After 14 years as chair of the Putnam Highlands Audubon Society, Connie Mayer-Bakall is handing the reins to Sean Camilliere. She was honored on March 18 at the Taconic Outdoor Education Center in Philipstown.
Did our nearly snow-free winter cause measurable behavioral changes in birds?
Not just birds. Most animals could see their food, which they’re not used to this time of the year. And some plants and small mammals depend on the snow cover for protection. I’m sure that will have quite an impact, because you have all those animals that normally eat other animals. Pull one string, you start harming the tapestry.
We’ll have to see what happens during the breeding season. There have been a lot of stress points for birds, including too many people, on trails. When birds find a place where they can raise their young, they keep coming back if the food source is there. Insects hibernate under the bark, so things were still open for birds to forage, and I’m sure they did.
Did birding benefit from the pandemic?
Yes. When people were home, they started looking up. Birding is the most popular recreational activity in the country. Audubon has 93,000 members, with 27 affiliated chapters in New York state. You can bird anywhere, anytime and you don’t need paraphernalia, because most birding is learning the calls and the songs, and going out on a walk. People found it was peaceful, and could be done with kids. I started to get more “I saw this little yellow and black bird, what was it?” calls. Once they start, people stay with it.
The next stage is that people begin to care for birds’ needs. They get to thinking about their habitat, and plant native bushes. Soon you have backyard birding. You begin to understand the mechanism of how nature works and the amazing coordination through millennia.
Was your childhood spent in the woods?
No, I grew up in the city, but the city and I weren’t compatible. I came to this area and stayed here. Though actually, it all began for me in Central Park, with a statue of a malamute. His name was Balto, and he had saved young children in Alaska. I saw the statue, then read all the stories about him. That led to an interest in wolves, and I wound up working with them my whole life. Wolves have no interest in harming humans. In fact, they’ll go out of their way not to hurt people. They’re only interested in surviving.
You spent 17 years on the staff at Constitution Marsh. How would you make the site more accessible with the limited parking nearby?
You’re up against the topography of the marsh and the fact that you have homes right there. New York state parks opened up the waterfront area, so it became a recreational destination. That’s when it became a problem. It becomes an awful issue if you’re living right there. Eventually, it got shut down, then the marsh lost its parking. There’s no other place at the marsh you can put parking; you’d be destroying the marsh to do it.
I don’t have a solution. You can’t come in canoes and kayaks, because people go off into the side channels, and that’s where birds are breeding. We’ve talked about satellite parking and bike racks, but everything is problematic. You don’t want it overrun. You have to plan ahead. It’s not going to be any easier.
What’s your favorite regional bird?
Cedar Wax Wings! When I worked at the marsh, I had a large ash tree which was in the process of dying at my home. The birds would come in a flock, the same time, every night. Such beautiful, medium-sized birds. When the setting sun hits them, they’re gorgeous.
They’re fruit-eaters and I started thinking, “What can I have for them? Dogwood? Berries?” They disperse the seeds they eat. Eventually the tree failed, and they left. It was the perfect spot, and when it was gone, they were gone. None of the birds came back; they found another spot they preferred, which shows how attached they are to a certain tree. Eagles do it, too. Sometimes you’re trying to save one tree to save an eagle’s nest.