From the cacophonous to the cordial, a trip to the East Coast reveals many good creatures

Walking out of the lodge into the gloom of a presunrise overcast morning my ears, which are not so good these days, were assaulted by screeching from an abbreviated juniper tree.

A few days before, while sitting on our deck, which had become a feeding ground for some 150 odd redpolls, siskins, chickadees, nut hatches, red crossbills, pine grosbeaks, and woodpeckers, Christine had to tell me of the symphony they all provided. I couldn’t hear any of them, even with hearing aids. I can still hear ravens, jays, ducks, geese, and larger birds with deeper voices — not the little ones.

The Aldo Leopold lodge, where Christine and I were staying at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia was L-shaped, amplifying the tormented cries of the bird that seemed put out by my presence. In the dim light, my tired eyes were not particularly useful, and try as I did, I could not see what I believed to be an enormous bird. I ran back to the room and enlisted Christine to come and help find the tormented creature.

If anything, the bird became more vocal when Christine appeared, and by then, more birds were chipping in with different voices. Christine, with her superior eyesight and hearing, found my tormentor quickly and pointed the bird out.

“Right there,” she said, “it’s a very small bird, about the size of those red crossbills at home.”

Even with help, it took me a while to allow my eyes to see the little guy. No way, I thought, can that little bird make that much noise. The volume of sound coming from the little body suggested he might be all lungs.

In the meantime, the other birds continued their morning serenade or complaint; it was hard to tell which. We still hadn’t seen enough of any of them to begin to identify what they were. I thought, maybe it’s an East Coast thing. Maybe these little birds had developed enormous lungs to be heard above the din of the world.


A few minutes later, Kevin Painter of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Alaska Region, the driving force behind our book and responsible for our being there, came to the rescue.

Kevin found an app from Cornell University that allowed you to record the bird sounds with your phone, and it would translate the sounds into identification. Well, I thought, at least I’ll know what’s been yelling at me. But there were other matters to attend to.

When we were presented with the opportunity to visit this place and accepted, the anxiety of traveling east of the Mississippi was all but debilitating. Except for a couple of overnight business trips and no interaction with the general public, my perception of the eastern coast of the United States came from reading and various media sources. It seemed like an overcrowded environment filled with folks who probably did not embrace the values I did.

This would be a real test of Christine’s and my belief that no matter what the occasion, when we have the opportunity to put a face to a name, over coffee or a beer, wonderful conversations occur even when there are polar opposites in respective cultures. But, neither of us had interacted with the East Coast, and our confidence was lacking.

So, off we went to meet the people with whom we would interact for the next four days. There were folks from all around the country, and to our delight, many of them were from Alaska.

Turns out, our theory was sound. A more polite group of folks would be hard to imagine. We found common ground with everyone we met. We shared many of the same values regarding hunting and public land and were wonderfully supported by everyone involved.

While exploring the facility we found a proud and compelling history of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service. Hunting, particularly waterfowl hunting, was a consistent theme. People we encountered were quick to stop and talk with us and the more we conversed, the more comfortable we felt.

Many folks from the nearby communities attended our book presentation. We had a great time sharing hunting and dog stories with them and felt as warmly received as anywhere we have been.

On the grounds of the training center, walking paths connected the beautiful lodges and training buildings around the facility bordered by the Potomac River. While walking these paths, many grey squirrels were darting about, and a small herd of whitetail deer appeared as a tranquil presence moving through the trees. Tree stands appeared sporadically in the hardwoods. We assumed they had been placed for photography. Much to our surprise, we were told that no, they were for deer hunting and that a regular deer season by permit took place on the facility grounds.

Back to the birds. The NCTC occupies some 500 acres. While we wandered about it became clear the place was a bit of a wildlife haven, particularly for birds. A massive bald eagle nest dominates the area from the top of an old sycamore tree. For many years this nest has hosted pairs of eagles. While there, the eagle cam showed a dutiful pair of bald eagles tending to three eggs that were mere hours away from hatching.

A blue heron tended a cattail slough near our lodge, while red-winged blackbirds scolded from their cattail perches. A pileated woodpecker, looking prehistoric with its long, sharp bill, tufted head, and clawed feet, pounded bark from trees searching for insect life.

Spectacular northern cardinals flitted about like giant cranberries and, like the belted kingfisher that frequented the area, were not about to pose for a photo. A nearby field held a half-dozen vultures who seemed to be eating a deer carcass, while a pair of Canada geese strutted around like they owned the place.

Hawks of various makes and models kept the squirrels and groundhogs scurrying from cover to cover. All of them were an unexpected bonus to the trip.

The app Kevin had downloaded was rather impressive. With the first recording, trying to identify the blaring bird who scolded us, revealed a half-dozen species, which would have been fine, except we couldn’t get a good view to differentiate.

The solution was a brief recording to isolate the little bird’s calls. The app informed us it was an eastern towhee, which we never did see well enough to make a positive ID on.

For us, it seems the measure of a place always goes back to the people and the wildlife present. This small slice of countryside left us feeling a bit more positive about the eastern U.S., a place many good creatures call home. Some louder than others.

Steve Meyer | Alaska outdoors

Steve Meyer of Kenai is longtime Alaskan and an avid shooter who writes about guns and Alaska hunting. He's the co-author, with Christine Cunningham, of the book "The Land We Share: A love affair told in hunting stories."