CGP Community Stories

Rebecca Gretton, November 10, 2016

Title

Rebecca Gretton, November 10, 2016

Subject

Music education
Land development
Local businesses
Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society
Birdwatching
Otsego County, New York
Richfield Springs, New York
Springfield, New York
Oneonta, New York
St. Mary's Episcopal Church
Golden Eagles
Bluejays
DDT
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Environment
Conservation movement
Climate change
Glimmerglass Festival
Christmas Bird Count
Franklin Mountain Hawkwatch
Bait piles

Description

Rebecca (Becky) Gretton of Springfield, New York grew up in rural Brockport in the western part of the state. She attended the State University of New York at Fredonia before beginning her career in Cortland County as an itinerant music teacher for students K-12. Later, Gretton worked in Richfield Springs. She has also been active musically outside of teaching, having played flute in pit orchestras since she was in high school.

Since her childhood in western New York, Gretton has been a lover of nature and particularly of birds. After her retirement in 2006, she became secretary on the Board of Directors for the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society (DOAS), which was founded as a local chapter in 1967. She now serves as board co-president and program chairman. At the time of the interview, Gretton and the DOAS were getting ready for the organization’s fifty-year anniversary. Among other activities related to birds and wildlife, the DOAS runs the Franklin Mountain Sanctuary and Hawkwatch in Oneonta. There, she and others watch for migrating hawks and eagles.

Throughout her time living in Springfield, Gretton has seen changes to the natural and human-made environments around her. She has made and maintained community ties to local residents and visitors, including those involved with the Glimmerglass opera festival and members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. One of her fellow church members mentioned in the interview is Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. In this interview, Gretton discusses the challenges of teaching music, past and present threats to birds, the joys of watching wildlife on deserted local roads, popular area restaurants that have long been closed, and many more topics.

I interviewed Gretton in November 2016 at her home. She has used her birding expertise to attract bird life to her property, and at one point in the recording, a bluejay call is heard at her window (Track 1, 21:45). Gretton speaks with a cheerful tone and rhythm. I have retained some, but not all, instances of laughter, which I have placed in brackets. Readers with the ability to hear audio recordings are encouraged to do so – at many points Gretton’s voice reveals her personality and words she chose to emphasize. I have lightly edited grammar in her and my speech, including the addition of punctuation. For the sake of readability, I have removed the word repetition and false starts that are characteristic of oral speech.

Creator

Rosa Gallagher

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2016-11-10

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association

Format

audio/mpeg
28.1mB
audio/mpeg
28.8mB
image/gif
148kB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Coverage

