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Ted Mack: up close to the natural world

August 31, 2011
By RANDY?LEWIS - Special to the Enterprise , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

If you are ever lucky enough to spend a few hours chatting with local naturalist Ted Mack, you will come away dazed with stories of far travels and amazing wildlife sightings. Ted has learned about the planet's animals, the habitats where they live and how to capture their unique animal sounds, so others can also hear their voices.

Born in Glens Falls, Ted came to the Adirondacks as a youngster, from the Troy area, to camp with his family at Golden Beach and Forked Lake campgrounds in the 1940s. He loved the quiet beauty of these mountains.

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Article Photos

Ted Mack studies a green snake in the Adirondacks.
(Photos provided)

Hunter and fisherman

Ted has always been a hunter and fisherman. He remembers fishing when there were a lot more fish to be caught. The daily brook trout limit for his dad as a kid was 25, and for him was 10. Now it's five. Places that used to have startling numbers of fish are now barren. He used to hunt, especially cottontails, and his family ate well as a result. Development has now taken over much of the rabbit habitat. He has witnessed the decline of many species, and taken note.

After high school, Ted enjoyed attending Paul Smith's College. His PSC dorm was called "The Armpit," located where Livermore dorm is now situated.

Fact Box

Some advice for nature lovers

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Ted Mack has had a lifetime of experience in the woods and on the waterways of the Adirondacks. He says, "My best recommendation for those who want to get out and see the wildlife around here is to go for a walk at the Paul Smith's Visitor Interpretive Center, or on a trail near home, preferably early in the morning, before the other people get there. Go alone, or with one non-talking companion. Get a good pair of binoculars. A good guide book would be National Geographic Society Field Guide to the Birds of North America, which you can find in a public library. That's a start."

He adds, "If you can go a little ways away, a great find is the Upper and Lower Lakes Wildlife Management Area, three miles west of Canton. It's amazing what you can see there. Also, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge down near Seneca Falls. You can't beat it for birding."

To hear some of the songs of nature produced by Lang Elliot go to www.musicofnature.org/home.

"It was an old carriage house, with a dirt floor on the first floor," Ted said. "There were remnants of old tack from the horse and buggy days down there. Upstairs there were about six dorm rooms, and most of them housed the school's basketball team, plus me. It was wonderful."

After graduating in 1960, Ted worked for the U.S. Forest Service in northern Idaho, then headed to Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore. for his bachelor's degree. While there, his passion for hunting and fishing endured. "Linfield didn't provide meals for the students for the weekends, so by hunting and fishing I was able to supply myself with fresh meat and fish kept it in a freezer locker in town and took out what was needed for meals for the weekend," he said.

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Settling in the Adirondacks

He returned to New York, earning his Master of Library Science from SUNY Geneseo. He always knew he would be a librarian and got his first job at the Rochester Public Library. While working there, living near Lake Ontario, he got a phone call from his old alma mater.

"Here I am talking on the phone to Gray Twombly; I remember his voice was quite distinctive," Ted said. "Why was he calling me? He asked me if I wanted to come back to Paul Smith's (College) to work as their librarian. When Cathy and I showed up in my truck, I guess they must've thought we'd fit just fine."

He grinned. He had come home to the mountains he loved. Ted worked as the college librarian at Paul Smith's College for more than 30 years, retiring in 2005.

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Birds

Ted Mack first learned to love birds when he was about 10 years old.

"I was looking in some brush and saw this black and white striped bird moving around a tree branch, upside down and sideways, and I had never seen such a thing before," he said. "I went home and looked it up in a simple bird book, and found it, a black and white warbler. After that I was hooked."

The adult Ted Mack knows birds. He has learned them by sight, sound and habitat, and has traveled the world seeing as many different species as the environments offered. He enjoys the sight of them in each locale. In North America alone, he has seen 724 species, of about a possible 750.

"One of the best places in America to see a large variety of birds is the Rio Grande Valley in Texas," he said. "I've returned there frequently over the years and have never been disappointed. Also southeastern Arizona has abundant bird life."

