The LAB Goes Green: a morning at Joppa Flats

BirdBy Suzanne Wilson

Last spring, a group of blind and visually impaired LAB clients took the short trip to Newburyport to visit the Joppa Flats Education Center, part of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.  This semi-annual event gives everyone the opportunity to commune with nature while learning about the many species of birds and plants that live in New England.

The tour guide for the day was Bill Getty.  It is safe to say that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the approximately 300 species of birds that spend their springs, summers and autumns in this sanctuary.  Their New England home is the 4600-acre Parker River Wildlife Refuge.  It contains forest land, as well as salt water marshes.  Because of our often inclement winters, most of these birds head south for the colder months.

However, winter was far from the minds of the participants on this beautiful day.  A light spring breeze ruffled the trees and the smells of damp earth and new life were everywhere.  The birds also must have appreciated the marvelous weather, since many different species graced everyone with their songs.

Mr. Getty noted that these songs and calls are often the best and most reliable way to take a census of what kinds of birds have come into an area.  While many people think of birding as a visual pastime, it is actually the ears that often catch the first clue of a bird’s presence.  In less than an hour, everyone became familiar with the calls of willets, mourning doves, eastern kingbirds, song sparrows, yellow warblers, purple finches, towhees, common yellowthroat warblers, catbirds, bobolinks, and redwing blackbirds.

Just as all species of birds have their own distinct appearances, each has a unique song.  It often helps to attach a particular word or phrase to these songs to make them easier to remember.  Here are just a few that Mr. Getty helped everyone to recognize:  the song sparrow says “maids maids, maids put on your teakettle.”  The towhee says “drink your tea.”  A yellow warbler says “Sweet sweeter than sweet I’m so sweet sweet.”  A yellow throat says “witchety witchety witchety.”  The call of a kingbird almost reminds one of an electric shock, and a male goldfinch says something that sounds something like “potato chips.”

When they were not learning about and appreciating the various chirps and melodious calls, clients were finding out numerous fascinating facts.  For instance, did you know that baby birds escape from their shells by means of a sharp, triangular egg tooth on the top of their bills?  As they roll around in the shell, this tooth gradually weakens and eventually breaks the shell, allowing the baby to hatch.

And here is another interesting tidbit:  Not all birds migrate in flocks.  Species like the Yellow warbler head to the New World tropics one by one.

It is certainly easy to understand why so many birds and plants flourish at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge.  Although populated areas are not far away as the crow flies, this area feels isolated unto itself.  As those on the tour smelled the sharp tang of pine trees and felt the hard berries of a sumac, it was undeniable that this is one of Massachusetts’ most precious resources.  The name “Joppa Flats” was inspired by the Biblical place of miracles known as Joppa, and it is no stretch to see how this place got its name.

One excellent feature of the sanctuary is that it has several different trails.  The one chosen for this particular tour is known as the New Pines trail.  Not only does it afford everyone a view of the salt marshes below, but it is wheelchair accessible.  Another popular path known as the Hellcat Trail is also popular, and it is one the LAB program participants have taken in past trips to the sanctuary.

“It’s hard for me to understand how you could not be interested in nature,” Mr. Getty commented as the tour reached its end.  “It’s a huge refuge.  It’s a wonderful place.  Nice to take people of all abilities and all interests out and just walk around.”

Considering the success of our most recent trip, it’s a sure bet that the LAB will continue in its collaboration with the Joppa Flats Education Center in years to come.  As many participants learned on that spring day, blindness does not prevent anyone from appreciating and enjoying nature.  In fact, becoming attuned to what can be heard in the woods is often the best way to make discoveries.

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