Upstate New York
Richfield Springs, NY
Springfield, NY

Interviewer

Rosa Gallagher

Interviewee

Rebecca Gretton

Location

Springfield, NY

Transcription

BG = Rebecca (Becky) Gretton
RG = Rosa Gallagher

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

RG:
This is the November 10th, 2016 interview of Rebecca Gretton by Rosa Gallagher for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Research and Fieldwork course, recorded at Ms. Gretton’s home in the town of Springfield. So Becky, can you tell me about your childhood home in Brockport?
BG:
My childhood home was out in the country in Brockport. We had farmland all around us, even though we did not farm. So there was nature everywhere.
RG:
What sort of natural things do you remember seeing?
BG:
I remember seeing birds in the hedgerows. We had crops, and truck farming all around us, and the hedgerows were full of birds. Lots of sound in the spring, lots of nesting going on. Field birds, pheasants. Pheasants are pretty much gone now, but pheasant hunting was a big deal where I grew up. It was all flat country, lots of scrubby brushy areas. Birds took cover in there. We had pheasant, squirrel, and rabbit for dinner quite frequently.
RG:
Did your family do the hunting?
BG:
Yes. My father and his father, my brothers, cousins, everybody went hunting.
RG:
And what happened with the pheasants?
BG:
Well, the habitat changed. The pheasants kind of got outdone by farming.
RG:
Can you tell me about your parents?
BG:
My folks, western New York people, natives of the Brockport area. My mother was the daughter of a dentist and his wife, and my dad was the son of a butcher.
RG:
Can you tell me about your siblings?
BG:
I have two brothers. One brother lives in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre I should say, Pennsylvania, with his wife. He’s an architect. My other brother lives outside of Rochester in Honeoye Falls, and he’s a retired optical engineer. I never quite understood what Geoffrey did. It had to do with optics. Both of my brothers are also lovers of nature.
RG:
And what’s your other brother’s name?
BG:
In Wilkes-Barre is Avery, Rochester is Geoffrey.
RG:
What kind of chores or work did you have to do around the house growing up?
BG:
Our house was a large house. It’s kind out of place being in the country. But the house was built by a gentleman from Rochester who virtually brought a large house out to the country. And so we had nine rooms and an apartment in that house. We all had chores. I had certain rooms that I needed to clean every Saturday morning. And lots of times I cooked dinner because I like to cook. We all had after-dinner cleanup certain days of the week. There were plenty of chores to go around.
RG:
So, you said your brothers are both lovers of nature. Can you talk more about that?
BG:
Well, my brother Geoffrey was the one who mostly hunted with my father, so I think he certainly began to appreciate and regard nature. He became a Boy Scout, in fact he was an Eagle Scout. My other brother, he was not quite as out there in the great outdoors. But later on, he kind of started birding with me. [Laughter.] And now he’s hooked.
RG:
If your family went on vacations or trips when you were growing up, where did you go and what did you do?
BG:
We would go camping. We didn’t have a lot of resources, and a lavish, expensive vacation was never an option. So, we would go camping to the Adirondacks, or up to southern Canada. Camping was a big deal, and because there was that Boy Scout connection, we could go to the Massawepie Boy Scout Camp up in the Adirondacks, too.
RG:
Tell me more about that camp.
BG:
Well, the scouts apparently all had a project or something that they did while they were up there. Families were invited. My dad was a scout leader, so there was a little stretch of time when the whole family could come. And while the scouts were all doing their thing, and I don’t know what ‘doing their thing’ even was, because little brother and I were just out playing and having fun. [Laughter.] Not necessarily connected with the scouting activity, but enjoying the campground and the vacation.
RG:
So if I can just move on to your career as a band director, can you tell me how you started your work as a band director?
BG:
When I was little, I would always listen to what was going on in my flute lessons, and what was going on in band rehearsal. I was always interested in the mechanics of it, and how things worked and how things didn’t work. After a while I realized that I wanted to focus on that and do work to improve the methods and be a music teacher myself. So I knew by the time I was a freshman in high school that that was the career that I wanted to pursue. I’m not a singer, so definitely it was instrumental music. I played in pit orchestras from high school right through college and adulthood. So, I went to Fredonia College for four years as a music education major, and then graduated, taught in Cortland County as an itinerant music teacher for Cortland County BOCES Marathon Central School and Cincinnatus School. After three years, I became tenured and felt like I was in a position to look for the job that I really wanted. So, I interviewed all over the state. When I came to Richfield Springs, the job description was right, the staff looked really good, and the countryside was fantastic. [Laughter.] So it all fit together.
RG:
Describe the school setting.
BG:
K-12 for the most part, a K-12 building. The building was much smaller than it is now, and it housed far more students. Farming was big in the seventies and early eighties. Farm families were everywhere, and Remington Arms was huge in the valley. And of course Bassett Hospital. There seemed to be a lot more employers, I know there were a lot more employers in the area. So the population was larger in upstate New York. Classrooms were chock full. I remember having twenty-four, twenty-seven, twenty-nine kids in my general music classes. These days in this area, that would make eyes roll and heads spin. But it’s what we dealt with all the time back then.
RG:
How do you feel about that change in how many people there were then compared to now?
BG:
Oh, I’m sorry, as is everyone up here. It’s a loss. I’m not going to just instantly go to the tax base, because that’s not where my sorrow is. It’s just that the stores that once were thriving are now gone, and all the businesses that accompanied that population mostly aren’t around anymore. Granted, there’s been the change to Walmart and that kind of shopping. But there was enough of a population to support local businesses, very much so. Lots of restaurants are gone, things like that.
RG:
Which restaurants in particular do you remember that are now gone?
BG:
I remember the Red Sleigh right around the corner from here, and the Hickory Grove, I think lots of people know where the Hickory Grove is now because there’s rather a controversy about its development happening right now. And oh gosh, the Village Inn in Richfield. That’s where the new Stewart’s is going up. [Laughter.] The Garland used to be in Richfield Springs, it’s a terrific place. The Schuyler House, and this would be a bar-restaurant, Schuyler House. I know there are more, I’m just not coming up with them.
