It was meant to be a power walk, purely for exercise and Sunday morning fellowship with my spouse, but eventually my walk could not keep up with her power, and we separated, temporarily. Such a beautiful day it was, cool and crisp with just a hint of early fall color primarily in the sycamores and soybean fields. So there I was alone, in the midst of fall migration and great birding habitat, with no binoculars. It should not be a problem; this is what birders and observers of nature did for eons, pre-binocular. Just use your eyes, ears, and head, and pretend you are J. J. Audubon, absent the shotgun. And so I did.
The Blue Jays, Carolina Wren, Cardinal, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Catbird, and Tufted Titmouse were all easy audible “sightings”. The Mockingbirds and soaring vultures were all clearly visible to the naked eye, but it took a little more discernment to separate the Turkey from the Black at that elevation. It’s the herkie-jerkie nervous flight of the slightly larger TV that makes this distinction for me. The flushed Northern Flickers were ID’ed by the white rump and undulating flight. It was satisfying to use GISS, just like the experts, (general impression, size, and shape).
But about the time my spouse rejoined me I was beginning to miss my binoculars. Several active small birds were feeding in the roadside shrubs, grayish with lighter bellies; perhaps gnatcatchers, kinglets, or vireos. I would never know. Audubon would have shot them and figured it out later when he mounted the corpse in a life-like posture and prepared his paints and easel. I, on the other hand, had to just walk away and rejoin the conjugal power walk. It all got me thinking about the early days of birding and the historical milestones that have made it so much easier, more efficient and enjoyable today.
I cringe when I think of Audubon’s blasting birding and the sport of harvesting huge flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets in prior centuries, as if their numbers were infinite. At least Audubon only collected a few specimens and had their beauty and the advancement of science in mind. The other hunters were just out for a lark. Two things finally changed all that; binoculars and the Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The optics of the early binoculars or “field glasses” were not ideal. Available as early as the 16th century they gave an inverted image with just a small field-of-view. One can only imagine trying to bird using this glass. The right-side-up prism design used today was invented by Ignatio Porro in 1854, and the clarity of the image took a leap forward with the superb glass manufactured by Carl Zeiss, starting in 1894. At last the subtle field marks of the flitting, living birds in the treetops were visible without bringing the specimen down with buckshot.
The 1918 treaty between Canada, Great Britain, and the U.S. protecting birds was an interesting legal document. By using the international treaty format the federal government could override less stringent or contradictory state regulations. The law even disallows the collection of dead birds and their nests, feathers, and eggs, but does make numerous exceptions. Hunting game birds such as ducks, geese, and doves is understandably allowed, but surprisingly, other birds such as cranes, stilts, plovers, and sandpipers are not protected. Native Americans are given an exemption for religious reasons, but still, over 800 species are safer today due to this law.
With most birds protected, at least on this continent, and with excellent glass available, the time was ripe for Roger Tory Peterson’s first modern “Field Guide to the Birds” published in 1934. It was a hit, quickly selling out the first edition and has remained popular for many years in 5 subsequent editions. His skillful illustrations of the birds and his technique of pointing out their most significant field marks, revolutionized birding and introduced many new generations of birders to the hobby, including me. There are now innumerable similar guides covering every county, state, and country. I know; I own many, too many.
Guides also come in flesh and blood. These human experts, at least in today’s numbers, are a relatively new milestone of birding, and easily contacted and engaged on the internet. They have enhanced my birding life immeasurably, both domestically and overseas. Stateside this includes guides at Cape May, the Rio Grande Valley, and on Monterey Bay, and during international birding in Argentina, Italy, India, Panama, England, Finland, and Norway. Every one of these guides made the excursions productive and memorable.
My list of milestones is much longer, but unfortunately, including them all would make this post too long and unwieldy, but might be perfect for a Part II someday. It would include eBird and phone apps, efforts to protect habitats, photo-birding, and the proliferation of bird feeders and back-yard birders. I’m sure you can think of more milestones.
I lost a dear friend and neighbor today, not from the virus but rather succumbing to a far more sinister disease after a several year-long struggle to live. He was a fellow sailor and avid reader; a retired NASA engineer who used this same calm logic to cope with his illness, right to the end. He was not a birder per se but became a keen observer of the comings and goings of the Osprey to the platform he had constructed within easy view from his sunroom. My last conversation with him was in this sunroom. He expressed disappointment that the birds did not seem to breed successfully or raise a family this year. I reassured him that they were likely yearlings, practicing nest building and fishing, so next season, when they return, they could move up to the rigors of parenting. He seemed satisfied with that explanation and the testimony that life will go on. May he rest in peace.