Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
April 26, 2022

Post-Hibernation with Leslie T. Sharpe

Post-Hibernation with Leslie T. Sharpe

In 2020, Leslie T. Sharpe came to Silver Hollow Audio to narrate The Quarry Fox: and other Critters of the Wild Catskills, available at Libro.fm or wherever you get your audiobooks. Then the pandemic hit. Two years later, she returned to our studios for a reading of "The Bluebird Chronicles: a Catskills Romance." 

In this episode, we sat down with Leslie to fill in some of the gaps between then and now, and to talk birds, bats, and butterflies, plus ways we can all be stewards of the Catskills and its diverse ecosystem. In fact, Leslie was named one of the "50 Stewards of the Catskills" by the Catskill Center in 2019. 

Kaatscast was nominated for "best regional podcast" by Chronogram. Click here to vote for us through May 15th! And check out our new site, with a searchable database of shows, links to our sponsors, a newsletter signup, and more!

This episode was sponsored by The Mountain Eagle and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce.

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The great thing about birds is it's an easy and accessible way into the environment. You know, all you have to do is look out your window and that can be the first part. That's Leslie T. Sharp, and in our last episode, we heard her narration of The Bluebird Chronicles; a Catskills romance. This week, we sat down with Leslie to talk about blue birds, butterflies, moths, and a host of other Catskills critters, and some simple steps for protecting this special place we call the Catskills. This is the fourth time we've heard from Leslie T. Sharp, the third episode that covers bluebirds, and the 13th that touches on climate change. How do I know this? Kaatscast.com has a new search feature across all 63 episodes and counting. So you can find all the topics that interest you. Check it out at kaatscast.com. And now, our interview with Leslie T. Sharp. All right, Leslie Sharp we collaborated in early 2020. At the very beginning of the pandemic on an audiobook edition of your book, the Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills, and with our recording of The Bluebird Chronicles. I feel like we've really bookended the pandemic, or at least I hope we have. Hope we're at the end of this thing. Please, let's hope we have. Yes. So what have you been up to for the past two years? Well, I've been up here in the Catskills. And really what I've been doing is a lot of nature observation and thinking about, hopefully a new project. The Quarry Fox, to me, there are things that I would like to continue on. From that book, there are issues that really came out of that that I barely touched on, that I want to develop. And a lot of those have to do with the sustainability of species here what we can do to help, especially in the light of things like climate change. This piece, The Bluebird Chronicles, is a great example of how people actually have intervened to help us critters survive, and there are other such examples of this that I want to talk about; and the overriding issues, of course have to be governmental. But there are many things with individual species that we can do. But the single biggest issue that I again, I touched on even in this has to do with invasive species. And the biggest problem now is the is the hemlock woolly adelgid and what it's doing to the hemlocks; and how do we respond to it? You know, there's two schools; should we let them die and let another species come in, or should we do is what we're trying to do with Catskill Center? Do we get involved with the use of biologics like silver flies like certain beetles? So these are some of the things that I've been interested in, and I've been thinking about when I haven't been in a coma. Because of the pandemic. I think the terrible thing about the pandemic was that it made us all feel like bears, we all kind of withdrew a little bit. But when Appalachia Journal, it's out of the Appalachian Mountain Club. It's the oldest Journal of mountaineering and ecology and conservation in this country. The wonderful editor Christine Woodside got in touch with me. She wanted to do an issue that would have some articles. And there are several articles by great Catskill writers, and I'm honored to be part of this, that would look at climate change. And so I touched on that with the bluebirds and how our springs have affected it. And in asking me to do that, it sort of snapped me out of my malaise. Thank you, Chris. And it made me think this could be a seed chapter for a new book, but also to really start thinking even more about climate change how I have lived on that mountain for 20 years, and I've seen so many changes, and what we can do as individuals, as well as what needs to be done on a governmental scale, because, you know, if individuals band together and do stuff, then that ultimately pushes governments to act to. So it's not just in the immediacy, you can help a species, whether it's with a bluebird box, or planting native Milkweeds for monarch butterflies. But how can we also in the growing awareness of these issues banding together and then