Three Lost Friends

 

(This 1053rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 29, 2011.)

 

Red-headed Woodpecker photo by Mike Levy

 

One of the sad features of getting old is the loss of good friends. Recently three of mine died and, instead of writing about their many achievements, I offer here brief episodes by which I will remember them.

 

Mike Levy, the highly regarded outdoor editor for the News was one of those who befriended me when I first started writing these columns twenty years ago. I came to know Mike better when, after he retired, he tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to teach me photography.

 

Mike considered me his source for bird identification and I often visited his home to ID the species of the sparrows and finches that visited his feeders. But one day I received an email from him that said he now had red-headed woodpeckers coming to his feeder.

 

Birders are accustomed to receiving such calls. Male downy and hairy woodpeckers have little red dots on the back of their heads and red-bellied woodpeckers wear a cowl of pinkish red, but none of those have the complete bright red hood of the very rare red-headed woodpecker.

 

I explained all this to Mike in an email only to receive an immediate answer from him. He apologized for the quality of the photo he sent. "It was taken through a window and screen." But there was no question that he had indeed identified red-headed woodpeckers.

 

And that is how Mike Levy provided a record of this rare bird that was nesting within a quarter mile of Main Street in Amherst.

 

I knew Bill Bogacki from meeting him occasionally at Tifft Nature Preserve and on a few outings when I joined him, Bob Andrle and Jim Landau to identify dragonflies and damselflies, a specialized nature interest they shared. (If you think bird identification is tough, try naming these insects as they zip past and disappear in the grass or reeds. It is another specialty I failed to master.)

 

But mainly I knew Bill Bogacki from his laconic phone calls early each December. Bill was for many years in charge of the Buffalo Ornithological Society's annual Christmas bird count. He had to organize a gang of us birders to census parts of a 15-mile diameter circle on an assigned day in December or January each year. Here is, I kid you not, a complete transcript of each year's phone call:

 

"Gerry?"

"Yes. Oh, hi Bill."

"Section H?"

"Okay."

"Thanks."

 

Bogacki was indeed a man of few words on the telephone, in this case four.

 

William Murray I knew only from two episodes involving purple martins. Martins are those colony nesting birds for which people erect those large bird houses separated into many individual boxes. They are not easy to attract but tend to return to the same box year after year once they find a suitable location.

 

One of the important tasks of anyone who provides nest boxes for birds is cleaning out and sterilizing the box each winter to rid them of diseases and parasites. This is, of course, quite a job when you must clear out a dozen or so martin nests.

 

Murray had erected a martin house on the university's North campus and attracted a group of these birds. But one fall, he told me, he had a surprise. He had just reached the top of his stepladder to clean the martin houses when a flying squirrel zipped out of one of the nesting holes past him, missing his ear by inches. "I almost fell off the ladder," he told me.

 

When Murray regained his balance and looked into the nest hole, he could see several tiny young squirrels. Wanting to avoid further bothering the little family, he climbed down and departed.

 

But he wondered what the squirrel would do and returned a day later. The nest was empty, the mother squirrel having relocated her young, one by one, to a location where she would not be bothered again.

 

Several years later I received another call from Murray. Now retired, he had erected a martin house in his Clarence backyard. "I have something you will want to see," he told me. And sure enough, when I arrived at his home, he pointed out a great crested flycatcher nesting with the martins, apparently creating no problem for either species.