August 7, 2020
BIRDERS AND OTHERS
By Rick Wright
Like many of you, I got into birding seriously just before becoming a teenager, and my interest really took off in high school. My science lab partner was being taught to bird by his mother, and few were the weekends that they failed to generously invite me along—fewer still the times that I failed to remind them to please invite me along. At the same time, my family moved across town and across habitats, from what had historically been tallgrass prairie, then more immediately corn, to a newly developed area smack dab in the middle of the narrow band of eastern deciduous forest fingering up the Missouri River into Nebraska. As a newly minted birder, and with the help of Alan and his mother, Betty, I noticed the difference: Red-headed Woodpeckers were now joined by Hairy and Red-bellied woodpeckers, and the American Tree Sparrows and juncos I’d grown up with on the southern edge of town had new company each spring and fall in the form of those tiny colorful sprites called warblers. It was an eye-opener.
My family’s move took me not just towards something new but away from an advantage I hadn’t really appreciated. For all those years our next-door neighbor had been a birdwatcher; indeed, Ruth was the very doyenne of regional birding. Once we’d moved away, I remembered that, and eventually screwed up the courage to call her and ask if perhaps, just perhaps, she might be willing to let Alan and me, two twelve-year-old kids, help her out in her other major field of activity, bird banding. She said yes, and when I remember those days, as I so fondly do, I always sense the phantom weight of clusters of metal poles on my shoulder. We had great adventures, some of them verging on the uncanny.
That first winter of my serious birding life, one of the feeders I set up was a section of broad plank balanced on a tree stump pedestal. I had figured out just how much sunflower seed the birds and Eastern Fox Squirrels would consume in a day, and rose early one morning to sprinkle those few pounds on the board: no reason to put out too much and reward the raccoons of night. As soon as I was back in the house and at the window, the birds returned: Black-capped Chickadees, Harris‘s Sparrows, Northern Cardinals. And suddenly a great chunky thing the color of ice and winter sunshine—an Evening Grosbeak, a bird already then, in the late 1970s, becoming scarce in eastern Nebraska after decades of relative abundance.
Dreaming, as young boys infected by the banding bug do, of getting to catch and handle the bird, I watched it for a while and then went to the kitchen to call Ruth, in hopes that she would be able to bring a potter trap and band the grosbeak. As soon as she picked up the phone, before I could get out anything more than a greeting, she told me excitedly that she had just had a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the nets in her yard, a bird she had never had in the hand. She finished and I prepared to announce my surprise: Guess what’s at my feeder? Ruth screamed into the phone, “Evening Grosbeak!” I was befuddled: how did she know? She didn’t know, of course; but while we were talking, a grosbeak had, as we inelegantly put it, hit the net in her yard. My bicycle and I were there in time to see the big-billed creature banded and released.
Thanks to Alan, Betty, and Ruth, I was soon enough “plugged in” to our small local birding community for Christmas Counts, rarity chases, spring big days, and all the events, planned and delightfully unplanned, that punctuate the birder’s year. More surprising, though, as I look back, and just as memorable, were the ways in which birding changed my connections to non-birders—and those I thought might be non-birders.
My two-mile walk home in high school took me past our town’s cemetery, magnificently perched on a bluff high above the Missouri River. I often stopped in to bird briefly. One late winter’s afternoon, as the sun was nearing the western horizon, I was methodically checking the conifers when a police car pulled up beside me. What was I doing? I could hardly tell the truth: saying that I was in search of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers seemed unlikely to win much sympathy. And there were no other birds in sight. I mumbled something about eagles as he escorted me out the cemetery gate. Over the years, encounters with the police have become a regular, happily not frequent, part of my birding life, and even in the tensest such moments, the memory of me as a thirteen-year-old weighing whether or not to tell the truth in a twilit cemetery puts it all in a humorous perspective.
My biology and environmental studies teacher, Mr. Hartel, was an out-and-out birder, and I owe him my first breathtaking experiences with Sandhill Cranes, prairie-chickens, and Sharp-tailed Grouse. Even when they didn’t produce such thrilling sightings as those, many of the localities he introduced us to on field trips became favorites I visited again and again in years to come. More importantly, he was also the first to teach me that birding could not just co-exist with other intellectual pursuits and obligations, but could be integrated into them, creating a sum much greater than its parts. If any individual from among my many “mentors” is to be credited, or blamed, for the way I’ve come to cobble together a living, it is Hartel.
Another of my teachers, Mr. Morey, had a terrifying reputation for sternness, a reputation that preoccupied me much of the summer before I started his course in high school chemistry. And he was all business in class—except in the spring. Mr. Morey was also an outdoorsman, with a fondness for birds, and one of my warmest high school memories is of him pausing in his lecture every single time the newly arrived Chipping Sparrow out the window would sing. “The valence of each element is”—tpttptptptp—“the measure of its capacity”—tpttptptptp—“to combine”—tpttptptp…. Mr. Morey was a great man, and it didn’t take long to realize that his daunting reputation was inspired by fear of the subject he taught so well and so kindly. I would have come to know that in any event, but birding gave us something tacitly shared.
Birding over these past 45 years has introduced me to a great many birds and a great many birders. That was predictable. But it is the unpredictable—from grosbeak synchronicities to nosy policemen to the glimpses into the heart of a beloved teacher—that keep me coming back.
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