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Ken Harte has a life-long passion for birds

On a lovely afternoon in June, Ken Harte sat on his porch to talk about birds. We were joined by a chorus of feathered songsters in the trees around us, mostly unseen yet actively contributing to the conversation. Ken and Marilyn Harte’s home is tucked away behind mature flowering shrubs, the front lawn studded with stakes supporting a variety of bird feeders filled with seed and suet.

Birding has been a lifelong passion for Ken, something he discovered as a young teen while at Scout camp in Vermont. “We had to earn a Bird Study Merit Badge,” recalled Ken. “It was required if you were to become an Eagle Scout. That got me started, in 1948, at age 13.”

Scouts back then had to identify 40 different bird species to earn the badge (these days you only need 20, according to Ken), but he said he found them quickly. “After that, I found it impossible to stop.” Ken spent the next five summers at the camp, with just about all of his free time spent birding.

During the rest of the year, Ken would go birding as often as he could around his home in Westchester County. “I got up early in the morning every day and went out to see what I could find. I walked to places close by, most of which have been turned into housing developments now.” While he has not gone back recently to see if any of his favorite spots are still there, Ken believes that only ones protected as parks still exist. “It’s a shame,” he said. “In the end, anything that can be built up, will be. If you like open spaces, trees, meadows, you’ve got to protect them.”

In high school, Ken toyed with the idea of ornithology as a vocation, having become a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist with a bird project. But he liked math and physics as well, and his teachers and parents encouraged him to pursue those for his career. Ken was accepted to college at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture, one he described as “a very tiny school but totally free,” but after two years transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to study physics. In 1958, Ken came to Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard. “I have been doing physics of one kind or another ever since,” he said.

Even though life has been busy with school and work and family, Ken has consistently birded since he first began at age 13. His biggest obstacle these days, however, is hearing loss. “My hearing has deteriorated so I have lost the high frequency sounds that are really critical for birding,” he said. “I still lead bird walks, but I feel like I’m an imposter. I don’t hear things the way I used to.”

Keeping track of birds

Ken went on to explain that sound is probably more important than sight in identifying birds. “You can hear a whole lot more than you can ever see, especially in the woods in summertime. The way to learn bird calls is not from a record or a book. You go out and listen, and when you hear something and you don’t know what it is, you track it down. You try to find it. When you actually see the bird and identify it, you can link the call with the bird. It’s a much better way to learn the bird than to go on the Cornell website.”

Marilyn has learned to share some of Ken’s enthusiasm for birding, and the couple has traveled around the world in search of rare and not-so-rare species. “I usually try to combine business trips with birding. I will sneak out in the morning or arrange to stay a few extra days to get some birding in,” he explained. “I did a full day of birding in South Korea a couple of years ago and got to see a Steller’s sea eagle which is a huge eagle with an enormous bill that lives on the coast.” His journals have notes from excursions to Central America, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize and several trips to Venezuela. He visited Sri Lanka in 1977, has made a couple of trips to Africa including a 1989 trip that included stops in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, and spent a full week birding in Australia.

Ken said his son, Will, “has a penchant for living in interesting places,” that has created opportunities to travel to some unexpected countries. One visit was to the Solovetsky Islands, an archipelago located in the Onega Bay of the White Sea in Russia, also the site of an infamous Gulag created in the 1920s as a test site for treatment of prisoners. A few years later Marilyn and Ken spent Christmas holidays birding with Will while he was teaching high school in Asmara, Eritrea, a small country in an area known as the Horn of Africa.

While most of the time Ken organizes his own birding adventures, in 2000 he hooked up with a British tour group to enter Cuba via Mexico. There was no other way for Americans to enter Cuba, and it is the only organized group tour that Ken has done to date. Alaska and Hawaii are both on his bucket list, but COVID prevented the couple from planning any birding travel over the past year.

Patience is a virtue, and a necessity when tracking birds

Patience is key in tracking birds, and most birders get up early in the morning for the best viewing. According to Ken, 8 a.m. is fine in winter to spot a variety of birds, but in spring and summer you should plan to be out by 6 a.m. for the best views.

Long-time birder Tom Brownrigg said he once asked Ken why he schedules bird walks to begin at 6 a.m. Ken replied, somewhat tongue in cheek, “I want to discourage tourists.” Susan Emmons, birder and organizer of the annual Carlisle Dragonfly walk, added that only diehard bird watchers get up for 6 a.m. walks, and even she finds it difficult to join at such an early hour.