RG:
Can you tell me a little more about the current controversy with the Hickory Grove one? With the development there?
BG:
My understanding is that a developer put forth a proposal and I’m not quite sure if that proposal was adequately dealt with, or dealt with in a timely fashion. I don’t really know what the true nuts and bolts are. A bigger proposal kind of was put right on top of that, and they’ve been pushing, pushing, pushing. It’s been a long time of back and forth. And the concern is that it’s such a massive proposal for a hotel, restaurant, and pool. For the area, it’s completely out of place. The neighbors are going to be impacted tremendously, in my opinion.
RG:
Just to circle back to your work in schools, can you tell me what a typical day was like in your job in the school in Springfield – or, Richfield Springs?
BG:
Richfield Springs. Actually, I’m going to go back to a typical day in my first job –
RG:
Sure.
BG:
– as an itinerant music teacher, who was basically untenured. Thirty-minute music classes, and after the third year, I was scheduled for fourteen of those music classes per day. Which is about the time I said, okay, I’ll be looking for another job now. Those were vocal music classes. In Marathon, I had instrumental music lessons, much more doable. A larger time span to teach, and I taught slightly older kids. That was kind of how new teachers were worked with then, especially in that itinerant music position. When I came to Richfield Springs, I took a position that was one-and-a-half music teachers having retired, so I was given vocal music K-4, and instrumental 4-6 [grade]. And again, it was an extremely busy schedule. After a couple of years, I realized that it was out of my reach, so I went to administration and they agreed to hire another vocal music teacher. So then I could put my energy into the instrumental. Kids were everywhere, as I just described. Because the school district owned the instruments, all of the kids who wanted to play could afford to play. Because it was ten dollars a year to rent an instrument. Whoever gets to do that? So my recruitment was huge. My band was fifty, sixty kids, and my fifth- and sixth-grade band was fifty kids. I usually recruited between thirty-five and forty-five fourth-graders. So that was a busy week schedule. I held on to fourth-grade general music for obvious reasons. It was a great way to work the curriculum, vocally and instrumentally. I loved it.
[TRACK 1, 12:40]
RG:
How did you cope with such a busy schedule?
BG:
Well, you just figure out what the kids’ schedule is, and when they’re available, and work your lesson schedule around that. You just figure out, when can I have the kids? I can’t have them during lunchtime, I can’t have them during recess, when can I get them? [Laughter.] And that’s how I worked with it.
RG:
You mentioned you played flute to begin with. Do you play other instruments?
BG:
In my work as pit orchestra player, I practiced saxophone, tenor sax, bari[tone saxophone], even soprano at one point, alto. Clarinet I also practiced. So I got fairly good at those. I never took the lead part except on the flute book. [Laughter.] As an elementary band director, I had to learn to play all the instruments. Not to performance standard, but certainly to be able to play along with the kids and to appreciate the mechanics involved, and having a successful sound and technique.
RG:
You mentioned how you paid attention to the methods of teaching music. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
BG:
Well, I could figure out when my peers could understand what was being said to them, and also when they couldn’t understand. I tried to think of other ways of saying it to make them understand, because everybody approaches learning in a hundred different ways. So if somebody says, “Well, the lines are E, G, B, D, F and the spaces are F, A, C, E. Why can’t you remember that?” [Laughter.] Then, you can find other ways of presenting that to a student who isn’t necessarily getting it. You can make up a different sentence to go with it. You can use the alphabet to go line, space, line, space, line, space. You can find something that clicks with that student. And that’s a baseline for their learning. I just always heard too much of the mantra from adults when I was a student. And I just kept thinking, that student doesn’t know what you’re talking about. But if you say, “It’s the space under this one,” or something, it will help them. Does that make any sense?
RG:
Yeah, it does.
BG:
[Laughter.] It does to me, but I don’t know if it does to anybody else.
RG:
Can you tell me a bit about your involvement with your church?
BG:
My church involvement [at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Springfield, NY] was through music. Don and Mary Ellen Fenner, everybody’s heard of Don and Mary Ellen Fenner. My dear friends and neighbors. Years ago Mary Ellen approached me knowing that I was a musician, and invited me to be in the church choir. At that time, the church choir was pretty big. And she would, a lot of the time, choose an anthem that had a flute obbligato, a flute part. So, when I wasn’t singing, I was playing the flute and it worked. Back in that time, they also involved the [Glimmerglass] opera singers. They were here for the summer. Anyone who could come to church service provided music, if possible. We really had quite a little musical operation. Gretchen [Sorin] was a huge part of it, is a huge part of it, and a lot of friendships were made through that. That’s how I got to know Gretchen.
RG:
Can you tell me a bit about Don and Mary Ellen?
BG:
Oh my gosh, let’s see. They raised their kids in Herkimer. Don is a retired funeral director with a great sense of humor. He’s got a lot of fun stories to tell about that. Mary Ellen was a homemaker and a very talented pianist. She’s a gifted woman. She can read, she’s got technique, and she followed her playing right up through raising her kids, and when the kids were out of the house. Very active and there’s a B sharp club in Utica, local musicians were involved. Oh my gosh, Mary Ellen was everywhere. She accompanied anybody who wanted it. She’s just quite a musician. And Don, a very active guy. Both of them are lovers of opera, huge tremendous supporters of the opera. They moved from the valley up here in the eighties, after Don retired, and re-did the Duke’s Oak, which was a theatre boardinghouse just around the corner from here. And they would have opera people living with them in the summertime. It was just a fantastic place. Always fun, and tons of people over there. And now they have a house right across the way from the Duke’s Oak and they’re pleasantly housed in the smaller place. Their daughter Cindy and her husband David are in the old Duke’s Oak.

