A birder’s evolution is a lifeline connecting a series of memorable encounters, the points on a line that define a lifetime. For me, most if not all the interactive points involving birds were accidental, and the line is hardly straight. It zigs and zags like life itself and involves people as much as birds.
Now 71, with some 65 years of bird study logged, I find myself looking back upon those life-affirming encounters more than ahead to the next. Here is the sum of my harvest.
My life with birds began on a lackluster summer afternoon in suburban North Jersey. It was a day so dull, even the grass looked bored. Somewhere between lunch and dinner, I was sitting on our front steps when my neighborhood chum Donna came sprinting down the street, pigtails flying, knees flashing through jeans that had lost all dignity. Wearing a smile so wide it about parted her face, she was carrying something — a thing so important that she hugged it to her chest.
Coming to a halt, she struggled to catch her breath, then finally managed to exclaim, “Look what I got … [gasp, gasp] … for my birthday!”
In her arms were binoculars and a bird book with robins on the cover. “Wow,” I said, acutely aware of the milestone that had just been crossed. Not toys, not clothes, but real grown-up presents, and Donna just two years older than me. To a child, nothing in the universe is quite so important as growing up.
“Let’s go on a bird hike,” she encouraged.
“OK,” I agreed. “When?”
“Tomorrow,” she decreed with the confidence of an adult.
Knowing nothing about birds except that “the early bird catches the worm,” we resolved to start our adventure at first light.
Rising in the dark, I soon found myself standing on Donna’s front porch with stars still commanding the sky. She climbed out of her bedroom window (so as not to wake her parents), and we waited for dawn, then headed into “the big woods” behind our homes. Donna was wearing her new binoculars and carried the bird book snugged into a hip pocket. I was armed with the 6×24 binoculars my father had brought home from the war. He had taken them from a German soldier “who didn’t need them anymore.” I could use them if I promised to take care of them, which I did. And I do because those Carl Zeiss Jena binoculars remain in my care today because my father, too, doesn’t need them anymore.
I don’t recall all the marvels we found that day, but one of my most momentous birding encounters came that first summer of bird study, when I rounded a corner on the banks of the Third Brickyard Pond and found myself eyeball to eyeball with a Great Blue Heron. Too startled to move, the heron and I locked eyes and silently dared the other to make the next move. It was the bird that blinked first, spreading 6-foot wings and sailing off.
Curiously, my next memorable encounter also involved a large wading bird. On that occasion, running errands with my dad, we drove past a small pond, and there in the shallows was a large white bird that my bird book confirmed was an egret. This identification was verified the very next Sunday in Roger Barton’s weekly column on birdwatching in the old Newark Evening News. Someone else had reported the bird.
I was giddy with pride. A bird important enough to appear in a newspaper, and I had seen it.
My next epic moment came in the fourth grade when, on a morning flush with spring, our teacher, Mrs. Manning, told us to close our books because we were going for a walk.
As we approached the wall of trees bordering the schoolyard, Mrs. Manning’s stride was checked by the rambling song of a ruddy-backed, spot-breasted bird.
“Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?” she invited.
“It’s a Brown Thrasher,” I blurted.
“Do you know any other birds, Peter?”
My cover blown, I confessed that I did.
“Will you show us some?”
“Sure,” I said, exceedingly conscious of the fact that from this moment forward, I would be branded a “bird boy.” Not a cool thing in fourth grade.
But a minute later, I was at the front of the class, leading my first bird walk and being peppered with questions from classmates who seemed genuinely curious.
It would be wonderful to say that this moment of celebrity status put me on the path that led to my career with New Jersey Audubon. It did not and by high school, my interest in birds had given way to other fascinations.
It was not until I was out of college that a serendipitous experience put me back on the birding track. Having vacation time to burn, my then-girlfriend decided to drive to North Carolina’s Outer Banks (home to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge). Borrowing my field guide and binoculars, she returned a week later brimming with tales of her encounters with a host of wintering waterfowl, most of which I had never seen.
Piqued by jealousy, I suggested we drive back to Cape Hatteras the next weekend. Eight hours down, eight back. I drove to Hatteras eight times that year, overwhelmed by the volume of wintering waterbirds there, not realizing that bird-rich refuges existed in my home state of New Jersey. I concluded that bird study was, indeed, the career path I wanted to pursue, and my mostly unguided steps ultimately ferried me to Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary one blustery September day, a day rife with migrating hawks.
I knew nothing about hawk migration, so it was sheer luck that found me on the North Lookout, the site’s prime viewing spot. I watched darting Sharp-shinned Hawks, golden-eyed Osprey at eye level and close enough to smell the fish on their breath, and, of course, in September, swirling clouds of Broad-winged Hawks. As the sun set, the day’s last kettle of hawks swirled into the trees around the North Lookout. For precious moments, we few who remained found ourselves inside a kettle of Broad-wings. It remains the only time I have been so blessed.
Hiking down to my car in the dark, still awed by my experience, I made a promise. Somewhere, somehow, I was going to dedicate my life to hawk watching. It was a promise I mostly kept. Give or take a few forays into other bird families.
And I wonder now, writing that sentence, how many of today’s celebrated ornithologists and nature center naturalists owe their careers to a catalytic trip to Hawk Mountain or an equally amazing bird sanctuary.
The most recent point on my timeline with birds is this column, and it has led me precisely to you, reader. Writing, as I love to point out, is 50 percent reader. We’re partners, you and me. The next move is yours.
Maybe we should go on a bird hike?
This article was first published in the “Birder at Large” column in the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching.
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