Why the regular morning birdwalk may be one of the most important things we birders do
Published: October 21, 2011
|The parking lot at the Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Migratory Preserve was bustling. Given the hour, the activity was incongruous. Two miles away, at the town’s B&Bs, most vacationers were still in bed or just sitting down to breakfast.|
But here, people were rummaging through trunks, cramming granola bars into mouths, familiarizing themselves with loaner binoculars, or just waiting for order to be established.
I was one of those standing around. I was also, as the Monday-morning birdwalk’s official leader, the one responsible for establishing order.
Does the burden of leadership fall heavily upon me? Nah, I’ve been leading birdwalks for over 30 years. It’s as regular as nine to five (except the walk is scheduled for 7:30 to 9:30). But the pleasure I get from leading has never diminished.
My Monday-morning engagement with the birding community continues to be the highlight of my week. I am not alone in this regard. Birders whose skill and enthusiasm propels them to the head of the line can be found all over North America. They are the shock troops of birding. Its ambassadors, too.
Head of the line
In most places, field trips enjoy an air of comfortable routine. My walk is a little different. Here it is common for most patrons to be new to the area, if not new to birding. On every walk, one or three or nine people will be training binoculars on birds for the first time.
They are nervous, intimidated, strangers in a strange land. It’s the job of every leader to make newcomers feel comfortable and to ensure that they have an exciting and engaging experience. Because they are paying customers? No, because having a poor experience probably will mean that their first birdwalk will also be their last.
It’s a disservice to them and a loss to birding and... many, perhaps most, birders can trace association with the birding community to a walk that exceeded expectations and had them coming back for more.
It’s a great institution, one that lies at the heart of our tribal culture. And what happens in tribal societies is that those who are followers gain in experience and skill and graduate, ultimately, to the position of leaders — that is, the ones at the head of the line.
I was a little different in this regard; I started at the head of the line. It happened a long time ago.
If truth be told, I wasn’t exactly a standout student in the third grade. Regimentation troubled me. Almost every subject (except art) bored me. And sports... Well, if I’d been able to go out and enjoy recess now and again, I might have been a fairly decent kickball player.
As it was, I spent about 25 minutes of every 30-minute recess filling a blackboard with inane and unheeded promises like “I must be good. I must be good. I must be good” or “I must not talk in class. I must not talk in class. I must not...”
I probably enjoyed less than half a dozen full half-hour recesses my whole third-grade year. So it came as a matter of profound joy when one beckoning spring day, Ms. X told us to close our books; we were all going for a nature hike.
So there I was, one of 30 or so eight- or nine-year-olds, gaily kicking along the woodland edge that bracketed the clipped lawn surrounding Memorial School. I don’t know what the other kids were doing, but I was birding — that is, I was looking for birds. The term birding hadn’t been coined yet.
And since it was May and northern New Jersey is a pretty bird-rich place, it wasn’t long before I found one: a Brown Thrasher, a dapper, chestnut-backed, spot-breasted mimid with beady yellow eyes and a downturned bill.
A sharp downturned bill, I might add. Did you know that incubating Brown Thrashers will actually peck you on the nose if you part the outer layer of a bush and stick your face inside to see if nesting birds are hiding there? Well, they do.
So there I was, ignoring and being ignored by all the kids around me, watching the Brown Thrasher singing from an exposed branch, when Ms. X asked: “Does anybody know what kind of bird this is?”
Nobody did. That didn’t surprise me; what did surprise me was Ms. X’s evident confusion. Teachers were always asking questions they already knew the answers to; this time, a teacher was stumped.
I raised my hand. “It’s a Brown Thrasher,” I confirmed.
I think everyone gasped.
“Why, Peter,” Ms. X exclaimed, “do you know birds?”
A pivotal question. A real put-you-on-the-spot question. Back in a time when you traded away a Roger Maris baseball card and never gave it a second thought, birdwatching wasn’t exactly on a par with kickball (or even hopscotch) when it came to gaining social acceptance from peers. I could lie and say no (and maintain my dignity) or tell the truth and face the consequences: Snickers. Ostracism. Getting picked last when kickball teams were being chosen.
Oh well. Kickball was pretty boring, after all, not anywhere near as cool as watching birds. “Yes,” I said.
Ms. X beamed. “Could you show us some more?”
The next thing I knew, I was at the head of the line, pointing out birds — and realizing that my classmates were crowding around, eager to see whatever my eyes happened to find and my skills allowed me to identify. I even heard a few oohs and ahhs.
Imagine that. Or maybe... well... of course! Shucks. Nothing to it. Why, I’ve been watching birds ever since... Say, let me tell you about the time that I poked my nose into this bush and found myself eyeball to eyeball with a...
Sixteen years would pass before I went on another morning birdwalk — as a patron, not a leader. I’ll tell you about it another time.
But it wasn’t too long before I found myself back at the head of the line, directing eager eyes toward darting forms and developing the standard lines and techniques that I would employ for the rest of my life.
The next leg of the relay would begin in the South Cape May Meadows.
You can walk with Pete
Locations, dates, times, and prices of regular birdwalks led by Contributing Editor Pete Dunne and naturalists from the Cape May Bird Observatory are on the CMBO website:
Bird Cape May
At one time, I started morning field trips at 7:30 on the dot. I’m a little more laid back now. Tourist towns the world over have a sluggish time sense. It’s not called Cape Maybe for nothing.
So as the minute hand on my watch brushed and then passed the half hour, I took in the elements of the familiar drama forming around me. Associate naturalists were doling out loaner binoculars, and individuals standing off to the side were trying to gain a working familiarity with focus wheels and adjustable eyecups.
The patrons? A good mix, avid birders from other bird-filled corners of the world: a visitor from England, another from the Netherlands, two families, two mother-daughter duos, plus the regulars — and more cars were pulling in.
An Osprey was soaring over the lighthouse, but I decided to ignore it. It was too distant for satisfaction, and too much was going on at the moment for distractions. An incoming flight of egrets was different — dramatic enough and proximal enough to start the walk with a bang and meld the group with a sense of shared gratification.
“You know,” I shouted (to be heard over the oohs and ahhs), “a hundred years ago, we’d all be jumping up and down and screaming at the top of our lungs to witness something like this. Egrets were extirpated from New Jersey, gone. After a century of conservation-mindedness, egret populations are now once again healthy and...”
I wonder when I first started using this line. Somewhere in the last three decades is about the best I can say.
I wonder whether in a hundred years the morning birdwalk will still be part of birding’s culture. Hope so. Be hard to face a Monday morning without it.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009); Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006); Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.|
Read more by Pete Dunne.