Yesterday evening I finally sat in my easy chair at the end of a busy day. My legs and back were tired. After a cold, wintry Saturday my Sunday had been busy and productive. I turned toward the window to pick up my glass of wine and caught movement as a brilliant bit of blue appeared at the bird feeder. It was an indigo bunting. Usually one shows up a couple times a year and this year Mother’s Day was the day. The pretty blue buntings were one of Mom’s favorite birds.
It suddenly occurred to me that, on a whim, my first activity of this pretty day had been a short bird walk on the nearby river trail. Mom loved birds and birding. Well, Mom loved all creatures but had a special fondness for birds. While many children arrange brunch or dinner with Mom, we would spend a few hours in the woods with our binoculars each Mother’s day. It was our special alone time and her favorite thing to do.Some years we had great birding and got preoccupied with identification and trying to keep up with the flitting, fleeting warblers and vireos hopping from branch to branch. As Mom aged and her hearing worsened, she depended more on me to find birds based on song. Unfortunately, warbler songs fell in a range of tones she simply couldn’t hear. This was apparent one morning when the “Beeee Buzzzzz” of a blue-winged warbler was nearly deafening and she couldn’t pick it up. Fortunately, the cooperative little fellow hopped on to an open branch where she got to see it.
Other years the birding wasn’t so hot. On those days Mom and I would mostly walk and talk. We’d talk about life. We’d talk about my childhood days living in a place that I didn’t even know was paradise until I wasn’t there anymore. We talked about hopes. We talked about dreams that would never come to pass but how nice they would be. We talked about life in general. These were my favorite days.
Sometimes we would find really good birds. Before I go any further there is some explanation of birders and birding required. First of all, the term “Bird Watching” is something out of the 1950s.
I don’t know where the phrase originated but it is akin to runners being referred to as joggers or hunters being asked if they “caught anything?”. Or nails on a chalkboard.
Birding is a physically active event typically requiring a good bit of walking and a fair bit of learned skill in quick identification. It is mentally challenging in that many bird species can only be differentiated by subtle differences. Perhaps leg color, the color or length of a beak, and in many cases, they can only be told apart by song. Nothing is more frustrating than staring at a tight-lipped flycatcher on a gray morning trying to figure out if it is an acadian, alder, yellow-bellied, or least. That assumes, of course, that flycatchers have lips.
Birders are a dedicated bunch who will spend ridiculous amounts of money on binoculars, spotting scopes, and paper or electronic field guides. They leave their houses in the wee small hours and drive many miles to add a new species to a life list. (The list of all species of birds they’ve seen in their lives anywhere.) Often times they will hike a long way over rugged terrain for the chance to find one remote species. There is even a World Series of Birding. In fact, yours truly participated in it . . . twice!
Perhaps the coolest thing about birding is that birds fly. I know that isn’t a revolutionary concept, but because birds fly they can wind up anywhere at any time. And they do! There are hot lists, birding hotlines, and websites with the latest sightings of species making a rare appearance somewhere new. If you saw the news reports last year about the Mandarin duck that showed up in Central Park this is the stuff birders live for and it happens quite often.
Like most things, there is a darker underbelly to the birding world. At a glance, that may seem ludicrous. All birders hope to be the one to make the discovery of an out-of-place or rare species.
A bluebird in Cape May isn’t unusual but a mountain bluebird found there is front-page stuff! Or at least front page of a newspaper that any self-respecting birder would read. When I was younger and such vagrants appeared I had a notion in my mind of the wanderer making its way back from whence it came.
I finally realized one day while chasing down some European stray that there was no way the little bird was going to make its way back across the ocean and the hapless creature was doomed. This is likely the case for most of these oddities that show up far outside their normal range. It would be like a New Yorker hopping on a plane destined for Miami and somehow winding up in rural Wyoming. Life expectancy wouldn’t be long.
