The Naturalist's Journal

The Bobolinks are back in a few favored grasslands, but the fact that the glorious birds, whose populations are in serious decline due to habitat loss, are in constant motion makes “capturing” them an often humbling challenge.


If you ever needed a dose of humility, I have a suggestion: run, don’t walk, to an outdoor  “pharmacy” that encompasses the wonderfully frustrating world of birdwatching. For most of May—indeed, most Mays of my entire life—I have been rummaging through its shelves in search of various “compounds” in the pharmacopeia, and, as I explained last week, this quest has often crossed the line that separates a healthy hobby from a psychiatric illness. 

Birding, to be sure, can drive you nuts, particularly towards the end of May, when the green curtain has fully descended and most of the birds you seek have either left the region or been rendered invisible by the fully leafed-out foliage. At that point, the addict ornithophile—and make no mistake, birding can become a bona fide addiction—has but several choices.

1. He or she, and here I’ll use the masculine pronoun for convenience, but this applies to both sexes, can check into a local chapter of the Roger Tory Peterson Clinic for intensive help, followed by a lifelong commitment to the dictates of the Avian Anonymous Twelve-Steps Program, starting with a sober admission of powerlessness to control the compulsion and a plea to the Lord to help keep the sufferer on the straight and narrow, which would include both denying access to the Rare Bird Alert electronic notifications and head’s-ups announcements about sales on binoculars, spotting scopes, telephoto lenses, bird field guides, and trips to avian hot spots.

2. Put the appropriate gear, a crate of energy bars, and a change of clothes in the car and head in the direction, probably north at this time of the migration cycle, of whatever species is on your particular compulsion list.

3. Affix a heating pad on your sore neck—all that time spent looking up takes a toll—laugh about the birds you didn’t quite see or hear; realize that in this endeavor, it really is all about the journey, not the destination; and thank, deeply thank, those Higher Powers for the gift of humility.

That’s where I was, embracing option three, as I stood on a ridiculously chilly early-morning hip-deep in Cinnamon Ferns with all my sight-lines partially to mostly obscured by the leaves of shrubs and trees. I’d hit the local trails, as I do just about every May morning—I haven’t yet given into the temptation of a month-long road trip—to see, listen to, and photograph the ridge avifauna, and I was experiencing, as I do on each trek, a heaping measure of frustration.

As every honest birder will admit, this, of course, comes with the territory. You don’t catch a trout on every cast. You don’t pick a winning stock with every investment. There is, alas, a better-than-even chance your ideal mate will prove somewhat less so. And you will almost certainly not connect with the bird you sought.

This is the way of the birdwatcher’s world.

There was, for example, an Ovenbird singing its “tea-cher... TEA-cher... TEA-CHER!” song very close to me as I searched for the singer. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau pronounced the tune “loud and unmistakable, making the hollow woods ring,” and in a 1916 poem named for the singer, Robert Frost declared that this warbler which “everyone has heard”—folks were closer to nature back then—had the vocal power to “[make] the solid tree trunks sound again.”

Neither assessment is hyperbolic in the least, but even though the trees and my ears were ringing with the Ovenbird’s teaching, I couldn’t actually find the good professor. The warbler couldn’t have been more than ten feet away. I had to be looking right at it. But try as I might to locate the source of those penetrating notes, I failed over and over again.

This is not, I have to admit, unusual. I have been a dedicated and committed birder for more than 60 years—as my grandkids might assert, this was not long after birds first evolved—and, now as then, most of my quests end in failure, or, at best, partial success. The bird I’m trying to view is in the binoculars for too brief a glimpse to see the proper field marks required for identification. Or the light’s not good. Or a leafy branch gets in the way. Or my microphone failed to pick up clear enough notes. Or the camera refused to focus. Or the darn thing decided to fly away just as I was ready to “capture” it.

The Ovenbird was happily telling me about being a teacher. But what lesson was it imparting?

A perfect-mating-plumaged Yellow-rumped Warbler was sending me an aural message, but where the heck was the singer? And why couldn’t I remember put the critical notes of the warbler into an identification framework? I know that high-pitched lisp belonged to a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and there it was—now focus, and click... just in time to get a perfectly dreadful image of a tiny bird rapidly descending out of the frame. 

I did a bit better in a large meadow as I heard, then zeroed in on, the Bobolinks that were noisily carving out territories as they perched on plant stems to declare the boundaries of their realms. But it was gray and windy, and the birds kept vanishing from view as their weight and the gale moved their perches to and fro.

Along the coast, I’m pretty sure that the huge bird soaring in the distance was an immature Bald Eagle, but the light was less than decent, the camera shook a bit, and I couldn’t be absolutely certain that I was right about the ID.

Then there was that mysterious small, dark guy in the leafy branches soaked with mist—probably an American Redstart. And its brighter companion in the gloom… definitely a warbler, and, most likely, a Northern Parula.

About the only certainty in the recent identification endeavor was the bird that thudded mightily into the kitchen window and lay, twitching and stunned, on the patio stones. That was undeniably a Gray Catbird. As I kneeled down in a light rain to pick up the limp and definitely helpless creature, I couldn’t be at all sure that I’d be doing anything more than gently ushering it from this life to the next, but it was still warm, its neck appeared to be intact, and its eyes, if addled, remained bright and open. I cradled the Catbird in my hands and breathed additional warmth into its body in the hope that I could help it regain its strength and its bearings.

When I felt that the bird was going to make it, I called my granddaughter Stasia out of the house to get a first-hand look, and she was powerfully impressed—especially when the Catbird gave its namesake call note, a variety of “meow,” and, in apparent gratitude or relief, pooped on my hand. I washed off the “gift” and silently thanked the avian feline for this lesson in cross-species empathy. To the necessary frustrations delivered by its fellow birds, I gave thanks for all those lessons in humility.

I also thought about simply becoming a botanist. At least then, my quarry would remain in one spot. The Starflowers beckoned. So did a carpet of Canada Mayflowers, and an entire flora ready to bloom.

But there was a Cardinal calling from a tree stump and if I just mustered a bit more patience, perhaps I could get a fine shot. Hope springs eternal in May. It truly does.

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