Somewhere in the deep recesses of my email inbox, there’s a reply to an email I sent to my friend JZ a few years back, regarding Mount Auburn Cemetery in the springtime. Beautiful though it may be, I told her, spring was my least favorite time to visit, since spring was when my beautiful and quiet refuge would be full of obsessive birders on the lookout for migrant warblers. I allowed that I’d be happy when the visitors, avian and otherwise, had pushed off, so I could have the place back to myself, for my purposes. Which was strictly to mosey about with my eyes peeled for coyotes and foxes and hawks and owls, and to skip all the fuss about these flittery little passers-through. JZ shot back a response that was just this side of: Dear One, Please get your Head out of your Ass. On the kinder side, I mean. She sent me photos of a dozen amazingly beautiful birds I might see if I just showed up. She implored of me that I give it a try.
Well, okay. As Woody Allen says, 90% of life is showing up.
And so, I went. At first I took my birding book, and after awhile I just ripped out the warbler pages and stuck them in my back pocket, for quick reference. I even signed up for some early morning outings with Audubon groups and knowledgeable guides. As I followed along, I learned how to look for movement with my eyes and raise up my binos to the spot where the bird might still be. I also got good at guessing which birders would be happy to school me about what they were training their magnifiers on. Guys with tripods and massive lenses festooned in cammo print are generally happy to share their knowledge, and often, a peek through their spotting scopes. Which, alas, only work for birds that sit still. It didn’t take long to figure out that the sorts that migrate through are not inclined to pose. You need to be able to follow them through the foliage, catch what glimpses you can of their wing bars and eye rings. And, boy oh boy, does it ever help to know their songs.
Here’s where I’ve come to realize that I will never be an expert birder. Because when it comes to identifying birds, if you can’t recognize the songs, you’re disadvantaged, to say the least. And in this regard, I am beyond debilitated. I not only can’t remember the song of a warbler that passes through twice a year, I can’t even remember what the birds around me every day sound like. Honestly, I’ve searched in branches over my head to figure out what marvelous creature was singing to me, only to have to remind myself, over and over again: ah, yes. The robin. Must try to remember that song.
I’ve even coined a name for what I’ve got: Audio Avian Alzheimer’s. Because I’m like that old coot at the doctor’s office, given a list of words to remember, having a 30 second conversation about blood pressure meds, then being asked to repeat back that list of nouns. Bird songs just flush straight through my gray matter. I hear them, I try to remember some identifying trait, and I lose them, just like that. I have no capacity whatsoever to hold onto the songs of the migrants. It’s like being color blind to azure skies, or having no sense of smell for lily-of-the-valley. What good is a sense if it only works for the more mundane sounds in this life?
So, despite JZ’s entreaty that I avail myself to the wonderfulness that is the Mt. Auburn Cemetery in May, I am still a little overwhelmed when the place is packed with knowledgeable birders, and when I am frustratingly aware that I can’t tell what I’m looking for. As a result, I tend to do my springtime birding at my reservoir, where the runners and dog-walkers outnumber the card-carrying life-list birdophiles.
But then, just a few weeks back, I got an email from another college friend, another gifted artist and birder. (Question for another day: why do I know so many world class birder/artists? Maybe I’d feel like I was a better birder if I didn’t know how high the bar can be set.) “You’ve probably already heard,” Jim’s email began, then went on to describe the FORK TAILED FLYCATCHER, a vagrant from South America, spotted in my beloved cemetery, in my home town. The capital letters are his, not mine. (Another question for another day: Why is it that, when a memo or email starts out, “As you surely know,” or, “You’ve probably already heard,” I, more often than not, don’t know, and haven’t heard? Is this the price I pay for not being on Facebook?) Clearly, this was the sort of opportunity that sets a true birder’s heart aflutter. I needed to go, even if this creature was way beyond my realm, geographic or otherwise. That it happened to stop in at the height of warbler season was just something I’d have to get over.
I never did see that remarkable creature, though I shadowed some folks who seemed to have good intel about where it had last been sighted. I was a day late, alas, and a flycatcher short. And as on safari, when there are no lions or leopards or elephants or rhinos about, you’d best find something else worth looking for, or your day will feel like a bust. So a-warbling I went.
I headed off in a direction that would provide me with some privacy, someplace where I could line up my binoculars in the direction of robins, and hope to photograph some lovely unfurling ferns and flowering trees if all else failed. Bless their little hearts, the folks at the Mt. Auburn Cemetery have labeled all most everything that grows up out of the ground. Would that they could get the feathered visitors to wear nametags.
Turns out, I do know black and white warblers, and when they turn their tail feathers to me, I can spot a yellow-rumped warbler with the best of them. Those were the two varieties I kept seeing, over and over that day, in the absence of foreign flycatchers. I couldn’t tell what else I was hearing, other than the human couple I kept bumping into, speaking in hushed tones about Nashvilles and Yellow Throats and Blackburnians. I was feeling hopeless about what else I might successfully identify on my own, beyond the possibility of a showy scarlet tanager or a Baltimore oriole, both the sorts of birds that you just know when you see. I can almost identify an oriole song, in that it’s a pretty song, and I know it’s not something I regularly hear. I have only slightly overcome my audio Alzheimer’s by dividing my birding world into the songs I hear all the time, even if I can’t remember who sings them, and the songs that sound vaguely different. Not much help this day.
And then. Oh. My. Goodness.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Wilson’s Warbler. Which is now in my pantheon of Warblers I Have Figured Out, All On My Own. Bless this little creature, he practically came out and serenaded me. He sat where I could see him. He brought friends. He repeated his tune, over and over, while I rifled through the Cornell Ornithology web page on my exceedingly smart phone and finally landed on their audio link to the Wilson’s Warbler’s song. And dang if their sample wasn’t singing the same tune as this little guy. Okay, not that photo, but one just as lovely, and similarly willing to be identified.
Truth is, I may have seen a Wilson’s Warbler before. If I had, it could only have been when I was with someone who knew what we were looking at. That’s another thing about my birding skills, which mimics my driving/navigation skills, namely: if I’m not at the wheel, I don’t remember the way, or any of the landmarks along the way. With birds, the ones I figure out on my own are the ones I own. Which, given my audio handicap, is a challenge.
Needless to say, I left Mt. Auburn that day, hardly caring that I hadn’t spotted the rare and vagrant fork-tailed flycatcher. I now owned the Wilson’s Warbler. I’ll know that one anywhere, forever after. That one, I’ve got for keeps.