I knew I had reached middle age when I started to get interested in birdwatching. I’ve always liked birds; I’ve always looked at them, but when I started buying birding guides and feeders and keeping a Life List, I knew I was officially on my way to Fogey-dom.
Not that I mind. Some of the birder fogeys (fogies? that doesn’t look right) I’ve met have been pretty cool people. When I first started birding in earnest (meaning that I travelled with a set of binoculars and a birding guide), I was in San Francisco understudying Claudia Shear in Dirty Blonde. One weekday morning I took the bus out to the Cliff House area, which overlooks Seal Rocks and the ruins of the Sutro Baths. The area was fairly deserted, but I still felt a bit foolish as I struggled to sight in on the many birds on and around the Rocks. It was a laborious process, involving fumbling with my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (Western Region), my note-taking pencil and my not-very-strong binocs. I was struggling to ID a brown shorebird when someone behind me said, “See any good ones?”
I turned to face an older woman, graying and windblown, her own binoculars clutched in her hand. “Well, I don’t know if they’re good or not,” I confessed. “This is the first time I’ve birded on the West Coast so everything is new to me.”
She nodded, turned toward the rocks and pointed. “Well, that’s a Willet on the beach, right at the waterline. Black Oystercatcher on the rocks, Common Murre, Western Gull, Brown Pelican.” She wasn’t even using her binoculars! She saw me frantically trying to keep pace with her and took pity on me. “Well, there’s a bunch. This is a good place to start.”
We exchanged a few pleasantries and she moved off, and I began to look up the birds she’d mentioned and try to find them on the rocks, which is most definitely a backwards way of birding. I peered and peered through the binocs, scribbled some notes about what I’d seen and after an hour, called it a day. I was exhausted.
Eventually I got the hang of it. I spent time paging through the color plates of the Audubon guide, so that when I went out to bird, I had at least some familiarity with what I was seeing. Unfortunately, it’s taken me a while to develop a proper life list, and in the process I’ve lost a lot of the records of my early sightings, including all the birds I saw that day (random bits of paper do not a Proper Life List make). Shortly after I got home from San Francisco, I went out on tour with Guys and Dolls. John, realizing that I’d gotten the Bird Bug bad, gave me with a really nice set of lightweight binoculars as an opening night gift. Those binoculars have been with me to some pretty fabulous birding sites: the Salton Sea, Big Morongo Canyon and the San Jacinto Mountains in California, the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and Sanibel Island in Florida, Deschutes County in Oregon, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and a storm drainage pond near the Vienna Metro Station. (This last site was a real goldmine for a rookie birder, but recent development in the area has chased off all the interesting birds, and now it’s a haven for the ubiquitous and bad-tempered Canada Goose and the odd Great Blue Heron.)
In my most rabid birdwatching stage, I must have been difficult to live with. I was expecting John home for lunch one autumn afternoon and was idly looking at my backyard feeders, when I noticed a flock of brownish birds sitting high in a neighbor’s tree. At first I thought they were sparrows (too big) or starlings (too quiet) and when I finally looked at them through the binoculars, I realized I was looking at a flock of cedar waxwings, a bird I’d always wanted to see (that’s one at the top of this post). John pulled up in the driveway about then; I met him at the door, pointing skyward and gibbering, “CEDAR WAXWINGS! CEDAR WAXWINGS!” He refrained from rolling his eyes, but just barely.
These days I’m a calmer birder, and I’ve discovered that I’ve also become a decent birder. Last week when I visited my sister Margaret, we went to a birding clinic at the local REI. The very young man who was conducting the clinic referred to the birds as “kids,” which was absolutely charming. At the end of the session he ran through a series of bird slides and let us try to ID them, and I found that I knew a lot more than I didn’t know. I’m still stymied by a lot of the gulls, and most sparrows and warblers tend to fall into the LBJ (that’s birder-speak for “Little Brown Jobs”) category for me, but I can now ID a new bird with a certain level of serenity. I miss the old excitement a bit, when all birds were new to me and every bird was fodder for the Life List – but now I’m like the woman in San Francisco, to whom the birds are old friends, to be recognized without guides and without binoculars.