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Traveling the world

Not only familiar with the habitats of the lower 48 states, Ted has traveled to Alaska at least 10 times, including four trips to Attu, the small island at the end of the Aleutian chain of islands near Russia where many unique species can be seen. Attu is no longer as accessible, so he knows he was lucky to have been able to see it as frequently as he did.

The birds of the world beckoned him. He first traveled overseas alone, to walk around Wales. In 2009, he hiked across England, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, a popular walk he undertook with fellow birder Fuat Latif, from Bloomingdale.

A highlight on this walk was spotting a Ring Ouzel on a bare mountain slope. Rare in England, the bird is a black thrush with a white crescent on the breast. Highly interesting for Ted was seeing a shelduck walk into a European rabbit burrow, where these ducks commonly nest. Stateside rabbits do not dig burrows.

In January 2003, he went to Peru with Lang Elliot. He traveled, using an available Doctors Without Borders boat, up a tributary of the Amazon River with a small group of naturalists. He saw pink fresh water dolphins in the Amazon. Paddling in a kayak on his birthday, he spied a small snake in the brush at the water's edge. His guide told him to grab it by the neck, since it was a young anaconda. After double checking to be sure of the snake, he grabbed it by the neck, and held on tight.

"I paddled back to the larger boat with one hand gripping the anaconda and the other on the paddle, saying this was my best birthday present ever," Ted said.

His travels also include a trip to Antarctica. He and Cathy traveled on a Russian ship, with an English-speaking captain, and only 46 others on the adventure.

"I saw a huge group of King penguins which live together to raise their young. There were a few thousand of them. You could smell them before you could see them; the ground was pink with their excrement, from the krill in their diet."

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Capturing sounds

of nature

Ted has spent many years working with his sound recording mentor, Lang Elliot, physically recording sounds of nature. Together they have captured birdsongs, frog songs, and sounds of other animals in the wild, producing recordings that everyone can now listen to and learn from.

The work of capturing these natural sounds is daunting. Naturalists know that a lot of the "music" of the natural world takes place at dawn and dusk, often in hard-to-access places. "For one, you know you can't be closer than four miles to any interstate, because the sound will show up in the recording. And secondly, you make some mistakes along the way, and have to learn from them. Muskrats like to chew on cable from the recording devices. Rain can drown out the best sounds but the gasoline engine is the most pervasive."

Ted and Lang visited sites across America, deep in isolated areas, at all times of the year. Lang would work out some of the logistical problems, inventing equipment for protection of the recording devices. Sometimes the two were on opposite ends of the country, compiling sounds for their archives. They were intent on getting it right, and they did.

Ted has learned the places where specific wildlife lives, the timing of their vocalizations, and has found a way to insert himself and his recording devices into the very spots where man and nature meet.

"Absolute quiet is necessary. Most people don't understand that. Even the rustle of a jacket can deter the bird, or mask its song." Many overnights were spent gathering night sounds while the dawn hours were often the most productive. His time over the years was spent somewhere in the Midwest, or in Florida, or in a desert, or next to a swamp. Ted gave days and months of his life visiting those places so we could hear the sounds of nature he captured for us. He is a genuine pioneer naturalist.

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Lessons

For years, Ted has participated in annual bird counts and other national inventories of wildlife, making note of the changes in certain populations. Counting birds for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, he says, "Where once there would be 112 calls in a short span of time, now there are 10," referring to the noticeable reduction of the thrush population. "But other birds' numbers are just fine, even increasing. You learn."

Finding new freedom in the benefits of retirement, he says, "I am so happy to not have to wait for weekends to get outside. Now, if the weather is bad on Saturday and Sunday, I can wait until Monday to go climb a mountain or paddle. I can take advantage of the good weather days. It's great."

Ted is a quiet, modest man who has traveled thousands of miles gathering wildlife stories. For years he learned what students and faculty at Paul Smith's needed for research, and provided it. He ventured out into the larger world, and witnessed nature's fascinating gifts firsthand. From damselflies to frogs to albatross, he has borne witness to it all. Carrying wisdom behind a quiet smile, it's his stories that win you over. Kayaking in Peru, watching seals in Antarctica, listening to birdsongs at four in the morning with recording equipment by his side, Ted Mack is a major force in the world of nature. We are lucky to have him here in the Adirondacks with us. He can teach us all.

 
 

 

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