Monday, September 3, 2012
The Feather Quest and the community of birders
I've had a really amazing birding year, so far, over twenty life birds and I haven't even left Illinois. And for the last week or so, one thing has really hit home with me--I couldn't have done it alone.
For example, as I relayed, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, in my last post, on Thursday, after days of trying, I finally got my "lifer" whimbrel. But here's the thing: I had help. I was surveying the mud flats with my spotting scope, seeing nought by pectorals, leasts and semipalmateds, when a fellow who introduced himself as Kevin drove up and asked me, "Are you looking for The Whimbrel?"
It made me think of my encounter with an anonymous birder at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, when we were both looking for "the shrike." Seriously, the word gets out about an exciting bird and before you know it, birders migrate from all corners of the state. It's kind of exciting, actually.
Of course, I was looking for the Whimbrel (I know that the word is not typically capitalized, but we were talking as if it were), and he had recently seen it, and found it again--in the opposite direction of where I was looking, mind you--and when I at first couldn't follow his description, he was kind enough to hone my scope in on it, and finally, I saw it myself.
A similar thing happened to me today. Another potential life bird, the red-necked phalarope, has been seen by several birders in my county, and I managed to get myself in the general vicinity of these sightings, but no cigar. After traipsing around through thigh-high grasses over treacherously clumpy ground, and tearing my pants into shreds bush-whacking through thickets of multiflora rose, I was about to go home empty-handed, when I ran into the birder who had first sighted them, who also happens to be an acquaintance of mine. As we discussed the situation, he volunteered to show me where he'd seen them, and as it turns out, I had gone much further afield than I had needed to. And best of all, they were still there! Year bird number 204, my "lifer" red necked phalaropes. And bird number 205, the peregrine falcon, swooped in soon afterwards to disperse them.
These face-to-face interactions are but the tip of the iceberg, really. It's sometimes easy to forget for such a solitary person as myself, but my success this year has all been from the generosity of other people. Every time someone enters their sighting on Cornell University's database, "ebird," it goes out there like a beacon for everyone else. I always joke that I log all my sightings for "the scientists," but every day birders also benefit, perhaps even more.
Almost every life bird I've gotten this year has come about from seeing a posting on ebird and then heading in that direction. And I truly hope that, by posting my own sightings, I am "giving back" to the community, and perhaps helping someone else to get a good bird of their own.
This all put me in mind of a book I read recently, The Feather Quest by Pete Dunne (Dutton: 1992). I have read several books about birding and birders, some focused mostly on the chase for birds (The Biggest Twitch, An Extremely Bad Idea, The Big Year); some on trying to understand the birders (Life List, To See Every Bird on Earth, and again The Big Year); some about personal epiphanies or ruminations (Refuge, Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher, The Life of the Skies); some in the form of a memoir (The Urban Birder); and some mostly the biography of a certain red-winged blackbird (Club George).
Dunne's The Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year, stands out from the rest in that its primary emphasis seems to be on the relationship between birders rather than between birder and bird. In addition, it's a very well-written book, which made me reach for my highlighter frequently to capture choice sentences or paragraphs.
Some of my favorites:
Only desperation could drive a person to a public phone during the hours that lie between the time the bars in McAllen close and the churches open; desperation (or the anticipation of a Good Bird--which is just a form of desperation).
Actually, I like gulls about as much as I like shopping, and I like shopping less than self-immolation. But a Ross's Gull. That's different. That's very different.... The bird was a prize. It was a kind of bird you could build a religion around.
No, Sycamore Canyon is not a place to be casual or careless, and penance is paid in broken limbs, dislocated joints, and heat stroke. But if a "good" bird, a Life Bird, is standing on the gates of hell itself, then that's where birders must go to claim it.
Not all of the passages are humorous; at times, Dunne waxes poetic, or even, when contemplating the threats to the environment, a bit melancholy. But throughout, the theme is one of connection and relationship -- between himself as adult birder and the enthusiastic child he used to be; between himself as experienced birder and newbies getting a feel for their binoculars; between experienced birders sizing each other up in the field, or a group of birders looking for a Ross's gull at a sewer plant; between members of a birding tour, or the rangers at Point Pelee and the swarms of birders flocking to to see the migrants.
One of the most engaging chapters is about the "World Series of Birding" at Cape May, New Jersey, where teams of birders strive to get the highest number for the day. After describing the efforts of his team in great detail, he stops short of mentioning if they won or not. An oversight? Somehow, in the hands of such a talented writer, I doubt it.
The focus of the book is not on how many birds, per se, but an attempt to sketch the connections that keep the whole wonderful pursuit known as "birding" intact. It is, finally, a gentle reminder that no birder is an island.... One that has been very much on my mind recently.
As I have struggled, over the past few months, with my loathing of my daily commute to Decatur and the indignity of being severely "under" employed, in a meditation I had a reminder to look for the beauty that lies beneath everything. At first, I could not see it, even as I surveyed the peeps teeming across the mud flats.
But in the past week or so, it has become more apparent, another lesson that birding has given me; this time, not from the birds, but from other birders. We are all here to help each other. Each one of us is a part of that.