The EcoTravel Experience
by Jim Denham
When I retired three years ago, I promised myself that I would renew my interest in bird watching, a hobby I have dabbled in since I was in graduate school. Now living in Essex, CT it is not hard to get back into the right mindset. One has the Connecticut River, the Great Island marshes including Griswold Point, Nehantic State Forest as well as many other productive birding areas only a short distance away.
My introduction to Connecticut Audubon’s EcoTravel organization was therefore a logical event since it has an active calendar of day trips to locations in Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York. Many are led by Andy Griswold, the Director of EcoTravel, an expert leader and knowledgeable birder. Andy always makes sure that everyone gets to see as many of the birds as possible. In that sense, I found going out with Andy a big help in improving my skills: both in spotting field marks and in learning bird songs and calls.
So I have become a regular traveler with EcoTravel not only because it is fun but also because I feel I am learning something all of the time. My first experiences with EcoTravel were on winter day trips, travelling to Rhode Island where we would find Harlequin Ducks, Purple Sandpipers and occasionally Barrow’s Goldeneyes. I still remember vividly my first views of Short-earned Owls as they drifted above the fields at Sachuest Point. In spring, I’ve done the Lyme Loop where Andy gives us a first class lesson in identifying warblers and vireos; one of the top highlights is spotting the handsome Cerulean Warbler buzzing away high in the trees.
But EcoTravel is not just about day trips of which they plan approximately 80 annually including Eagle boat cruises in February and March and the spectacular Tree Swallow roosting show in September. EcoTravel also offers multi-day domestic overnight trips as well as unique international journeys to such exotic places as the Galapagos Islands, Tanzania in Africa, Canada’s Hudson Bay to see Polar Bears, and Brazil’s Amazon and Pantanal, among many other locations.
Since retiring, I have made domestic overnight trips my priority. These are typically 4-8 day trips in small groups, with 5-10 participants. All arrangements are made by EcoTravel so all one has to do is bring binoculars, appropriate clothing and a little bit of a sense of adventure. The trips that I have gone on have taken me to the Connecticut Lakes, Cape May, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, Monhegan and Block Islands, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and both North and South Dakota. As a result of these trips, I have become acquainted with my country in a totally new way: seeing its birds and wildlife, experiencing the river of grass which is the Everglades, searching the bottomland swamp bayous of the Mississippi River Valley and roaming the pot-hole prairies of the northern plains.
These trips are primarily about birding. We are usually off early in the morning with a plan to visit specific locations that are geographically and ecologically important stops. Naturally, the focus is on taking in the diversity of bird species but nothing stops us from seeing something that is unique to the area. I am reminded of the Texas trip I took where we made time to visit a famous bat cave. A few minutes after sunset, bats would begin pouring out in numbers that eventually reached in excess of 10 million. Needless to say the spectacle seemed to never end and what made it even more special was being able to observe the Red-Tailed and Swainson’s hawks swoop down for what must be the avian equivalent of ‘fast food.’
At the end of a typical day, the group gathers around at an appropriate “watering hole” and over dinner recounts the day’s highlights. A detailed bird checklist is kept and eventually shared with everyone. Inevitably, there is a sense of competitiveness with prior trips lists to see if “our” trip can come up with a new higher trip total.
Since renewing my commitment to bird watching and having taken a number of trips with Connecticut Audubon’s EcoTravel, I have become much more aware of the environment, its birds and their habitats, and have gained a general appreciation for how much there is still to see, appreciate and preserve. As was eloquently stated by President John F. Kennedy, we have a responsibility “to hand down undiminished to those who come after us, as was handed down to us by those who went before, the natural wealth and natural beauty which is ours.” EcoTravel has been my partner in these adventures. I can only wish that many others will avail themselves of these unique and highly memorable experiences.
February 24th, 2010