 MD birds that got away.

So far this year, 1 new MD bird (Yellow-crowned Night-Heron). All the other new MD birds crashed & burned (kites, curlew). 1 new life bird, Cackling Goose, but this is hardly satisfying as it was the result of an AOU species split. I’m really itching to do some birding! I need some MD birds, I need a real life bird!!!

As the summer semester was coming to a close, the various birding email lists were abuzz with good birds, but would they stick around until after my last final exam? I finally found someone to go with me to see the Curlew Sandpiper—our own Abbie. Well, you know that trip is now known as the Assateague Death March and nearly a week later my knees are still a little sore. Another MD bird that got away.

The Red-footed Falcon on Martha’s Vineyard was way too good to ignore. Now, how to get there? I posted a note on the MDOsprey birding email list in hopes that someone who was going might have room for a hitchhiker. Time after time, every lead I had for car pooling to the island crashed & burned. Turns out most MD birders where flying—too rich for this starving student’s wallet! Finally, Kevin Graff came to my rescue. His was a familiar name from the MDOsprey email list and I was sure our paths had crossed at some point, but I just couldn’t put a name & face together. He decided to drive to New Bedford and take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. The fact that someone else wanted to go was a nice way to share expenses. We swapped several emails, but by Friday afternoon, it was still kind of up in the air. I didn’t tell anyone about the trip until the last minute as I was afraid to jinx the trip. 

Friday evening, I went to the Physician Assistant Class of 2004 graduation ceremony. I was still walking a little gingerly from the Assateague Death March and some of my class mates were wondering what I was up to. They couldn’t believe the death march story. They knew I was a little nuts before, now they are convinced that I’m off my rocker. When I got home, Hubby asked me if I was doing something this weekend that I had neglected to tell him about. Oops. Kevin called when I was out. Brian said it was the strangest phone call he’s ever had. There was a significant time delay because the call was routed through a relay. Kevin is mostly deaf (he can hear a bit and speaks well once you get a handle on his speech patterns) and uses a relay service for making phone calls. Until this point, I wasn’t actually sure who Kevin was. Turns out I had seen him at the kite spot on the day I didn’t see the kites. He probably doesn’t remember it, but I met him about 10 years ago on a bird club trip at the Baltimore Zoo. He amazed me back then and still amazes me now. He’s a very talented young man who has not let his deafness stop him from doing anything he wants to do. We swapped another couple of emails and the trip was set. Kevin had made all the necessary reservations. Who knew that he was a logistical virtuoso!!

Meanwhile, I had also been swapping a few emails with Richard. He decided to go to Martha’s Vineyard too. He emailed me his cell phone number with instructions to call him when I arrived in the area. I also checked the Internet for a Martha’s Vineyard weather report. While Saturday afternoon looked a little bad (as Chuck can tell you), the forecast for Sunday looked great. I’m soooo excited.

Saturday, I left the house at 2030 and ran a couple of errands to the post office & grocery store before traveling the little over an hour distance to the north of Baltimore park & ride to meet Kevin. We decided to meet at 2230. His vehicle was hard to miss—a Ford F250, 4x4, cab & a half, with a full size pick-up bed. Yikes!! It’s too big in length & width to fit in a normal size parking spot and you need a ladder to get into it. I figure my Miata would fit in it with room to spare. These days, most pick-ups ride like cars. Not this one—it really beats you up even worse than my Miata.

OK, we’re on the road. Kevin said that he had several long naps throughout the day. Me, nada, too wound up to sleep. Eventually, I dozed off here & there while Kevin drove. With me, if I’m in a moving vehicle & I’m not driving, I will fall asleep. The drive to New Bedford, MA was uneventful. Because we were traveling in the middle of the night, there wasn’t much traffic. The only slow down was a fairly long line to pay the toll for the George Washington Bridge in NYC.