RG:
Did you have any friendships with the people from the opera?
BG:
I met a lot of them, yes. And I’m going to tell you, because I was having my career and doing a million other things, I did not connect with them closely other than to pop over and check with Mary Ellen on something, or to pop over and talk to Don about something. And then there would be all these people, and all of this fun. And then year after year, oh my gosh, that one kept showing up and showing up, so a few of them, yes. And a lot of them, they were just great folks and they kind of came and went. [Laughter.]
RG:
Do you remember what shows they did?
BG:
I wish I was an opera buff. I don’t have a head for it. I remember back in Cooperstown, I went to the high school when they still had the opera at the high school. And what was it, Tom Goodyear was in it. I’m embarrassed. I can’t tell you. [Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro.]
RG:
No worries.
BG:
I’ll get it before we’re done. [Laughter.]
RG:
Sounds good. So, to switch the topic to birding, can you tell me what you like about birds?
BG:
What I like about birds? Mostly I like their sounds, because I’m a musician. That’s my link with them I think. But color, size, habits, humor…they have it all. And they’re outdoors, which is where I like to be. [Laughter.]
RG:
Where have you traveled to see birds?
BG:
Most of my birding is local. Again, I’m going to fall back on my career and say you don’t get to go far and wide when you’re working seven, really six and a half days a week. Not only did I teach school but I would moonlight at the restaurant around the corner. So that doesn’t allow for a lot of travel. However, if you go into the back hills around here, you’re traveling into places that nobody knows exist. And I discovered a lot that way. When I first came here I went to Hawk Mountain, which is in Pennsylvania. I had always been curious about that. It’s a fall migration site. And I just loved it, and I knew that I wanted to learn how to identify hawks in migration. But it takes time, and I wasn’t able to do that until after I retired. And finally I connected with the Franklin Mountain Hawk Watch, which is outside of Oneonta, and learned to become a counter. Finally realized that dream, because I had time.
RG:
And what does that entail, being a counter?
[TRACK 1, 21:45]
BG:
Well, watching hawks migrate is a completely different thing from watching – [bird call outside Becky’s window] – that’s a bluejay at the wall right there. That was a bluejay! [Laughter.]
RG:
Wow! I can see him. [Laughter.]
BG:
How appropriate! I put seed in there yesterday. Birdwatching is one thing, and hawk-watching is another thing. When you want to become a hawkwatcher, you go to a hawkwatch site, and you let the person up there who’s the expert try to teach how to identify tiny little dots in the sky that are migrating hawks. You need to get a good pair of binoculars. You need to put a lot of time into it, because the birds that you want to learn to identify, they don’t come over in great big flocks, and they don’t fly by frequently. I have a scope, I have a beautiful spotting scope which is completely wonderful for that purpose. It makes the dot in the sky look a whole lot closer, so at least you have a shot at seeing what you’re looking for. You’re not looking for colors. You’re not looking for tiny highlights of identification on the bird, because it’s so far away. You’re looking for the shape of the bird. You’re looking for the relative size of the bird. You’re looking for its flight pattern. The way it behaves in the air, how it flies, whether it has a long thin tail or a fat tail. Those are your clues identifying into families and then into individual.
RG:
Can you talk more about the way they move and how you use that to identify them?