pushing government and we have seen Catskillers especially are very good at pushing them to do the right thing. So it's really been a fallow period where I'm coming out of it now. Where's your place up here? It's in western Catskills. It's outside of the village of Walton. It's very rural, very ag industrial. We're in that part of Delaware County, where the number one industry is still dairy and cattle farming, and it's in the watershed. So there's a lot of preserve land. And it's still very wild, my dear friend, Nina Shin Gould, who you know who did her own wonderful book, Reservoir Year, when ever she comes West, she says, I'm just amazed at how much more wild it is, you know, and that's just because it's less developed and it's very, very rural. On between the two of the great reservoirs canons, Ville and Pakhtun. In the Quarry Fox, you dedicated quite a few pages to the subject of Bluebirds. And in fact, your author photo shows you cleaning out a bluebird box. Yes. Of all of the Catskill critters that you enjoy watching and writing about what's so special about blue birds? I think the thing about blue, it's, you asked such an interesting question. Because one of the things if I do a book, I will expand this essay a bit, and I will talk about what is so special about blue birds; because what is so special about a species that it motivates people to save that species? That's really what interests me, and I want to explore that in a new book. And what is that alchemy that we can tap into to save more species? It's very interesting. I think in the case of the Bluebird, I was thinking about it this morning, but they're beautiful. But why are they beautiful, it's about color. There are very few birds with that much blue in them. At least in North America. You know, we have the Bluebird, we have the Indigo Bunting; you can put the Blue Jay into that, you can put the Blue Grosbeak into that. There are a lot of birds that have blue in them. Beauty is what attracts people to certain critters, certainly with a monarch butterfly, you can say that. But another thing also is the story that they have in the bluebird story. They're so connected through our mythology to spring. And there's this one friend of mine said, 'Without the Blue Bird, there would be no spring.' They really are something that people have projected onto them the end of winter. And if you have the end of winter, you have the end to a degree of death. The return of the bluebird is the whole idea of rebirth. That's another thing that they have going for them and they have the advantage. And hummingbirds have this advantage that if you put up some bluebird boxes, they'll come and you can observe them. It's the beauty it's you know their story. And it's the observation that the ability to be near them. Hummingbirds interestingly, you know, that frail little guy he's hardly weighs a penny, hummingbird numbers are actually increasing, which is really rather shocking considering their story and their migrations hundreds of miles, you know, twice a year to and from Central America and Mexico to come up to our part of the world. But people are so attracted to them because of their glittering iridescent the fact that they come in the spring they come with the same day; if you put out you know, sugar water feeders, which of course I do, they're always arrive on May 9th in that week, and they'll come and they'll look at you like where is my feeder? And of course, what's going on now with these weird springs, they're insectivores and they're nectarvores, if they don't have flowers, if they don't have insects, they can be in big trouble. So people have diligently, you know, done the sugar water deal. And it's fascinating that their numbers, they're not in danger, they're not threatened. You would think they'd be in big trouble. But their numbers are actually increasing. And again, what really interests me is what is it about some of these creatures that people really reach out to help. Whereas a creature like cave bats, the little brown, 80-90% of their numbers have been lost because of white nose syndrome. Most people don't even know that. And I don't want to say what species is more useful to people, because that's another reason that people value creatures, what do they do for us as humans; for right or wrong? Bats eat six to eight hundred mosquitoes in an hour. And they are incredibly important for agriculture to save the use of pesticides. And yet people don't even know about white nose syndrome and how it's decimating these cave bat populations. And the story behind that is also linked to climate change to a degree. These things are so interesting to me. And so I think one of the things that I get to write about is the bias of beauty. And what really is that and it really goes to something very basic because it's really about what attracts us. I would love to figure out how we can sort of find what makes us save certain creatures. People can really make a difference. My idol, Jane Goodall, always says that the key to it all is hope. And to realize that you're not alone and that everybody working together can make a difference. And that's something I think that cannot be overstated. Now that