At 0530, we arrived at the New Bedford ferry terminal. We unloaded our stuff and Kevin left to park the truck in the parking lot down the street. Until he returned, I started chatting it up with a bunch of people who were obviously birders heading for Martha’s Vineyard. A tall blonde was particularly chatty & pleasant. We were exchanging the usual “where are you froms” when she said that she was from Connecticut. Funny, I said, I had been emailing someone from Connecticut for the last 10 years or so and he was supposed to be here too, I should call him to see where he is. Then she said “I’m Joan!” I grinned and said I’m Kathie! Big hugs and smiles. Richard was in the office getting ferry tickets. Guess I don’t need to call now. Instead of driving all night, Richard & Joan left Connecticut Saturday afternoon and spent the night in New Bedford. They were fresh, bright-eyed & bushy tailed. On the other hand, I was grungy, sleepy, and could use a stiff cup of coffee. Not my best moment, but it would have to do. During our conversation, Richard told me that he & Joan had planned to see the falcon next weekend. When they found out I was coming this weekend, they totally changed their plans so that they could meet me. ACK!! I was so embarrassed, honored, flatteredI couldn’t help but wonder if I would live up to their expectations.

We boarded the high speed ferry at 0630. The trip was uneventful—nothing like Chuck’s ride aboard the Vomit Comet. No pelagic birds. Just some salt spray if you went to the upper deck to get some fresh air. Richard, Joan & I chatted & swapped birding stories. Kevin did some birding and took a nap. An hour later, we disembarked at Oak Bluff on Martha’s Vineyard.

Richard Becker and Gizmo
Richard & Gizmo

Kevin had arranged for a shuttle to pick us up at the ferry terminal. The driver was standing there holding a piece of cardboard with our names scrawled on it. We invited all the other birders to pile in with us. I’m not sure how many people crammed into the van, but it was a bunch of us. The best part of the trip was Gizmo, the driver’s dog. Gizmo is a Havanese. At first glance a Havanese looks like a stereotypical little yappy ankle biter type of dog. Gizmo, however, was very different. He loved to be with people—new sets of hands just waiting to pet him. He was wearing his summer hair cut—very short hair. He was so sweet and took an immediate liking to Richard. Gizmo sat on the back of the seat and hung over Richard’s shoulder. Aren’t they so cute!

Gizmo then found my lap and we had some quality time together before he decided that he really wanted to be with his owner. If you’d like more information on this breed, check out This breed originated in Cuba and is its national dog. They were bred to be jacks of all trades –a companion, playmate, and protector. I could have taken Gizmo home, but I think several other folks would have fought me for him.

Gizmo & his owner

We arrived at the Katama airport. Well, calling it an airport takes a huge stretch of the imagination. It’s a grassy field that has some mowed areas for runways. There were a few airplanes tied up near the edge of the property. A couple of shacks served as offices. Finding the bird was easy. Some birders were already there and had their scopes trained on the falcon. It almost feels like cheating.

For the next couple of hours, we watched as the falcon put on quite a show. It flew around, hovered, hunted, ate, and preened. He was considerate enough to do these activities while facing us and our cameras. Yes, I remembered to bring mine! But could I get a picture through my scope? Well, the pictures through my scope leave something to be desired. But the picture through Richard’s scope turned out pretty good.

Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon through my scope (see the “red” feet—look more orange to me)

Red-footed Falcon
Red-footed Falcon through Richard’s scope—much better!

My digital camera is an old Canon Power Shot A10 that is hopelessly obsolete. Holding it up to the scope lens was less than satisfying and the results were totally unpredictable. My scope is also an old & hopelessly obsolete Kowa. After I finish school, tops on my list are a trip to Costa Rica, a new set of binoculars (even more obsolete than my other equipment), and a new scope. Anyway, I was happily snapping pictures through my scope & Richard’s. Meanwhile, Richard is standing there with his Nikon trying to figure out why it won’t take a picture through the scope. All those bells & whistles were getting in the way.