BG:
Oh sure. I’m going to use an example of a red-tailed hawk, which is a medium-size hawk, a fairly large hawk, and a bald eagle. Everybody knows how big a bald eagle is. When you’re looking far in the distance, and you see two birds that relatively look the same size, one of them is really a bald eagle far, far away, and one of them is a red-tail not that far away. They both look like brown dots that are the same size. Then, you look and see if a bird circles. A lot of birds will circle. They’ll follow a thermal, they’ll fly in a circle to gain some height or to just change their position in the sky. The red-tail is going to fly in a circle that’s fairly compact in its circumference because its wings are not nearly as long as the bald eagle. The bald eagle is going to circle much, much slower because it has a much larger area to occupy in its circle. That’s a big deal. Until somebody explains it, you don’t learn to look for it.
RG:
Which conservation issues have you learned about through birding?
BG:
Well, [insecticide] DDT obviously. I was living during Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I remember the indigo buntings that were in the hedgerow when I was growing up, were few and far between by the late sixties. They truly had gone quiet. Then it was discovered that, everybody knows the effects of DDT, how by ingesting DDT, it made its way into insects, small mammals, large mammals, and finally large raptors. The DDT traveled all the way up the food chain. Let’s use bald eagles as the best example. They were so saturated with DDT that their eggs were deformed, their eggs were too brittle to actually incubate. They became an endangered species and nobody saw bald eagles until, well, the late seventies when they were reintroduced back into New York State. And your generation is never going to regard bald eagles the way that my generation did, because they’re everywhere. You’re so lucky. They’re not even endangered anymore, they’re just protected. It’s been a miracle. That business of poisons in the countryside was a big deal, and still is a big deal. It’s improved.
RG:
Since that has improved, fortunately, what are some new threats to birds in the area?
BG:
New threats to birds…immediately, I’m going to say climate change. The difference in the temperatures affects the food that is available to them. But mostly, I think the biggest dramatic effect is that birds that seek high elevations to nest, birds like the Bicknell’s thrush, seek those high elevations because of the cooler temperature and the kind of vegetation and habitat that’s there. As the warm creeps up the mountain, what the Bicknell’s needs is no longer there. So they’re getting fewer and far between.
[TRACK 1, 27:40]
RG:
Can you talk to me a bit about golden eagles?
BG:
I’d love to. [Laughter.] Many people don’t realize that golden eagles fly south from the far northeast reaches of Canada in the wintertime, to winter and feed, not reproduce, just to come down here and spend their non-nesting months in the East Coast states. As they come down through, 9.9 people out of 10 look at it and go, “whoa, what’s that big bird?” And then when they realize that an immature bald eagle is big and dark, they just say, “oh, must be an immature bald eagle.” So, golden eagles are tricky to spot. They are unusual, but they’re here. Unusual doesn’t mean extremely rare, it just means unusual. There aren’t that many of them here.
RG:
Can you tell me about the first time you saw one?
BG:
It was at the [Franklin Mountain] Hawkwatch. They have a slightly different way that they hold their wings, compared to a bald eagle. When they’re in migration, when they’re flying, using updrafts to travel. It’s tricky to differentiate between an immature bald and a golden eagle, until you’ve practiced. Then you look and if the light is right, you see this light colored head. Not a bright white head like a bald eagle, but a light colored head, which are the iridescent feathers that shine gold in a close-up. Their bill is smaller than a bald eagle’s bill. Their wings can be in a slight dihedral, which is that V-shape that you see. If it’s an immature golden, you’ve got a nice white patch at the base of the tail. I was so excited that day. It was a big deal, it was just huge. And fortunately, there were good
[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]
counters out there next to me to confirm that I was seeing a golden eagle, and what to look for. I couldn’t wait for the next one. I am still excited every time I see one.
RG:
You mentioned a way back Rachel Carson’s book. Can you talk to me about how you felt when that was published?
BG:
When it was first published, I suspected that it was all happening and so many other things were happening in society and my life, that I kind of went, wow, I wonder how this is going to pan out. I wonder how accurate this really is. Because when one person cites an issue, you don’t necessarily jump on it. You don’t necessarily take it one hundred percent to heart until you hear other sources. At that time, a lot of the other sources – which were of course the chemical companies and the big business farmers that really did want to kill all of the insects and so on, so they could raise more crops – were putting out other information. This still happens, doesn’t it? It took other environmental groups’ efforts to document Rachel Carson’s claims, to bring it into balance with the whole situation. I’m not versed in it, because I was teaching music at the time. I was aware and reading and thinking, oh my goodness, what are we going to do, what’s going to happen? And fortunately, the powers-that-be got enough power to eradicate the use of the DDT. I think it was probably the threat to humankind, especially children, that drove that. Because if it could happen to birds and eagles, what was the potential impact on humanity? I think that was a big part of it.
RG:
Did you hear any people express specific fears for kids or things like that?
BG:
Yes. The fact that the DDT was into the food stream. And the fact that as people ate the food that had been protected against the insects by the DDT, it also could have been taken up through the root system of the plants and could easily concentrate in humans as well, especially youngsters that are going to eat for the next how many years off the produce of those fields.
