Becky Cushing: A birder who oversees protected land
Editor's note: The following story first appeared in the July 2017 issue of TownVibe Berkshire.
Becky Cushing, Mass Audubon’s Berkshire Sanctuaries director, is soaring. She took the post in 2014, when René Laubach retired after three decades, and as she gets her feet on the ground she is building new partnerships. She is supervising two new properties in Sandisfield and Otis, to add to four others she oversees: Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield, Lime Kiln in Sheffield, and Tracy Brook in Richmond. She is hosting bird walks and concerts with the BSO from July 27-30.
How has the new partnership with Tanglewood grown into this summer concert series around Messiaen’s Catalog of the Birds?
Ellen Highstein, director of the Tanglewood Music Center, and Tony Fogg, artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, know Pleasant Valley. She walks here often. And Pierre-Laurent Aimard is an internationally known pianist who has done these concerts elsewhere in the world. Messiaen composed his Catalog of the Birds based on bird song, and Aimard often performs outdoors, so nature complements the music. It has developed into a series of concerts at Pleasant Valley and at Tanglewood with Tanglewood Music Center fellows. We will have bird walks at both places. Wayne Petersen, our lead ornithologist and director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program, and Mass Audubon staff from across the state will lead them.
The bird walks begin as early as 5:30. Why, and what birds would you hope to see?
Early morning is the best birding, because the birds are active. The sun is up early this time of year, and daybreak is the best time to see them. In July, we may see some of everything. We have a list of the birds that inspired Messiaen. He was composing in France, so not all of them live here, but we have goldfinches, kingfisher and redstarts, wrens and robins. We have nesting boxes in the fields here, so swallows are common, and we see yellowthroats, chickadees and woodpeckers because of the habitat. Another bird we have heard going on and on outside the office recently is a scarlet tanager. Every year we have birds we get to know who stick around through the summer.
You are an avid birder, and you lead bird walks yourself?
I grew up learning shore birds, so I am learning new habitats here. The pleasure for me isn’t in a checklist—I love to get a good look at a bird, especially a bird singing. The pleasure is in the experience, when I watch long enough to realize they are bringing nesting material to that bush.
With Kripalu, you are creating a new approach to birding in courses you have co-led. How do you bring mindfulness and birding together?
Being mindful is similar to birding, when you’re going out to the dawn chorus with the birds singing their hearts out and letting it wash over you. Then we can focus on a particular bird. I heard a Louisiana water thrush the other morning for a long while—I was sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, and the bird came close to me, and I got to know it, and to know the sound.
What moments have stood out for you, as you have gotten to know the Mass Audubon properties you care for in the Berkshires?
So many. Pleasant Valley has a boardwalk around Pike’s Pond, and a few times, more than a few, when I’m taking a break on a busy day near sunset I’ll go down, and it’s so still and quiet, and the water is glassy. I’ve seen a beaver come out and swim across. The other day at Canoe Meadows, at a volunteer day, we saw more than a dozen rare butterflies in the meadow near Sackett Brook, and this is in the heart of Pittsfield. I feel like the Berkshires has all these hidden places to explore that make you feel like the first person to have found them.
You grew up in Saratoga Springs. Did you know the Berkshires before you moved here for this job?
I spent summers with my grandparents on Cape Cod, and we would walk the beaches, looking for piping plover and terns. I first worked for Mass Audubon on the Cape. In 2011, I helped open a new sanctuary in Wareham, and it showed me how much I wanted to learn about land management and balancing land and people, so I went to the University of Vermont, through the Field Naturalist Program, and when this position opened up it was my dream job.
How do you keep that balance here?
We have six sanctuaries—four open to the public and two opening in the next few years, and in addition to these the Berkshires has a mosaic of preserved land through the state, land trusts, agricultural restrictions. It’s important to appreciate the mosaic of land and uses: rare natural communities, drinking water, prime agricultural soil, and community centers. At Pleasant Valley, we have 1,200 acres and seven miles of trails on less than half, and that’s intentional, so that people can explore and the wildlife has places to be, so a bear or a wildcat can breed in places without people. I am eager to work alongside other groups. We have so much opportunity for conservation here. It benefits the economy, too, to have these conserved places—we have visitors from all over the world at the sanctuaries, more than 25,000 people each year.