THE MIRROR OF FORTY YEARS OF BIRDING
What reflections should occur upon realizing that I have been birding forty years? What real accomplishment has come from keeping lists, reporting strays, counting total species perceived in 24-hour periods, noting which individuals fly north too early or are too late flying south? Has it all been worth hundreds of miles of huffing, puffing and perspiring, dozens of soakings, multiplicities of frost-nipped toes, fingers, noses and ears, and countless other hardships? After so long, it's time for a comprehensive evaluation.
Alas, my achievements have all been ephemeral. Who now remembers my great triumph of May, 1950, when the whole field trip challenged my three Golden Plovers at Plum Island, Massachusetts, only to learn later that Ludlow Griscom had also reported them? How many readers of old local bird club newsletters will ever take serious note that I found a Ruff on Long Island in 1957, a Scissor-tailed Flycather in South Carolina in 1960, a White-winged Dove in Wyoming in 1973, etc? Who cares that Paul Buckley, Pete Isleib, Ned Boyajian and I once recorded 183 species on a New Jersey Big Day in the late fifties? Or that the Kansas City (Southeast) Christmas Count (which I compile) was highest in Missouri two years in a row in 1983 and 1984? Birding achievements fly away faster than birds do.
I must also admit that, for all I have seen and learned in forty years, I have never made it past the bush leagues as a competitive birder. After all, what's a misguided White-winged Dove compared to a disoriented Western Reef Heron, a bewildered (and sexually miscegenated) Flame-colored Tanager or a totally confused Little Curlew? What did we ever do in New Jersey that hasn't been excelled several times over by Emanuel, et al., in Texas, and McCaskie, et al., in California, not to mention other luminaries who have since shined more brightly in New Jersey itself? What can I ever expect to achieve in Missouri and Kansas, or even on occasional forays farther afield, that Larry Balch cannot outdo in a single day on Attu Island? While I dream of getting my ABA area life list to 600 before my hearing and eyesight fail completely, hundreds of farther ranging competitors have long since passed that goal and are working on 700, maybe even 800 someday. While I write checks for my daughters' college education, the big leaguers are paying enormous phone bills for calls to hotlines and buying plane tickets to peripheral parts of the country to nab first and second Rufous-capped Warblers, Rustic Buntings, Crimson-collared Grosbeaks and La Sagra's Flycatchers.
Nor can I claim to be truly world class at identification. While the top rankers are using their Questars to separate various stints from Westerns and Semis by the absence of half webs between their toes, my 30-year old balscope and I still have trouble with male Westerns and female Semis. No matter how high I turn up my hearing aid, I still cannot hear Golden-crowned Kinglets, Blackburnians and creepers, much less differentiate obscure chip notes. I can usually tell a Roughleg from a Redtail by "gestalt" or "jizz," but, if an immature Parasitic or Pomeraine Jaeger were suddenly to swoop by, I'd be wanting a second swoop.
If ABA had a computer as ATP does, Benton Basham might be Ivan Lendl and Joe Taylor, Jimmie Connors, but I would only be Bob Fisher. I figure I'd be about No. 2384 in the US. The fact that I am equidistant from the big boys in annual expenditures would hardly excuse my low ranking. After forty years of trying to better myself, I qualify only for satellite events in the Corn Belt.
Why do I go on? That is hardest of all to explain. The obvious answer--that a bush leaguer can love a sport as much as a champion--is not really sufficient. If I ever looked intensely in the mirror and told myself the truth, "You're really only No. 2384," my ego might recoil from further comparisons. However, like an alcoholic's, my denial system insulates me from the harsher realities. I live for hopes and dreams and respond to irrational appetites. As I glance at my feeder for the five thousandth time, I hope, "Maybe one of those siskins is a redpoll." As I head for Lake Jacomo (stands for "Jackson County, Mo."), I wonder, improbably, "Will there be a rare gull there today?"
To fantasies I add memories. The excitement of my first Snowy Owl on a desolate sand dune. After hours of stalking with a flashlight in a Spartina bog, my first Black Rail huddled directly below me (between my feet!). A jaeger dogfighting a tern. A Peregrine stooping while thousands of shorebirds take flight. The peace and beauty of Soras calling in a cattail marsh at dawn. Western Meadowlarks singing on the prairie at dusk. A Wood Thrush announcing the end of a rain shower.
Was it J. Alfred Prufrock who had counted out his life in coffee spoons? I've done better than that. I've counted out forty years of eager anticipations and magic moments. Indeed, forty years' habituation has put me beyond rehabilitation. However, intangible the results, I see no happier alternative than to keep wondering, "Is this the day that Jacomo finally will produce?"
------------------------------------------------------------ The Audubon Society of Missouri's Wild Bird Discussion Forum Questions or comments? Email the list owners: mailto:[log in to unmask]