RG:
Can you tell me about your position on the board of the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society?
BG:
Sure. Right now I’m co-president. But I want you to realize that anytime you get on a board, you’re instantly going to advance on that board. [Laughter.] Because it’s tricky these days to get active board members. It’s getting more and more challenging. I started out as a board member, secretary. Secretary was a good way to learn the workings of the club. A few years later, I was approached about becoming a co-president. Three people are co-presidents now. That allows a break if somebody wants to go south for a few months, there are two other co-presidents to keep the club going and stay on top of things, and we have a lot going on. I’m also the program chairman. So, that’s a challenge. I arrange for programs, just sent out an e-mail today to next week’s person, nuts-and-bolts. “What do you need?” “We’re going to meet at such-and-such a time.” I like it. I’ve met a lot of great people. Sometimes it feels overwhelming, and it’s time well spent. We have a bird walk at the Fenimore Art Museum on Saturday in conjunction with the Otsego 2000 [Glimmerglass] film series The Messenger. Our treasurer, the two of us are going to run that bird walk and then we’re going to table before the film, and then we’re going to go to the film. So it’s going to be a good nature day.
RG:
So there’s that walk, what other programs are there?
BG:
Well, we run the [Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society] Sanctuary, which is the Hawkwatch. There are trails and –
RG:
In Oneonta?
BG:
This is in Oneonta, on Grange Hall Spur Road. We have a terrific website, which is DOAS.us. We run educational programs, we have an environmental grant which is made available to classroom teachers who apply for classroom projects. We have a ton of stuff. We do a lot of bird walks, a lot of field trips. We have an owl trip coming up pretty soon. Outreach. We have a terrific newsletter with lots of environmental information in it. We have a ton of stuff. DOAS.us, it’s incredible.
RG:
Which classroom projects have been funded in the past?
BG:
Let’s see, there’s a teacher, I believe in Andes, who is interested in having research on fish release. She teaches her kids all about fish to be released in the waterway. As I understand it, if she wins that grant, then she uses the money to purchase the fish. Pretty cool.
RG:
How did you get introduced to the Audubon Society?
BG:
All the time that I’ve been here, the Delaware-Otsego Audubon has been active in Oneonta. I kept memberships in that group. I would see their releases in the paper. Every now and then, my gosh, the programs are on Friday nights, I could go to about one program every year and a half. [Laughter.] It was busy, busy, how do you get to do that? But I would read the newsletter and the newspaper releases and kind of keep track of things that were going on. I always kept a membership at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania so I could vicariously see what was going on there. So finally, you know, when I finally retired, then I could get involved and go on the field trips. Then I got invited to be on the board. I’ve been invited before to be on the board, but I could never say yes, because it just wasn’t realistic.
RG:
And what year did you start going on the field trips and being involved?
BG:
I retired in 2006. And I shouldn’t say that I didn’t go on all the field trips. The Christmas Bird Count, I’ve been doing that for a lot of years. There was a birding atlas that went on in the year 2000 to 2005, and I accepted three areas to research. I think that was 2003 that I did that. I could leave school in the spring and run out and check my area and go home. I could do that, that worked time-wise. I could keep track of it. And we were just looking for evidence of bird nesting, whether the birds were migrating through, whether they were nesting, whether they had young, so you could truly have a real census of what was going on.
RG:
What were those areas?
BG:
Let’s see, Schuyler Lake area, and West Winfield area. There were three birding blocks. Generally, the Exeter State Forest, and they were contiguous blocks. Once again, there’s nothing like going back-roading out here. I discovered areas where it was a privilege to be wandering down this dirt road wondering, where in the world am I going to come out? And finding all these terrific birds in the meantime.
RG:
Can you talk more about what you liked about those less-visited areas?
[TRACK 2, 9:45]
BG:
The fact that you could just stop your car, there would be nobody, you would expect no one to come by, and hold still, and let the birds all just come alive around you. They didn’t see people all that much, so once they realized that you’re okay, you’re sitting still, then the world just comes alive. And it’s not just birds. You might see a fox, there are lots of things that you might see. So just hold still, let them get accustomed to you, and then start observing. Give it time. It takes time. If you want to change your position, go ahead and walk a ways and once again settle down and let it all come alive around you. Good fun.
RG:
Can you talk about how you decided to become a member of the board?
BG:
Well, my good friend Eleanor called me up years ago and said, “We want you on the board,” and I said, “I can’t be on the board because you meet in Oneonta and I’m busy, busy, busy. If I would even think of being on the board, I’m not going to drive in the snow. No.” When she knew that I was retiring, she called me back and said, “Now we want you on the board,” I said I would think about it, but I’m still a scaredy driver. She said, “Don’t worry about it. If it’s too bad for you to drive, we’re not having a board meeting anyway.” So, that sounded reasonable to me. It fit all of a sudden. It was time.
RG:
What change have you seen in the Audubon since you’ve been a member?
BG:
