I’ve been a beginning birder for almost 25 years. I recall the day I was charmed by a beautiful big blue bird chattering near my window. What could it be? Rolled eyes — “A blue jay.” For my birthday my sister and her family gave me a pair of Bausch & Lomb birding binoculars. I used them to watch the birds outside my window on West William street. Soon my favorite bird was the catbird. I have remained loyal to these sweet little gray birds as my official favorites, partly because they were so loyal, returning every year to the maple tree in my yard in the second or third week of May. The same pair, I am sure. I could also identify a cardinal and a crow and a sea gull. Except that I hadn’t yet learned that there is no such species as a “sea” gull.
Time flies, and if you participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, you might find yourself advancing beyond rank beginner status without actually meaning to. Last year, two other team members could easily distinguish between a house sparrow and a song sparrow, a surf scoter and a black one. I had never heard of a scoter. I was happy to find with my binoculars flocks that were far-away flecks on a gray-green Nantucket Sound, or a brownish midget hopping around deep in a thicket. I did, however, learn to identify all by myself the mergansers I saw during my walks along Lagoon Pond Road. I was so impressed by my expanding abilities that I decided to acquire a field guide to birds.
There are many excellent guides, many informative reviews. How to choose? The name Roger Tory Peterson had always appealed to me, so I looked there first. The sixth and most recent edition of his Birds of Eastern and Central North America appeared in 2010. The fifth, in 2002, was the last edition that Peterson worked on himself. “On the morning of July 28, 1996,” I read, “Roger Peterson was painting his final bird plate. He died peacefully in his sleep later that day.” I was taken aback — he had painted all the bird images himself? I had never stopped to consider where the pictures in field guides came from. Weren’t they just out there somewhere, available to anyone who cared to write the descriptive texts? Well, no. Roger Peterson, like Rachel Carson, “combin[ed] the tireless observation of a scientist with the imaginative skills of an artist and writer.” Peterson “had already made his mark with his innovative field guide when he conducted DDT research during World War II. His friend and fellow naturalist Rachel Carson built on these efforts and eventually wrote Silent Spring, a landmark text that, along with Peterson’s field guide, jump-started the modern environmental movement.” Any friend of Rachel Carson’s is a friend of mine. I ordered the fifth edition. It has six plates just of sparrows. On page xviii of the frontmatter is a reproduction of Peterson’s unfinished final plate, Accidental Flycatchers. It was like seeing the score where Bach’s quill fell forever silent.
For this winter’s Christmas Bird Count, last Saturday, I was the not-business end of a two-person team counting birds in a portion of Tisbury — although my all-wheel-drive vehicle did come in handy after the snowstorm. The team’s business end was Matt Pelikan. I packed my old binoculars and my new pocket field guide. Our circuit of Vineyard Haven harbor, which started at Beach Road by the bridge, ended on the terrace of a summer house at West Chop, where we stood in a biting breeze surveying a flock of sea ducks. “Harlequin duck, long-tailed duck, black scoter, female black scoter — brown,” intoned Matt. I saw a duck whose tail looked longer than the others. A long-tailed duck? My fingers were too numb to find the index page listing long-tailed duck, not to mention the page with the image. “The male black scoter has an orange bill,” said Matt. “On the near edge of the flock, in a line with the buoy.” I put down the book and looked through my binoculars again. Now I saw the bright orange flash of the male’s bill. The brown female black scoter was right behind him.
Soon we were at Hines Point. Matt gazed intently into a thicket that I walk by just about every day. “Yellow-rumped warbler, right there!” Where? Where? Warblers are heady stuff. They are so tiny. There are so many species. They are virtually invisible. They flit faster than a speeding bullet. “In the top twigs. There are two.” Now I had them in my binoculars. I felt a rush of gratitude toward these two little birds for remaining in a confined area, so that I actually got to see their yellow smudges when they hopped in certain directions.
We drove gingerly up Weaver Lane chunky with snow and parked at the Land Bank’s Ramble Trail Preserve. Right next to it is Brightwood Park, a Sheriff’s Meadow property I had never noticed. Under a cloudless sapphire sky, we made our way down into a deeply silent ravine where every trunk, twig, and rock bore an unmarred mantle of glittering snow. Here Matt spotted a flicker that perched huddled on a branch facing away so that I got a perfect view of the red spot above its dappled brown back. It turned its head to the right, showing its long woodpecker-type beak, then flew to a nearby tree with a hole in its trunk.
Off to Tisbury Meadows in search of bluebirds, which, per Peterson, prefer “open country with scattered trees; farms . . .” We didn’t see a bluebird, but I did hear a distant call. “Red-tailed hawk,” said Matt. Soon, in the distance, we spotted it soaring off toward Lambert’s Cove.
As the sun sank behind low banks of clouds, we wondered where we might still go for the day’s perfect last bird. At the end of Lake street, not far from the town dock, a lone loon created an elegant black silhouette against the pearly water as it cruised a small thawed area in stately solitude.
One more bird? We headed for Mink Meadows, parked, and walked slowly alongside a swampy thicket. We stopped and listened. It was very still in the winter twilight, with no birdcall, just the muffled continuous background murmur of seawater curling against the shore. Then I heard a very faint chuk. “Is that something?” Matt’s binoculars were already trained low in the thicket. “Hermit thrush.” I saw it, too. It switched its tail and disappeared into the deeper shadows. “I would have counted it just from the call,” said Matt. “I knew it was there. But it was nice to see it.”
Later, at the tally, when two dedicated birdwatchers asked what we had seen, I was careful to differentiate between what we saw and what I actually saw. For example, if a flock flew overhead in Nortons’ field and Matt said, “Seventeen robins and one eastern bluebird,” I didn’t say I saw robins and a bluebird.
I may be on the slippery slope that leads from the rank beginner plateau to who knows where. After I got home I cut Post-its into narrow strips, labeled them, and stuck them as markers on Peterson’s plates of the birds our team had counted that day. Then I turned to page 14, Life List, and started to check off the birds that I had actually seen.
Katherine Scott lives in Vineyard Haven.