April 2017

Vol. 45, No. 2

Musings: The Far Side of Birding

Martha Steele

One of my favorite cartoons in the daily newspaper from years ago was Gary Larson’s The Far Side, in which Larson humorously depicted humans from the animal’s point of view. Would we dare take a stab at what birds might think of us birders?

You might put yourself in the feet of a spring migrant arriving at Mount Auburn Cemetery after a long overnight journey, headed to its favorite spot a little farther to the north to await its mate. Perhaps this individual could hear the chirps, calls, and songs of all its cousins with whom he traveled, though he heard only a few of his fellow Cape May Warblers during the flight and, right at that moment, none around him. We also could imagine the bird eagerly dropping into this oasis of greenery, flowers, ponds, and, most importantly, food, in the middle of so many buildings and hard surfaces devoid of anything to nourish it.

It is early May, and we birders know what happens to Mount Auburn Cemetery at that time of year. So let us switch this view from us birders to the one we might imagine from the bird’s point of view.

As the sky brightened, I was ready to get going and find some food. I was also ready to sing and let all know of my presence, especially those other competitive males who might encroach upon my space. There were lots of others much like me in this particular tree, but I didn’t see nor hear any other Cape May, which was just fine with me. I was happy to enjoy the bounty of food and occasionally stop and sing.

This was at least the sixth season I had landed here in this wonderful spot. So I was prepared when I heard commotion below me.

“Did you hear that? What do you think it is?”

“Huh? I didn’t hear anything.”

“Listen. There, it sang again.”

“[Expletive.] I can’t hear that. What is wrong with my hearing?”

“It is somewhere up there. Maybe it’s a Baybreast?”

I stopped for a minute and stared at the two older men below me jockeying for position down on the ground. I then saw a young woman running toward where we were, shouting, “Cape May! Cape May!” Before I knew it, people with things hanging around their necks and slung over their shoulders were rushing to see, apparently, me.

But of course, I had seen this before on my previous journeys. I knew the drill, so I continued to feed and sing. Whenever I flitted into the open, there was a collective gasp, tingling excitement, nonstop click-click-click-click of all sorts of devices, some fitting in the palm of a hand and others appearing about a thousand times bigger than me. Most of the time, I could not see the faces of those below me, hidden as they were by double cylindrical things that reflected the sunlight back to me. I could not laugh too much at all this commotion because they were, after all, extremely complimentary of my gorgeous looks.

I was puzzled by the occasional person who was saying a lot of not-so-nice words as he fumbled with one of his devices. I guess he just couldn’t get the thing to work, and I wasn’t helping matters by not staying in one spot all the time like a nice cooperative fellow should do.

At one point, I hid a bit behind some foliage, able to see those below me while they could not see me. In addition to the original two older gentlemen whom I first saw trying to identify or even hear me, I saw a couple frantically turning pages in a little book, talking with animation to each other, trying, I must say not too well, to describe how I looked. There were also several people holding something in their hands, tapping their fingers or swiping across the surface, and then appearing to triumphantly put the thing in their pocket as they walked away with a smug air of satisfaction at having checked that one off. Then, there was a gentlemen who seemed to be some sort of authority on me and my cousins. He was describing my beautiful looks very well and could even espouse a bit on all the parts of my, ahem, wimpy song. All those around him seemed to be listening intently, hanging on his every word. He must have been someone very important.

Then, I heard a funny sound, sort of like an owl, which I sure hoped it was not, especially in this tree where I was feeding and hiding at the moment. I was about to get the heck out of there when I noticed yet another person curling his lips and uttering these eerie guttural sounds that I had mistakenly thought might be a real owl. Now, he was not very nice to interrupt my pleasant morning and put a real scare into me, so I decided not to budge and reward his behavior.

But in due time, I resumed my feeding, and the crowd that had almost given up suddenly came to life again. “There it is!” I was enjoying the attention and at the same time disappointed at some who gave me only a quick glance before moving away. Why didn’t they spend a little more time enjoying me in all my splendor?

I spent the rest of the day feeding and singing in this and nearby trees. I was never alone, joined by my cousins and constantly interrupted by all those gadget-carrying folks below me. As the skies darkened, I got ready to continue my journey northward, knowing that perhaps the most perilous parts of my journey were over. I hoped to be joined soon in the north by my mate and be left alone to defend my territory and just plain survive. I know I am a beautiful little thing but I am always amazed at the excitement I seem to generate among these people. Of course, not everyone is breathless at the sight of me. A few times, I noticed folks walking nearby without any of those silly gadgets, asking what was going on. Learning that a small, hard-to-see bird was captivating the audience, they smiled weakly, disappointed that it wasn’t something really cool, like an owl or a fox, and moved on. But I do appreciate how much in demand I seem to be, and I have to admit, I would miss these crazy folks if they didn’t greet me so warmly and enthusiastically every time I land in this magnificent place.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at <>.

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