Birdwatching, Nature sanctuaries, Nature walks, photography, Uncategorized

In Search of 300lb Chickadees

“Stop at the Essex County Co-op store in Topsfield” I said forcefully enroute to the  Mass Audubon – Ipswich River Sanctuary Topsfield . My husband argued that we were delaying our woodland walk but I promised it would be worth the time especially if we were intent on finding a 300lb chickadee. He obliged mostly because we needed more of the special treats for our soon to be 300lb rabbits that we regularly picked up there. He was learning to trust even when he wasn’t really sure what I had in mind. After laboriously  reading every label and hoping  I’d selected the most sumptuous combination, we were back on the road.

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A sanctuary employee met us at the entrance and explained that it was the height of maple sugar season and there were no parking spaces left for anyone who hadn’t pre-registered for the next sugaring tour. We told her that we were here for the trails not the syrup and that we were members. She  graciously redirected us to another, secret entrance where, if we hadn’t already been members (which includes free admission), we could sneak in without paying. And thus began our expedition through the backwoods and rocky outcroppings along the network of trails covering 12 miles. Ipswich River Sanctuary trail Map

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Within minutes we stopped short to halt the crunching of our boots on crispy leaves. What the heck was that noise?  We were drawn to the edge of a pond not much bigger than a puddle. To the best of our limited knowledge we were hearing the raucous mating call of swamp creatures. We were at the very heart of the primordial dating pool.With every nearby noise I directed my camera at … nothing. I could see nothing that would warrant such a racket. It didn’t sound like peepers or bullfrogs so I just wanted to get closer and closer for one glimpse of the good time party crowd just beneath the slimy surface. I moved a little too close and my shoe slipped into the muck that threatened to suck it off and keep it as penalty for disturbing the procreation sensation among  Amorous Amorphous Amphibians Click link to see if it puts you in the mood.

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Our new friends, we would catch up with them later, after we recorded the amphibian love songs

Our strange actions at the edge of the dating pool, brought other wanderers to our side. The Fingers, a Topsfield couple, who knew far more of the sanctuary than we and by some entirely amazing coincidence had expert knowledge about vintage electronics repair (I have a non-functioning electric art nouveau clock that needs fixing) and private aircraft aviation (my husband is an air traffic controller), and as luck would have it, if Jon’s recording of the amphibians didn’t work, they had been able to capture it. Definitely people we were most fortunate to call wilderness buddies.

Now about those 300lb chickadees…. Perhaps the most exhilarating feature in the sanctuary are the beggar birds. They are so accustomed to being hand fed, that if you come to the sanctuary empty handed they will buzz by your head in disgust. I first came to the sanctuary with Leisa and, after being buzzed several times,  a few nice trail walkers explained the situation and handed us some of their birdseed to keep the little chirpies happy. Seeing the bird bacchanal in action and his resultant photos, Jon appreciated the seed stop, and was onboard with handing over one of our little caches to our new friends and any child we met who arrived empty handed.


Small birds were only part of our show. We had one very interested hawk peering not at our seed-filled palms but instead drooling over the prospect of one of our little birdies getting just plump enough. Very like the witch in the forest watching Hansel chow down on gingerbread and candies, encouraging them to “Have some more little ones, surely you’re not full yet….” With a start and a heavy heart, I realized why, despite the endless supply of birdseed, one never sees a 300lb chickadee.

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Regarding the geese, or rather the ridiculously persistent ganders. Let me tell you how a gander tries to get his goose. He charges up to her side in the water, sticks his head straight at her, sticks his tongue out and honks his atonal blast in her face. We’d only watched for a moment when I was compelled to shout out to the young fowl: “You can do so much better.” As parents to a 20 year old, we should have known better. We’ve witnessed first hand how likely young women are to listen to middle aged ladies giving romantic advice; I’m sure by the time we rounded the next corner, she’d fallen into his  over zealous grasp.

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Is goose repulsed by more than his weedy breath?

We left our new friends to take a shortcut back to our car, Jon’s feet were starting to tire and along with them his back was threatening to give out. But still we climbed through the rockery, “A grotto of narrow passages and caves constructed in 1905”.

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Experienced a mini field of new snowdrops

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And, were peered at by an inquisitive squirrel. I quickly succumbed to the hypnosis of his intense gaze and left a large pile of seeds and peanuts in the crook of his tree. He never stopped staring.

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It had been two hours since we left our car and most of our water supply on this unnaturally warm, early spring day. And we were dizzied by the reflection of bridge over still waters.

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More walking along less obvious trails and we struggled passed a haunted house and decaying vehicle or trailer. Hey what? Is that part of the sanctuary?

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At about this time, we recognized that our shortcut was not by any calculation short. When we broke through a little under brush onto a residential street, we were a mile and a half from our car. Jon walked with determination and grit, but I could tell he was hurting so I concentrated on composing a most specific silent prayer…”I know that every car that we’ve seen is headed in the opposite direction, but I’d like one to stop and give us a ride.”

In seconds, a sanctuary team member headed in the wrong direction shouted out the window. “Are you guys parked way up the street? Do you want a ride?” I probably said “yes” before he finished asking. He made a u-turn way down the road and returned as promised and we hopped into a stranger’s car. During the ride made so much shorter and more enjoyable than the anticipated walk, I giddily explained how I’d barely articulated in my mind the full prayer for a ride when he’d shown up and ended our 3+ hour magic sanctuary visit with a miracle.  Disney has nothing on this magic kingdom.

(c)Alison Colby-Campbell



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