Nature Connection: Not All Rare Birds Have Feathers

By: Mary Richmond

Marshal Case with the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History van and students. The author is second from left.

Spring migration is often full of feathered surprises, some of them quite rare. This past week a white ibis landed in Wellfleet and a duo of little blue herons joined a half dozen glossy ibises and a tricolored heron in Harwich, luring many a birder to grab their binoculars and cameras to go see and document them. 

Although I don’t keep any sort of formal list of bird sightings or chase down reports of rare birds, I’ve loved watching birds since they captured my imagination when I was a small child. I was fortunate to have parents and teachers who steered me to the wonderful programs for children at the then nascent Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster with John Hay and a small team of his cronies in early 1963. I was 8 years old and spending Saturdays out in the field looking for birds or salamanders or indoors on the third floor of the old town hall, which was the first location of the museum and was no less than awesome. We hiked everywhere. We examined tiny creatures with magnifying glasses and handled skulls, teeth, beaks, and bones of all sorts of animals and birds. We took apart owl pellets to see what the owls had eaten, and we learned how polliwogs became frogs and caterpillars became butterflies.

When I was 10 years old, John Hay hired a young Cornell graduate to head up his education program. Marshal Case walked into the hall filled with stuffed birds and dust motes and changed the lives of a dozen or so children that day. Mr. Case, as we called him, was tall, thin, and dark haired with a big smile and twinkly eyes. We adored him, boys and girls alike. He took us exploring and taught us how to catch and handle frogs, snakes, butterflies, grasshoppers, mummichogs and killifish without harm. He taught us how to take and keep notes, use guidebooks and maps, and how to both follow a trail and leave a trail behind. Unlike other teachers he sat on the ground with us to eat lunch and tell stories from when he was a boy.

In summer the museum had a tent on the grounds where the museum stands now, and a little round building was both utility shed and Marshal’s office. It was tiny, crammed full of books and small animals he was taking care of. Back in the day people brought abandoned baby raccoons, skunks, even a fox to the museum and it was often our job to help feed them and clean their cages. I still remember the feel of little raccoon hands on my face and in my hair as I went about my tasks with a baby raccoon on my shoulder. 

We learned how to feed tiny baby birds and watched black racer eggs hatch in a bucket of sand, which was both hypnotizing and a little bit terrifying. We watched with awe as newts become red efts and then let them go in the woods. We fed baby kingfishers watered down dogfood from paintbrushes. Rehabilitating injured and abandoned birds and animals has been a lifelong passion for Marshal, and he even wrote a book called “Look What I Found.”

When we were young teens Marshal packed a bunch of us in a van and drove us to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. In those days there were only a few other birders there and they were happy to share their knowledge with budding naturalists. We stayed for a few days, and they were days none of us have forgotten. After all, it’s not often you see 20,000 broad-winged hawks or hundreds of migrating vultures from a mountain top, or a golden eagle by the side of the road with its prey.

Marshal left the Cape in 1969 after helping get the original museum building built, during my sophomore year of high school. He went on to become the director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, senior vice president in charge of education for National Audubon, and created the Trust for Wildlife which is in Vermont where he now lives. He traveled widely, even doing a stint on a nature-based television show in Russia. We lost touch as I headed off to study art and away from studying biology seriously, but I have always remembered him fondly. 

The last time I saw Marshal was at John Hay’s memorial service 11 years ago. We both spoke at the ceremony and although we exchanged a few words afterwards, it was fleeting. We exchanged contact information, though, and have kept in touch sporadically through emails and an occasional phone call.

A few weeks ago, I was walking the White Cedar Trail in Wellfleet and there was something about the way the light was hitting the moss that flooded my memory with images of a dozen mud covered kids digging around in the moss to find a four-toed salamander. 

I emailed him when I got home from my walk and asked if I was remembering correctly. I was. As that time there were no records of this salamander on the Cape but under Marshal’s guidance, we found one. His finding still stands as the first record of the four-toed salamander on Cape Cod.

He also told me his wife, Joanne, and he were coming to the Cape, and suggested we get together. I agreed and we decided meeting up at Bell's Neck to look for a few rare birds would be perfect.

Marshal Case is 81 now and is not quite as tall as he used to be. His once dark hair is long and turning white, but his eyes still twinkle brightly, and he still laughs like the boy he once was. Due to bad knees from his hockey playing days he walks a bit more slowly but don’t let that fool you. He can still cover a great distance, and for his 80th birthday his wife bought him new racing snowshoes which he says are just fabulous.

We decided to go for a sandwich and coffee and one hour became two became three and a half as we told stories and laughed and laughed. 

I’ve been very lucky in my life to have had several wonderful, generous mentors and teachers. I’ve also been lucky to have seen quite a few rare birds. On this memorable day, I realized that all rare birds don’t have feathers, though. Some of them have twinkly eyes, a ready laugh, and a gift for helping a young girl find her way in a confusing world through a love of nature, and for that I will be forever grateful.