The second rather seamy fact about birding is that the birding community can be a bit arrogant. Okay . . really arrogant. In most activities I’ve participated in, the community is welcoming and understanding of new participants. This is not as much the case in birding as it could be. Oh sure, experienced birders will suggest good binoculars and guides and where to go but the same experienced birders will look down their noses at a neophyte who can’t yet tell the difference between a black vulture or turkey vulture. As such, until they learn the basics, newbies are often relegated to attending the bird walk at the State Park or hiding among the weeds while they furtively glance through a brand new copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds because they think they are the only ones on trail who doesn’t know what that beautiful black and orange bird is.
The arrogance of the birding community becomes even more evident when someone who is not well known to the community reports a rare sighting. Skepticism and doubt abound because if they don’t know you what could you possibly know about birds? As an example, I took a walk through a favorite local birding spot and happened across a Swainson’s warbler.
I got a great look at the bird for a long time and heard it sing. It wasn’t my first Swainson’s warbler. We are a bit North of “normal” range for a Swainson’s warbler but not that far North. Wanting to share my good fortune, I posted a note about said warbler on the local birding e-list to which I was not a regular contributor. Well, you’d have thought Tony the Pony showed up at the Preakness and insisted on running. I was informed in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t possibly have seen a Swainson’s warbler and it was probably just a Louisiana waterthrush.
There was much discussion in the comments about this new birder that showed up with audacious claims and what could he possibly know? It seemed like being a baby and having everyone in the room talking about you like you aren’t there. I haven’t posted anything on that list (or any list site) since and I’ve found some great birds that they would love to know about.
It was no different years ago. The Cape May area where I spent much of my youth is renowned globally as a birding hotspot. Geographically, it is a big touch point for a lots of species of birds. There are woods, fields, beaches, ocean, and marshes attracting a wide variety of birds in both the spring and fall migration. As such, it also attracts a wide variety of birders leaving no rare avian visitor undiscovered. In fact, I often wonder if the birding in Cape May is any better than the birding anywhere else but just elevated because there are so many birders there examining every feather at all times. A few years back, some regionally rare variety of sparrow showed up at Higbee Beach wildlife management area. Higbee’s is well know among the birding and, once upon a time, the nudist community. Fortunately the two factions rarely meet. Anyway, I along with dozens of other birders descended on Higbee’s each morning to track the sparrow. I remember looking around and wondering if the poor thing would evaporate into thin air with all those magnified optics pointed at it?
On a similar morning, my Mom had been out birding and casually mentioned to a a group of birders including some big names that she had seen a cerulean warbler that morning and was very pleased about it.
The inquisition began immediately and continued for years. “Where did you see it? Are you sure it wasn’t an indigo bunting? Do you put your hand over your heart when the national anthem plays? May we see your papers please?”
Perhaps I’m making the birding community sound worse than it is. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from participating. It is a fun past-time and you get a new appreciation for nature when you can begin to identify all those little songsters in the woods or the various birds tottering about in the marsh. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the wonderful discovery of the beautiful little feathered ornaments that are probably hopping around the trees in the yard at this very moment. I encourage everyone to grab a pair of binoculars and get outside.
I’d like to say I thought of Mom when I made the decision to head down to the river trail yesterday morning, binoculars in hand. The truth is, I completely forgot it was Mother’s day until sometime later in the afternoon. Mom died from brain cancer 11 years ago. The last few months of her life, the cancer took her ability to function. For months and years after her death when I thought of Mom I could only remember those last few weeks when she lay in bed, nearly a vegetable unable to hold conversation. No matter how hard I tried, I could remember nothing else. When the bunting appeared at the feeder, instantly, I thought of Mom and our Mother’s day bird walks. I pictured her as plain as if it were yesterday walking along with her L.L. Bean Maine hunting boots, green jacket, and her Bausch and Lomb binoculars. I smiled and enjoyed the memory. Belated Happy Mother’s Day Mom. I love you.