The grass in the unmowed areas was tall enough to hide the flock of Canada Geese grazing in the field. Only when the geese stood tall could you see just how many were there. When the falcon dove into the grass to retrieve a bug, he was totally obscured until he flew up again. It was nice of him to land on a sign facing us while he ate his prize. Planes few in & out and didn’t seem to faze the falcon. We, on the other hand, were horrified at the prospect of the falcon having an unfortunate collision with an airplane propeller.

Kevin Graff at Martha's Vineyard
Kevin in his “Cool Dude” sunglasses & hat with flames
—after all, he is a firefighter!

Kevin was watching the bird and trying to kick up anything else he could find. Kevin amazes me. Even though I have a hard time identifying a bird by its song, I do use my hearing to find the birds. Kevin can’t hear the birds to find them. He has to see them or somehow kick them up. Kevin has been bird watching for 17 years—since he was 10. He has an amazing wealth of bird knowledge and enthusiastically shares it. He was keeping a running tally of all the birds he saw while we were hanging around. He’s a mechanic for John Deere. And he’s a volunteer firefighter. Simply amazing.

The birders lined up along side a dirt road bordering the airport. It’s not a big road and the birders try to occupy a narrow strip along the side. Many of the locals (I don’t know if they live there or are vacationers—I suspect the latter) stopped to see what all the fuss was about. We had them take a look through the scopes so that they could see the falcon. Most were pleasant and inquisitive. Most cars traveled well on the other side of the road so as to avoid a collision. We did have one harrowing incident when a pick-up driver with a load of bicycles decided to show us that the road was his and drove entirely too close to the birders. He even bumped one guy near the end of the scope line. There was plenty of road for both us and him, but it was clearly a power play on his part.

A very fast couple of hours later, Kevin’s prearranged shuttle came for us. Again, every birder who needed to run back to catch the next ferry piled in. Different driver—no Gizmo—sniff, boo-hoo. We boarded the slow ferry back to New Bedford. Not only is it slower, but it also takes a longer route—we speculate that it has something to do with avoiding strong currents. We tried to do some birding, but there were no pelagics, just the usual gulls & terns. Joan, Richard, & I continued to chat. Kevin birded and took a nap.

2 hours later, we docked at New Bedford and hopped on the bus that would take us to our cars. Joan asked the bus driver about a good place to eat. We got into our respective vehicles and drove to Freestones for lunch. Joan, Richard & I had the special, seafood quiche, which was wonderful. More conversation, then we had to say our good-byes.

Joan and Richard Becker
Joan & Richard Becker (aka KR)

Kevin & I hopped into the truck and headed home. Lots of traffic in Connecticut. Not nearly as much traffic in NYC—amazing. In order to avoid some traffic, I thought about having Kevin drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge, but I really wanted to see the Bronx in the daylight. When we were kids, Dad drove us across the George Washington Bridge and through the Bronx on purpose (we were heading for Albany, so going through the Bronx was a detour). I suppose it was around 1971 and I was about 12 years old. It was a really sad sight. I remember commenting that it looked like a war zone—most of the buildings were burned out, bombed out, vacant, in total disrepair. Dad said that he hoped it is the closest we ever get to a war zone. By driving through it in the daylight, I wanted to see if anything was different. It actually looks much better now. Buildings have been fixed, rebuilt, and are now occupied. There clearly have been some concerted efforts to improve the area. It’s still not a place I’d like to live, but it looks much better than it did 30 years ago.

We arrived at the park & ride at 2130. I finally got home at 2230 and fell face first into bed. I had gone about 39 hours with no sleep other than the occasional cat nap while in transit. This morning I finally woke up after consuming several stiff cups of coffee and that was closer to lunch time than breakfast.

Bonus Birds—On some trips you are blessed with a bonus bird—the bird that you really didn’t expect to see, or a bird that some how turned out to be extra special. For this trip, my bonus birds were Richard & Joan. I still can’t believe that they changed their plans when they found out I was going to be in the area. It’s not like they had lots of warning; it was a last minute thing. It felt like we had known each other for years; I suppose we have. Thanks for the memories!

B.A.R.B. at SongStar

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Copyright © 2004 by Kathie Lambert and Richard L. Becker