said, you know, animals that we gravitated toward and those that we don't I was most surprised in your essay, like, it seems, other people were too, about your response to the red tailed hawk and animal that you look up to and named that portion of your property after. But you were so focused, single sidedly, I guess, on on saving these bluebirds that it drove you to bring your pellet gun down to where the hawks were nesting. I don't think I could have ever shot those damn things. But you brought it with you, so that tells us something. Oh, I sure did. I headed out on the deck, and I knew the crows would tell me and the crows, my vigilantes, told me they were there. But it's an interesting tension. You know, it's the idea of being the naturalist, the cool observer, which of course, I break that rule all the time. I can't live so closely to these creatures and get to know them and not care about them. And what was interesting was how enraged I was that poor Papa disappear. Now, I don't have proof that the red tail took him but I assume this actually is not the first time you know, you'll often lose one or the other. And that's another thing about the color blue, you know, it makes the marks. It's easy to grab them. You know, they're not like other birds. So I actually had another story which I didn't even put in about another Papa that was lost. And it was hilarious. Well, it wasn't hilarious. Losing Papa was devastating, and Mama had this box and it was in the spring. And this other male bluebird showed up. Now John Burroughs, God bless him, always like to say well, 'Oh, yeah, I shot the father during nesting season, but another male would come and take over' and I was like, 'What are you doing?' But another male did come but the male didn't come to take over for Papa, the male came to try to convince Mama to ditch the kids and start something new with him. And he was just constantly bedeviling her as she was trying to raise these and it was really rather comical. Now she managed to raise them, and she probably went off with him. But he was a pain in the neck. He drove that Tree Swallows away, set up the new thing, and kept on flying in and out and saying no, no, leave come come. It was was an interesting thing, because it's all about his genetic imperative. But I thought it was interesting in the in reading Burroughs, the Burroughs was saying and other male would come in and assume they're- No they don't. You know, the male just just like which, 'You know, get rid of them will have a new family. Who cares?' It's all about his genetic imperative. You know? Now you say the blue bird is a sign of spring. But here in this part of Ulster County, I feel like the Robin is the sign of spring because I've never see blue birds here. Well, it's not this is not the typography for new birds. I mean, bluebirds need they- For instance, where I am I have a lower meadow, I have an upper meadow, and then there's mown grass, they need to open space. You know, they need meadows because that will attract insects. They like to sit up high and they like to look at critters on the, you know, grass. So I have a perfect bluebird habitat. Robins are interesting, because they're called speculative migrants, they migrate along the 37 degree isotherm which means theoretically, that's the temperature 37 degrees that worm start to rise, and that they need that for their young. But if it gets too cold, robins just turn around and go south and come back later. A lot of birds can't do that. Like the blue birds can't really do that. Robins are like, okay, but yes, I mean, I think traditionally, the robin that Hardy thrush that related to the Bluebird. That guy, you know will come first, although it's really the red winged blackbird. Someone told me they had one over the winter and had a house wren recently. You know, originally, the cardinal was not a northern bird. It was a southern bird. Its climate change, but especially people with backyard theaters, that the cardinal has now become the bird of holiday greeting cards in the snow. Well, it's a striking read against the white snow thing too. But we didn't use to have them. I mean, this is quite a few years, 30 to 50 years that started to change. And because of climate change, we're having other other things like that. Theoretically, the bald eagles will migrate when the river is over freeze and they haven't been migrating and a lot of people are lot of bald eagles around. So as long as that water remains open, they will stay. But yes, you don't have bluebird habitat here. I have bluebird boxes, but they're inhabited by swallows, which are just as exciting. Oh, I love Tree Swallows beautiful. Oh, when they arrive, it's like the whole mountain comes alive with their flight and they're swooping, and they're diving, and they're iridescence; and they're wonderful birds. And at least here in the Catskills where there is habitat, I'm guessing that building houses and providing food is more probably for us than for the birds. We get to see them close to our homes and... Well, for certainly for the bluebirds, they need those houses. The single most important element for birds in nature are dead trees. People take them down. I have lots of