It’s hard to say. The activities have always been huge. I’m studying old newsletters, we are, because we’re having our fiftieth year of existence in 2017. A film festival that they used to have no longer happens. A lot of things that used to be done aren’t done anymore. But we’re doing a lot of additional things that they didn’t initiate, it would be new for them. The things that have been constant have been the Christmas Bird Count, which is a historic bird count dating from the early 1930s. And the waterfowl count. There are certain things that have been happening right up through since the Audubon’s inception. Changes, with new board members come new ideas. Sometimes activities will branch out in a certain direction because that particular board member has a passion for it. And that’s terrific, that’s a great thing.
RG:
Can you talk a bit more about the Christmas Bird Count?
[TRACK 2, 13:15]
BG:
Yes, yes. Back in, I’m going to say about 1900, a man named Frank Chapman had a great idea. I’ll backtrack. A popular activity at Christmas time was for basically the men in the household to divide up into two teams and go out for what you would call a side hunt. They would go out with their guns and they would shoot as many things as they could shoot. Then they would bring these dead birds and animals and so on back and they would count them up. Whoever had the most kills won the side hunt. Frank Chapman, he had a great idea, why don’t we just go out and count as many live things as we can, [laughter] and not kill them. That’s exactly what happened. That’s about the time that the environmental movement [conservation movement] was happening. And it grew. Let me describe the bird count, it’s a fifteen-mile radius from a center point.
RG:
So thirty miles across the circle?
BG:
Yeah. If that’s wrong, we’ll edit that. So the center point being in Fort Plain and the radius now including south of Sharon Springs, north of the Mohawk River. That area, that whole radius, the whole circle, the count circle is what we call it, was divided into sections. People volunteered to take certain sections and they just go out early in the morning, you can go out at three in the morning if you want to count owls. I’ve done that too. You count all day, making sure that you don’t double count. There are ways to do that. You learn your route. You plan that if you’re going to backtrack through a certain section that you’ve already been, you don’t count the same species again. But if you see a new species, you can count that. It’s quite a little science, and it’s physically demanding. It’s really fun if you’re into it. At the end of the day, all of the people from the different sections get together. We have a potluck dinner. Not all groups do this but we do. We talk over our results and hand in our written tallies to the guy who’s in charge. Then he sends that to a central reporting area. Again, it’s a real legitimate way of keeping track of what’s happening in a certain area at a certain time, every year.
RG:
Just to clarify, you count the species and not the individuals?
BG:
Both. We count the species and how many of each.
RG:
And what are the numbers generally like?
BG:
You can have from, oh gosh, thousands of starlings and things that are around farms, pigeons and so on. To birds that are rarely in the area around Christmastime, like we had Carolina wrens a few years ago. You don’t expect Carolina wrens to be in this part of the country in the wintertime. Numbers…oh gosh, it depends. If the situation is right and turkey populations are high, you can have four or five hundred turkeys in your section. If it’s a big snow pack and there’s nothing for the turkeys, you can have zero turkeys. It’s very much dependent on the weather condition at the time. I have a special field where I always look for turkeys, but if it’s snow cover I think, there goes my turkey count for this year. Lots of chickadees, lots of house sparrows down in the city, Canajoharie. Some years we get robins, not unusual to have robins at that time of year. Bluebirds, even. Around Christmastime, a few of them are still around. And a few surprises, like a catbird, a bird we had a few years ago. It really should have been migrated, but it was still around, so it was fun to see it. You can end up with, off the top of my head, maybe 2,500 birds for the day.
RG:
And who participates?
BG:
Qualified people, people that are proven to be knowledgeable and people who want to learn. I’m an old-timer, and I try to take at least another old-timer with me so we can work and tally well together. If anyone else wanted to learn how to do it, we’d put them right in the car and teach them right along the way. I usually have two or three people in my car. Teams are usually two or three or four people. I had to do it by myself one year and the weather was great. I mean I was out in shirtsleeves. It was the best year to be doing it by myself, because I could get out of the car and look around and really hear stuff. I felt like I did a pretty good job, but I was also so glad that the weather was as it is. If it had been horrible snow conditions, I would have been paying attention to the road and not so much to the birds.
RG:
What is it like to go out at night to look for the owls?
BG:
[Laughter.] At first, when I was first doing this, I was a little bit spooked, because it kind of happens right around deer hunting season. So, if you’re out at dusk with binoculars, going really, really slowly along a road in a fairly remote area, people stop and ask you what you’re up to. They think you’re jacking deer [illegally hunting deer], [laughter] or at least scouting their deer. But after a while, the neighborhood gets to know you. It’s terrific fun. I’ve gone in horrible snowy weather. And, well, the last few years we just haven’t had much snow. To look for the short-eared owls, which are the arctic owls that come to this area to winter, it’s a matter of finding a good spot, stopping the car, opening the windows, making sure you’ve got lots of clothes on, before sunset. And just starting to scan and starting to really look everywhere. They roost down on the ground, in cover. They roost low. So they don’t fly in like other birds. You don’t look up like you would look for a hawk. You look for this little brown body to kind of appear. It looks like a little hummock. You’ve got to know what you’re looking at to know that it’s an owl. They get active together, they talk a little bit. They make little [two low chirps] sounds. Then they start flying and hunting and interacting. It’s absolutely magical. It’s a privilege to see that. I saw it a few days ago. They’re here.
