Bird man of Beech Hill

By David Grima | Aug 07, 2014

Normally by the time we have reached early August, the June bugs have visited me in the east concrete tower at the foot of Mechanic Street. One pitch dark night when I get up to fetch a drink of water from the hollow log, my feet crunch on what feel like squishy potato chips. But they are June bugs, attracted by the faint glow of the rotting seagull feathers stashed in one corner or another of my tower. This year, though, I have not seen or squashed a single bug. Did I sleep through the invasion, or did they not come?

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June bugs or not, there are other things with us that are not so usual. Brian Willson is the Bird Man of Beech Hill, and every day he rides up there on his tricycle to observe and photograph birds. I talked to him Saturday during my dear friend Frightful O’Meara’s annual avoid-the-festival party at Cobb Manor, and he told me of birds that are moving ever more certainly north.

First he told me he has not seen a brown bat in three years or more, and has only seen a few June bugs this year. But numerous brands of bird are showing up that did not used to be seen, the red-bellied woodpecker for one. Two springs ago he saw a yellow-breasted chat on Beech Hill that was singing for a mate. These birds do not normally nest this far north, he said. Three summers ago he saw a black vulture which is a southern bird, whereas it was about 35 years ago that he began to see turkey vultures here. Half a century ago our area was not visited by northern cardinals, northern mocking birds or the tufted titmouse. (What is the plural of titmouse, I wonder? Titmice? I doubt it.) Now these birds are often among us.

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Walking into town on Sunday morning along Water Street, my sensitive soul was affronted by a blaring loudspeaker delivering the doubtful joys of a tune called “Walking on Sunshine.” This was intended, I suppose, to entertain the people waiting for the knuckle-biting finish to the annual foot race. It did not entertain me at all. This is not what Sunday morning should sound like.

I was walking to the festival to have breakfast, by the way. I’ll pretty much go anywhere for breakfast. It was quite good.

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Then on Sunday I observed another strange bird-related phenomenon while sitting in the back yard of my ruined former house on Linden Street. I still visit there now and then when I want to get away from the towers to think, or to pick through the ruins for a book I thought I once owned, or to avoid the bothersome crowds that often gather on Mechanic Street trying to catch a glimpse of me up here in the towers. Can’t they just leave me alone? I cry sanctuary. I find myself reaching for the bell rope whereby I can swing to the other side of the tower and be briefly hidden until they follow me around there. Anyway, at 5:35 in my former back yard I noticed little grey feathers, 1 or 2 inches long, falling to earth. On inspection I found they were coming from a single point at the very top of the clump of maples that will one day fall down and crush what remains of my little wooden house.

What horror could this rain of feathers signify? I imagined a fight to the death in the treetops between a turkey vulture and a titmouse, or some other even more terrifying explanation for the situation. I have reason to be concerned. Many years ago a headless mourning dove dropped at my feet on the sidewalk, tumbling from a blue spruce on Amesbury Street. Was this another of those ominous occasions, I asked myself, or are the Four Seagulls of the Apocalypse simply playing nasty tricks on me? Bloody seagulls, etc.

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Speaking of the drains in town, I have received official notice that a team of hired engineers will be blowing smoke up our drainpipes this month. Rarely do we get such helpful notice about such things. Usually we have to figure it out for ourselves.

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Another report from one of our Rockland restaurants, with names concealed for various reasons. “There is a sense of exhaustion that in fact does pass. We did 101 lunches between 11:30 and 2 on July 20. I believe it was a record for lunch, and then we start getting ready for dinner. A week ago I was exhausted, but this week I can do it. We are all running on adrenalin right now, and in a week something like 20,000 people are going to be in town” (this conversation took place a short while before the lobfest) “and they all want to eat and they don’t want to cook. The lobster festival is actually less crazy for us because they want to eat lobster there, but during the blues festival we did 180 people for dinner one of the nights, which is also a record. It’s an obscene amount of work but we are ready for it. It’s like leaping out of a plane. Half way down a 100 things can still go wrong, but you’re also enjoying it before the parachute deploys and it all slows down.”

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Judging by the crowds, I would say the parachute has yet to deploy.

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An observation arising from O’Meara’s little party last weekend: Old men do not get together to swap news. We do it simply to reinforce each other’s rapidly fading memories.

David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at davidgrima@ymail.com.

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