beautiful dead trees. First of all, they're beautiful. But secondly, I mean, think of all the birds; woodpeckers and blue birds. And then when you bring in invasives, like starlings, the bluebirds still need their boxes, and they're dependent on them. And also, as you pointed out, the same thing is true of the Tree Swallows. These birds are called cavity nesters. And they were largely driven out. You know, Burroughs writes about setting up boxes for bluebirds; not to the specifications of our modern blue per box. But think about it, it was before pesticides, and these are insectivores these guys and they were attracted by their lovely sweet song, their beauty, but also the fact that they're wonderful, ravenous insectivores. And now on the property of the John Burroughs Woodchuck Lodge, there are again a whole bunch of bluebird boxes. Oh, yeah. Inhabited, yeah. And that's a very good habitat there because there are fields. Big Fields. Big fields. Exactly. In a moment, part two of my interview with Leslie T. Sharp, author of The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills now an audiobook. Click the link in the show notes for more info. Kaatscast is sponsored by the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook; you can sign up as a business member and subscribe to a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.org. Kaatscast is also supported by the Mountain Eagle covering Delaware, Greene, and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham Weekly, Schoharie News, and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email mountaineaglenews@gmail.com. You have a long history with birds including VP of the New York City Audubon Society. Right. That's a big deal. My biggest credit was I when I was in second grade, I was president of Junior Audubon Society. Wow. That was the big thing. But it goes to show you as a little girl, I fell in love with birds. And I was very fortunate because we went to the seashore, Stone Harbor, New Jersey, and I was like a little scientist at the seashore. But the thing about birds, especially for kids, it's a way into the natural world. It's so easy. You know, one of the things that happened during the pandemic for New Yorkers, first of all, it was quiet people could actually hear birds and trees. It was like, oh my god, we have birds in New York. Well, anybody who knows anything about birding goes to Central Park, where I used to bird for years. And it's a green trap. And it's on the eastern flyway. And in the spring and fall migrations, the birds that my friends and and bird photographer pals see there, it's more than I see. There's so many species. The boathouse in Central Park has a birding book, and at least something like nearly 300 species of birds have been recorded. People come from all over the world in those seasons to see that. But if kids get interested, the great thing about birds is it's an easy and accessible way into the environment. You know, all you have to do is look out your window, and that can be the first spark; and that for me as a little girl. And then of course, you know, I grew up and did other things. And the reason I got involved with New York City Audubon in the early 90s, was we had a devastating oil spill on the Kill Van Kull and New York City Audubon Society's sponsors have programs called Harbor Herons, and a lot of people don't know this. They're all these little protected islands. It's a huge nesting area for all kinds of shorebirds, you know, and that was in the spring. It was right before nesting season, and I was so horrified. It was after what had happened in Alaska, and that's how I got involved in New York City Audubon. And then I got really involved and you know, was editor of the newsletter and then I became vice president of the New York City Audubon Society, which is a really great chapter and extremely active and has really gone on to do terrific things. I'm really honored that I had that connection, and I still am connected to them. People just aren't aware of the fact that in the East River, on the Hudson River, they're all these little weird, uninhabited rocky outcroppings for all of these shorebirds come back and they nest. So what advice do you have for Catskillians for taking care of our native wildlife here whether that's birds or anything else? Of course, if you have the habitat for blue bird boxes are such fun and even if you don't get bluebrids, you'll get Tree Swallows, and if you don't get Tree Swallows, I had house friends one year. And there are different kinds of nesting boxes, you know, you can get them for Black Capped chickadees. One of the great things to do is to put up a bat box, which I also haven't I haven't had bats in a while. The bats, only mama only has one puppy or they're mammals. Whereas the bluebirds could come back pretty quickly. It's going to take a while to bring back our our little cave bat populations, but because certainly do these boxes, a really fun thing to do. And it's very simple, is looking at grass and how the idea of the lawn, which really came from sort of middle class folks with their little nice little gardens in England, aping the formal gardens of the upper class and these manicured