So…back to our travels! In mid-June, we visited Ithaca, New York for a few days. Our primary reason was to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Boring, you say? There was a time that I would have thought so, too.)
Over the past twenty years, thanks in great part to Eric, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for birds and the art of birding. Little did I know when I started paying attention to our feathered friends how much they would enrich my life.
Why I Like Birds
I know that birds do all kinds of good things for us: they consume vast quantities of annoying and harmful insects; they pollinate plants and disperse seeds; some even act as nature’s clean-up crew (those not-so-pretty vultures? They’re really good guys, and we would be in deep trouble without them).
But mostly, I appreciate birds because they make me happy, with their exuberant voices, their beauty, and their distinctive personalities and behaviors.
Bird by bird, I’m learning to identify them. I’m delighted by the sweet song of a chickadee, the buzzy trill of a wren, and the call of a nuthatch, who sounds just like a toy trumpet. I recognize a woodpecker by its swooping flight and know a crow from a raven by the shape of its tail. I’m still a novice in the world of birding. But it’s the simple act of paying attention that matters most.
Observing birds brings me into the present moment, and pauses the endless thoughts that cycle through my mind (worrying about my parents, plotting our trip plans, fretting about the state of the world, creating a grocery list, pondering the meaning of life…). Left to its own devices, my mind is a wild, unruly thing. But paying attention to birds makes me immediately peaceful. And it’s easier than meditating.
Visiting The Cornell Lab Of Ornithology
One of the best things that ever happened for birds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You may have seen headlines recently telling us that we’ve lost 1 in 4 birds in North America in the past 50 years. I cannot imagine a world without birdsong, but it appears that’s where we’re headed if we don’t make some changes.
Even in the face of such daunting news, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology takes a positive approach. I just received an email from them suggesting easy ways that we can make our planet more bird-friendly, from drinking shade-grown coffee (to protect the rainforests) to keeping cats indoors (because they kill between one and four billion birds a year).
One of the things they encourage is participating in citizen science, which is totally cool. Eric contributes to their online eBird program and has been recording his bird sightings during our six years of travels.
More than 400,000 people all over the world contribute to eBird. This provides continual, real-time information to scientists who use the information to monitor and protect bird populations. Anyone can participate—it’s free, it’s fun, and it helps the birds.
Behind The Scenes Tour At The Ornithology Lab
Several days a week, there’s a free behind-the-scenes tour of the Ornithology Lab. We invited our friends Sue and Dave to join us. They share our enthusiasm for birds and drove over to Cornell from their summer home on Lake Conesus for the tour.
We spent an interesting couple of hours learning about the laboratory and the research that takes place there. Cornell has quite a collection of taxidermied birds (more than 40,000, with many specimens dating from the early 1900s). Which reminded me of when I met Eric and discovered that he had a freezer full of road-kill birds that he was planning to taxidermy. Honestly, I’m glad that hobby went by the wayside.
I prefer my birds alive and hopping around, but I understand why they need taxidermied birds for scientific purposes.
It’s a daily treasure hunt, looking for birds while we’re hiking, biking, kayaking, or simply enjoying them when they visit our backyard (wherever that happens to be at the moment). One of the best resources we’ve found for any questions we have about North American birds is the free Cornell website All About Birds. We’ve been using it for years, and it’s terrific.
In addition to the lab, Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary offers four miles of paths with sculptures tucked into the woods, including a wonderful egg-shaped stone cairn by environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, who is known for creating works of beautiful impermanence. All of his art is fashioned from natural materials and is meant to eventually return to the earth.
And All The Rest Of Ithaca
Ithaca is an appealing, liberal, quirky, creative, intellectual university town. We enjoyed the Saturday Farmers’ Market and the delicious tacos at Bickering Twins downtown. And we stopped one afternoon for some tasty brews and local music at Salt Point Brewery, just a couple of miles from our campground.
Click on any photo for a larger image
Like many university towns, Cornell offers lots of free, interesting things to do. We explored the peaceful Cornell Botanic Gardens and arboretum and walked miles on pathways through the pretty campus. Sage Chapel, circa 1875, is a lovely non-denominational chapel with excellent acoustics—as we walked inside, we were greeted by a student enthusiastically ripping through a medley of show tunes on the organ in the semi-darkness. That was unexpected and rather refreshing.
We also visited the Johnson Museum of Art on campus, which in my opinion, has a very weirdly curated collection, saved by a mesmerizing work of electronic art in the sculpture garden on the second floor. We spent an hour lying on our backs on a zero-gravity bench, enjoying the light display of thousands of twinkling LEDs. The installation is entitled ‘Cosmos’ in tribute to Carl Sagan, who was a professor of astronomy at Cornell. (You can see a short video of the display here. It’s worth it.)
About The Campground
For our visit to Ithaca, we stayed at the cute little Myers Park Campground about 10 miles away in Lansing. It’s a sweet park on the shores of Cayuga Lake, with just a handful of sites; water and 30 amp electric hookups only. Verizon was decent. Although it’s a city park with a marina and many people visit during the day, the campground is set off from the busy area and was quiet while we were there. We liked our site (#13) because it had more elbow room than most, and we even had a bit of a water view from our ‘backyard.’ (Thanks to Nina over at Wheeling It for the tip on this campground.)