Ken said that sometimes it is impossible to find a bird that is calling because you just cannot get to it. But Emmons said that Ken is very persistent. “There were times when the group thought they had enough—it was very hot, muggy and buggy, but Ken would say, ‘oh no, I hear a water thrush over near the swamp.’ He would take us down to the buggiest part where we could walk into the swamp, and there we would wait. He thinks that is the fun part.” Emmons said sometimes they would find one and recalls seeing both Northern and Louisiana water thrushes.

Fellow birder and Mosquito photographer Ellen Huber said she once accompanied Ken and Marilyn on a birding expedition to Plum Island. “Ken was driving, and all of a sudden he looked up and said, ‘a Sand Hill Crane just flew over the top of the car!’ I thought to myself, ‘how could he possibly have gotten a good enough look to know what that was, but if anyone could figure it out, it would be Ken.’”

In 2015, Ken was awarded the Carlisle Conservation Commission Lifetime Achievement Award, a special distinction honoring his many years of work in conservation in Carlisle. Howard Hensleigh, who presented the award, said that Ken “is a man of great concentration. If you like what Carlisle looks like today, Ken helped make it look that way.”

50th anniversary of Towle Bird Walk

Ken led his 50th Towle Bird Walk in May, leaving bright and early at 6 a.m. from the parking area. This annual walk is a favorite for local bird watchers, but also attracts birders from out of town. Last year’s walk was limited because of COVID, but still turned up nine wood warbler species, including a Nashville and a brilliant male Blackburnian.

Emmons said she has probably done “90% of the Towle walks,” and has been part of a regular group who attended for many years, with new birders cropping up each year. “One of the things we enjoyed besides the birds, which were often very numerous but sometimes nonexistent, were all of the wildflowers. It is one of the main things we do when there aren’t many birds to see. We know exactly what trail will take us to the fringed polygala.”

Christmas Bird Count tops 93 species

Local birder Steve Spang said that Ken has coordinated the annual Christmas Bird Count since 1976. Carlisle (south of Rte. 225) is one of 18 towns in the “Concord Count Circle” and each year contributes to this hemisphere-wide census organized by the National Audubon Society. Spang said that Ken is the official reporter and goes to an annual meeting in Concord to announce the Carlisle count. “He’s very exacting and keeps a tally that goes back at least into the 1970s of the exact number of each species spotted.”

That’s true. According to Ken, Carlisle has recorded a total of 93 species over the years, but never more than 47 in any one year. The highest count of individual birds was 2,925 in 1984. Some of the more unusual birds on the census include a Rough-legged Hawk in 1976, Snowy Owl in 1981, Snow Goose in 1999, Eastern Phoebe in 2006, Red-headed Woodpecker in 2008, Ovenbird in 2010, and Black-and-white Warbler in 2012.

“I was always impressed that Ken would get up at 3 or 4 a.m., even when the temperature was very low, to take owl recordings in Estabrook Woods,” said Brownrigg. “He might get Screech Owls or Barred Owls, and often those would be the only owls we might get on that day.”

Brownrigg also said that for many years Marilyn and Ken hosted the group for a luncheon after the bird count. “Sometimes the most interesting birds we saw that day would be at their own feeders, like the Black-and-white Warbler, a bird that would normally be seen in Central America at that time of year.”

Some all-time favorites, and a few still on the list

The most unusual bird Ken has spotted was in 1964 in the Camarque in Southern France. The bird was nearly extinct at the time and remains critically endangered today. “It was also exciting to find a small flock of California Condors in 1977 before they were all captured and brought into a captive breeding program. They were very much endangered, and there was probably not more than one or two dozen left in the wild at that time.” Ken said the condors were successfully bred in captivity and some have been reintroduced to the wild.

Other significant sightings include a Salisbury-Newburyport Ross’ Gull in 1975, a Taita Falcon in 1989 at the fourth gorge below Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and in 2015, after years of fruitless searching, two Lammergeiers at Col de la Columbère in the French Alps and three Black Woodpeckers in a forest just south of Lake Geneva.