lawns. And we know that that involves the use of pesticides that involves the use of herbicides. People use herbicides, pesticides on their lawn, and the fireflies lay their eggs and they stay in the ground and the larvae will be killed. But there are simple other things in terms of what can you do to help these creatures. Many of us are fortunate to see luna moths, which have very short lifespan, they lasts maybe a week, not even, you know, two weeks. They come in June, let's say here, that's when I get mine. If you turn your lights off, outside lights, from the end of May into August, you will help populations of luna moths. The luna moths get very confused by lights because they fly by the moon - that's why they're called the Luna moth - and they have a romance with light, and they only live a week to 10 days and they won't make. They'll spend all of their time fluttering around lights, you know, turn off lights for the Lunas, but also for our beloved fireflies. I mean, for me as a kid, did you love anything more than fireflies as a kid? One of the simple things that people can do is to sort of rethink the way lawn should look. You know, it's sort of been a conspiracy, you know, by certain interests, economic interest, to have the green, that green lawn is very often a desert. There's no insects. And we know there's something called, you know, insect mageddon. First of all, you know, without the honeybee, we have no fruits and vegetables, so to speak. But beyond that, insects feed birds, that's a whole chain of being. If you just even take small things like there's a thing called Nomo May, don't mow in May because that will allow the wildflowers to come up. You know, that Dandy Lions that are so sort of maligned that's the first wildflower often in spring. They are crucial to pollinators that are desperate for food. It's the dandelion is a wonderful resource for for early bees. And then after that every other week and keep the grass high. Try to allow because these things, you know whether it's dandelions, I understand their weeds. Everybody wants to call them weed, but Clover- when did Clover get demonized? Purple clover, white clover, these are essential foods for so many pollinators. And so even if you just take a portion of your lawn and say, 'Okay, I'm going to mow this, no pesticides, no herbicides. I'm going to mow that every couple of I'll do Nomo May, I'll do every couple of weeks. But I'm going to take this corner and look to native species.' Plan a corner and see the amount of butterflies and the amount of birds and the amount of life that it will attract as opposed to the sort of storied, manicured, dead, closely cropped lawns. So there's a lot of individual things I think that people can do. That could be fun. It's great for kids. We covered a lot, Leslie. Is there anything that you wanted to add, particularly about this latest article? I wanted to thank Appalachia Journal; this is their winter and spring 2020 tuition. This one is called Cataclysms in the Catskills into Conics. With Kaaterskill Falls on the cover and I was honored to be in it; and I want to thank them and tell people they're from the Appalachian Mountain Club. They can check them out. Get a subscription. I'm doing a pitch because they are terrific. You know, I'm very appreciative to my wonderful editor Chris Woodside for coming to me and for caring so much about the Catskills. And we have to remember we're all part of that same eroded plateau. Sometimes it seems overwhelming. But as Jane Goodall would say, the thing to do is remember that there are many other people out there who care as much as you do. And if we don't lose track of that, and we see ourselves as a mosaic of caring, and always realize that there's hope and the bluebirds have been saved. You know, it's hard for people to imagine but the wild turkeys almost went extinct at the turn of the 20th century. They were saved. Now we have so many, I can't walk out without stepping on Turkey poop. And I'm always grateful for that. That's what I'll- That's my last word. It's on Turkey poop. Very pleased to end it. Thank you so much, Leslie. Thank you. Nice to have you back here. Thank you so much for having me. It's so great to work with you again. It's always a great deal of fun and I always describe you to people as Brett of the dream boat voice. I'll have to put that on my website. Yeah. This is Brett of the dream boat voice. Thanks for that Leslie; reminding you to please check out our new website, kaatscast.com with expanded coverage, links to our sponsors, and a search feature across all of our episodes. And please vote for us in this year's Chronogrammys where we were nominated for Best Regional Podcast. There's a link in the show notes. We'll also post a link to Leslie's article, The Bluebird Chronicles; a Catskills romance, and a link to her book The Quarry Fox and Other Critters of the Wild Catskills; now in audio format, and available wherever you get your audiobooks. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for tuning in. Give us a rating so more people can find the podcast. Tell your friends about us. And we'll see you again in two weeks. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / JL