Okay, dear readers, I know you all think I’m a decent human being. Cheerful, patient, helpful. I like to think so, too. But, truth be told, I have a snarky streak. And when my snarky side percolates up and leaks out, I inevitably shame myself. At this juncture, one of two things happens: I either come to my senses on my own, usually in short and embarrassed order, and try to mop up after my lousy first instinct, or am pointed in the right direction by some kindly soul—with luck, sooner rather than later. And yet, somehow, never soon enough. In the department of things I should definitely be work on, stifling the snark is a worthy goal.
Case in point: on a recent round-the-reservoir walk, I stopped in at the waterworks building, both to use the facilities and to check the community white board. That’s where far better birders than I make note of recent sightings. And given that I’m at that low-intermediate birding place, where a tiny bit of information about something just beyond my ken provides me with helpful hints for what to look out for, I’m always grateful to learn what my betters have seen. So, as I left the bathroom, I took a quick detour to see if any recent birders had written down anything of note. Here’s what I found:
Wow. W O W. I don’t even know where to begin with this. What attention! What precision! What tidy handwriting! This was the work of a master, way above my competence level. And while I was instantaneously amazed and grateful to have this list before me, the better to become a true birder in this master’s wake, I could feel the snarky thought bubbling up:
Well, yes, maybe. But as Mohammad Ali used to say, it ain’t bragging if you can do it. Or in this case, if you can spend a chunk of time and ID this many species, and are willing to take the time to see them, note them, and write them down for the edification of the likes of me, well then, wow.
But I hadn’t gotten there yet. I was stuck at snark.
With that quick cellphone camera shot, I sent the list to my friend JZ, a remarkable writer, artist and naturalist who counts birding amongst her many areas of expertise. My subject line? Dammit, I couldn’t stop myself: again, with the “Show Off” business. Why? Maybe I meant to be funny, meant to be self-deprecating, meant to be…oh, I don’t know. When I hit send, I figured she’d laugh with me at my consternation that someone could see so much where I saw so little.
What I got back from her stopped me in my tracks. JZ wrote to me in a matter of minutes, with a message that began, “Oh, this makes me so happy!” Huh? Not the reaction I was expecting. Snark generally breeds more snark. What was the meaning of this?
She went on to explain how the person who penned this list (and who, blessedly, signed his name to it) was a mentor of hers in her college days, more than three decades ago. Once upon a time, when JZ was a lowly undergrad, wandering around in a favorite cemetery that also serves as a migrant songbird stopover, she happened upon a group of binocular-wielding women, all atwitter, and wondered what the fuss was about. Turns out, there was a vagrant Townsend’s warbler, blown off course from the west, that had wandered into an obliging Norway spruce tree nearby. What JZ quickly learned was that the chief bird club biddie would point you in the direction of the visiting warbler, but only if you were a card-carrying member of their group. If not, be on your way, no insider info proffered.
That was when my dear college friend, rebuffed and confused, came nearly immediately under the wing, literal and figurative, of this man—the guy who’s still at it, all these years later. He saw her, realized what had happened, and took her to see that unlikely off-course specimen, bless his heart. He also told her to pay those biddies no mind. Pettiness had no place in his birding world, then as now. Sharing with anyone who was interested most certainly did. JZ learned that from him on Day One, and she’s been sharing that notion for her entire adult life.
As has he, apparently.
JZ wrote that I should find this Audubon zen master and make his acquaintance, letting him know that I’m a friend of hers. I feel so entirely unworthy, I’m not sure I even dare. But I do know that even at my lowly level, I adore more than anything showing a screech owl to someone who would have never noticed it. I love handing my binos over to any passer-by who seems willing to take them and get a better view. When I run into someone coming the other way round the reservoir, binos in hand, I make sure to tell them if I’ve seen something noteworthy, and where. I can’t even imagine not wanting to help someone who cares about the birds, even the slightest little bit. I know I’d be nowhere without JZ’s encouragement around figuring out what’s in my world, bird-wise. And I suspect I’d still be in that snarky place, had she not told me this remarkable story.
So, thank you for that, dear JZ, and thank you, my reservoir birding master. I’ll try to be better, do better, in the departments of increasing my waterfowl and migrant songbird knowledge, and reducing my sarcasm.
First on my list: I’m off to find a Swainson’s thrush.