[TRACK 2, 21:30]
RG:
Nice! Can you talk to me a bit about the bait piles?
BG:
Absolutely. There has been interest from the University of West Virginia, a project going on for probably the last ten, eleven years, in documenting the population of golden eagles on the East Coast. So, they determined that having these piles of bait – dead deer carcasses, animal entrails that are definitely not shot with lead, it’s clean bait that’s going to be healthy for the birds to eat – setting up the bait piles with a trail cam and documenting the comings and goings of all the birds, including golden eagles, was just a really fine way to document where they are and what they’re doing. So that has gone right from Maine, I think they have some active ones up in Maine, right down through Tennessee. They’ve gotten volunteers all along. New York State didn’t have a whole lot of activity. And that’s when one of our Audubonners decided, let’s get active with West Virginia University and hooked up with their system. So we fundraised and we purchased the trail cams and got permits. You have to have a permit to collect a deer carcass. You can’t just go get one. We got all that legal stuff going on. We’ve been collecting data for the last, I want to say five years. It’s been fascinating.
RG:
And where do you get the deer for the piles?
BG:
Most of it’s roadkill. The DOT [Department of Transportation], the county, whoever picks up the carcass from the roadside, there’s always a spot where they dump them. You can go there and get them. I’m fortunate here, because we’ve got such a nice network going that the folks who collect the carcasses are local. They drop off to the farmer who helps me with my bait pile. He puts it in the tractor and takes it to the spot. So I’m a little bit of a princess when it comes to that. [Laughter.] It’s great. But they’re roadkill. After hunting season starts, we have to be extremely careful to check those carcasses for bullet holes. Because if they have lead bullets in them, and it’s not a head shot, we don’t want the eagles to eat that meat. Even if they’re copper-coated bullets, they can shatter and lead fragments can get into the meat. And that lead, even tiny bits of it, can maim and kill the bird.
RG:
How many carcasses would be in a pile usually?
BG:
You try not to put a whole lot out at once. If you have a lot of carcasses, the best thing to do is to pile them up, cover them. Tarp them, and maybe get some snow on top of that. And take up a couple at a time. If there are a whole lot, and the coyotes all get onto it, you can really waste a lot of meat quickly. One, two, three carcasses is plenty.
RG:
And where’s the one on the site that you’re currently working on?
BG:
It’s not far from here. It’s in a higher elevation. It’s on private property so I can’t say exactly where it is, but it’s at a high point between the Otsego Lake watershed and into the Richfield Springs watershed. It’s way up there, it’s just beautiful.
RG:
Can you talk a bit about the bird boxes that you work on as a volunteer for the Clark Foundation?
BG:
Sure, sure. A number of years ago, Don Fenners’s grandson was in Scouts. They built a whole lot of bluebird houses. So, we put bluebird houses here, there, and everywhere. Then, when Bob Sutherland became the manager down here for the Mohican Farm, which is Clark land, his goal was to have as sustainable, natural an area as possible. So he got his staff, one guy in particular who is a woodworker, to build a lot of birdhouses. We built wood duck, kestrel houses, and bluebird houses. I researched the specs for those houses and they built them in the wintertime. We put them up a couple years ago. Every fall, we go and clean them out. This year we got a surprise. We found out that the tree swallows that are usually the most aggressive, successful nesters that you can find, they take over bluebird houses in a flash. Almost fifty percent of their nestings were failed this year. It’ll be an interesting thing to kind of compare with other data. I don’t know how to get other data, but it was a pretty significant change. We had one successful bluebird nesting in the place that it always is. So that’s a constant. That hasn’t gone up or down. But this other thing is interesting.
RG:
So, when you’re researching before building the boxes, what things did you have to consider?
BG:
Well, I just went online, I went to Cornell, I went to a lot of different sites who had advice about what the best specs were. What size the house should be, how far from the ground it should be, how far from wetland it should be. Based on the particular species. The wood duck house needed to be near water, and not near another wood duck house. The kestrel box, that wasn’t too hard, because they like open fields. So kind of on the edge of an open field, perfect. And the bluebird needed to be away from the prevailing wind and out in a field that is generally mowed, not a field that has a lot of scrub in it. They like that. On golf courses, as long as there aren’t a lot of insecticides on the golf courses, that habitat is kind of what a bluebird likes. A low, cropped area to get bugs.
RG:
Okay, well Becky, I want to thank you for giving me your time and for all the information. It’s been really great, so thank you.
BG:
It’s been a delight meeting you and talking with you, and thank you very much, Rosa. I wish you the best this year and next year.

Duration

30:00 - Part 1
29:18 - Part 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

12:40 (Part 1) - Teaching schedule
21:45 (Part 1) - Bluejay call
27:40 (Part 1) - Golden Eagles
9:45 (Part 2) - Wildlife in backroads
13:15 (Part 2) - Christmas Bird Count
21:30 (Part 2) - Bait piles

Files

Citation

Rosa Gallagher, “Rebecca Gretton, November 10, 2016,” CGP Community Stories, accessed May 24, 2017, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/280.