The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

A Rare Bird

Posted by | February 26, 2016

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 2/28/2016.

Deer June

“Today, I feel like a chimney swift, because I’m looking for a mate!”

We had been asked, at the start of the meeting, to reveal the animal we most felt like. At 89 years old, June Ficker had the best answer. Of course it was a bird, because she was the Wells Reserve at Laudholm’s most committed and knowledgeable master bird bander. But the uproarious “looking for a mate” part was so June. She had that spark, that consistent ability to deny the age society said she should act.

Even though she was 91 when she died earlier this month, we all wished we could have known her longer. We expected to; June Ficker seemed unstoppable. Though she’d been chasing the little creatures since childhood, June began her birding life in earnest in her forties and joined, worked with, supported and even launched many of the Northeast’s centers for the study of birds.

For 27 years straight, every Wednesday morning in the summer months, June would wake at 4am to venture into the tick- and mosquito-filled bush of the Wells Reserve to hang her nets. The dozen or more birds she’d catch in them between 7am and noon would be identified, gently measured, groomed, and given a silver ankle band to recognize them in the future. The meticulously recorded details on each bird would be sent on to a vast database compiled from across North America. As the data from more than 3,500 birds piled up in the logbooks over the years, eleven thousand visitors, most of them children, watched and marveled and even helped release the birds.

June’s bird banding station at the Wells Reserve was an institution, a rite of summer. She was reliably at her post every year; this summer will be our first without June.

Growing up, I could rely on one thing: when I visited her home, I would always find my own grandmother stirring something on the stove. A wooden spoon was an extension of her soft, wrinkled hands; the steam from the pot always dampened her hair with the smell of onions. Likewise, every Wednesday morning in the summers, one could find June and her band of banders perched at their picnic table beneath the old copper beech tree at the Wells Reserve, June with her tools and her team with their logbooks. It was what they did, not for pay, not for glory, just for love and science.

Walking up the path to discover them, I would often think of Peter and Rosemary Grant, two ornithologists who spent decades working on the same desert island in the Galapagos, tagging and measuring the finches on which Charles Darwin had based his idea of natural selection. (Jonathan Weiner’s “The Beak of the Finch” is a wonderful chronicle of their work.) As nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford once quipped, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” At their most fundamental, all sciences are the application of math to data. Most of the math has been around since the Ancient Greeks, but the data are constantly changing. It requires collectors, and the more systematic they are, the better the data are.

It takes a rare dedication to devote oneself to one spot and one subject for so long, especially as a hobby. A tree of knowledge took root and grew where the bird banders set up on our campus. I hope the tree has not been felled.

I have that fear often in my job. Maine has the oldest population in America. Most of the volunteers and supporters of the Wells Reserve are in the second half of their lives; I definitely know more octo- and nonagenarians than twentysomethings. We have, I like to say, cornered the market on wisdom. But we constantly need to find ways to tap that wisdom.

Sitting and knitting as a volunteer greeter at our front desk in the Visitor Center, June would catch tourists in her gentle “birder’s grip” too. Everyone who met her knew they’d found a hidden gem. If they listened, they’d quickly learn something. June clearly took great delight in so many things – her daily scotch and soda, her golf game, her family – and she especially loved sharing her knowledge.

As Reserve Director Paul Dest said, “We have lost a committed conservationist, a lover of birds and of all things wild, a master bird-bander and masterful birder, an excellent teacher and an enthusiastic lifelong learner, one the greatest friends one could ever have. June lived an extraordinary life — 91 years of active and engaged living. Her presence will continue to be felt here for years to come.” June banded the birds she caught on their left legs. If you see a bird around these parts with a little silver anklet around their left leg, you may feel June’s presence. She was a fine friend to the feathered, and much beloved by the birds and staff of the Wells Reserve.

Dog owners, it has been said, resemble their dogs. In the same way, June Ficker was a saw-whet owl. As watchful and petite, as plucky and self-reliant, she was a rare bird indeed.

 

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His biweekly column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and present, time and memory. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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