One bird Ken hopes to see on his next West Coast trip is a Spotted Owl. “It’s a rare bird, and the more common Barred Owls have moved into Spotted Owl territories, pushing them out despite efforts to save Barred Owl habitats.” While he is out there, Ken hopes to spy a LeConte’s Thrasher, a desert relative of the brown thrasher found in Southern California and Nevada.

Ken’s all-time favorite bird is the pileated woodpecker. While he can hear them around, he does not see them much anymore. “We used to have them at our feeder and they would eat suet with red bellies, downies and hairies, but they are not regular visitors.”

Best birding spots

“The Cranberry Bog is probably the best birding place in Carlisle,” Ken reported. But few residents likely know that there is a colony of great blue herons in town, nesting on land between School Street and the new Garrison Place development off Russell Street. “The colony has at least 12 pairs nesting and you can walk the trail on the Russell Conservation Land to see their nests in the dead trees, pretty high up. In a couple of places they are stacked, one above the other in the same tree, like apartments.” Ken also recommends visiting Plum Island, one of his favorites, and Great Meadows Refuge if you like to get up early.

Over time, bird populations in Carlisle have changed, as Ken noted by the Meadowlarks and Bobolinks that no longer nest in Towle Field. “A bird you would never have seen here 10 or 15 years ago is the Common Raven,” he remarked. “It’s a bird that moved south instead of the usual movement north. If you see a bird that you think is a crow but it is too big and has a long wedge shaped tail, it’s a raven.” The Turkey Vulture is another new resident that relocated to Carlisle from the south, and the Red-bellied Woodpecker is now a regular. “Before 1984, you’d never see one in Massachusetts,” Ken said.

What do birders do for fun?

When not watching birds, Ken has found ways to put his birding knowledge to use. Years ago he got involved with a project to identify birds painted on a large collection of ancient frescoes found on the Greek island of Thera, now known as Santorini. The frescoes dated back to 1600 B.C. His paper, The Birds of the Thera Wall Paintings, was published in 2000, and includes photos of hundreds of frescoes with actual photos of the birds he believes are depicted in those illustrations.

As a conservationist, Ken has worked to ensure that open spaces stay open, especially the Estabrook Woods area and surrounding land. “I was involved in getting Harvard, who owns about a square mile of that land, to record a statement of public charitable obligation to keep the woods undeveloped and use it for ecological studies.” Ken said the area is unique in that it is an unbroken parcel of about 2,500 acres over four square miles. In 2002 he compiled a catalogue of the entire species in Estabrook, 159 total, some of which have not been spotted in a long time, like the bald eagle last recorded in 1902.

Ken has plans to digitize his birding journals, but has not really kept up with his own life list. “I keep a diary of every year going back to 1948,” he explained. “I will record anything. I write down what I saw on a birding trip or anything unusual that comes around. I’ve probably seen over 2,500 species of birds,” he thinks, “but I don’t do the ‘ornithogolfing‘ that a lot of people like to do in tallying all of the birds they see each year. The competitive aspect of birding doesn’t appeal to me. I just like to see interesting birds.”

Steve Spang added that Ken’s talents extend beyond the world of birding — they are both members of a local poetry reading group. Ken is a regular contributor and chooses poems that illustrate his keen, dry sense of humor. “He’s particularly fond of local author James Tate who taught at UMass Amherst for many years. Ken always has the group chuckling because he delivers the poems with such a straight face that makes it all the funnier. Ken always knows the joke and just waits for the rest of us to figure it out.”

Birding 101

If you want to learn more about birds and birding, Ken highly recommends The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America as a great place to start. And a pair of binoculars are absolutely essential. “Join Mass Audubon and go to Drumlin Farm gift shop where they have a good selection of binoculars in all price ranges,” he suggests. “Pick out one that feels right to you. 7x40 or 7x42 are very good for woodland birding. If you are going to be on the coast or in wide open places, 10-power is a better option.” He recommends joining organized bird walks like his Towle walk and the Christmas Bird Count, or ones through the Carlisle Conservation Foundation and Brookline Bird Club. Summer Dragonfly walks organized by Emmons and Alan Ankers are also a great way to see a number of birds.

If you simply want to attract more birds to your yard, Ken said feeders are the best option. “Some people don’t believe in them and think birds become dependent, but it’s a good way to see birds up close and personal.” Ken and Marilyn feed their birds all year round, and recently added bluebird houses to the backyard in hopes of welcoming some new visitors next spring.

Published in The Carlisle Mosquito, July 28, 2021.

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