NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 5, 2013

Reflections on a birding year

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Many birders keep a year list, a tally of the number of species that they see throughout the year. It is a way to measure personal achievements, or to reflect on the year that was.

Doug Chickering, of Groveland, reflects on 2012:

“Lois Cooper and I were out today (Jan. 1) to open the year. Last night the record was swept clean, and now we have started our yearly list again as we have done together for the last 20 years, and as I have been doing for the last three decades.

“In the sweep of our nature ending of the year, our starting anew is, of course arbitrary — as are most of the forms in birding. And even though it carries no meaning for the creatures we passionately pursue, it has a great deal of meaning for us. As humans we attempt to press order upon this disorderly natural world. It gives us clarity, it gives us the sense of satisfaction of knowing what is transpiring before us, and it makes no difference that it is largely illusory.

“Before we started out, Lois and I took a few minutes to reflect upon what we experienced in 2012. Last year I managed to add no birds to my life list, one bird to my North American life list and two birds to my Massachusetts life list — all very modest gains. To my most important life list, my Plum Island list, the advance was more remarkable. Four birds added to that list during a year that I expected one at the most.

“Of course my birding life is more than the accumulation of ticks and the filling in of blanks. My sharpest recollections sometimes seem to have no understandable origin and I don’t expect that the things that animate my memory would do the same for others. I think I can remember every red-headed woodpecker I have ever seen, this includes two from this past year. The adult clinging to a snag at the New England Biolabs that gave me only flashes of its spectacular head in the uncertain light, the juvenile I came across in the S curves on Plum Island is memorable for the surprise of unexpected discovery, and the Prothonatary Warbler at J. B. Little Road, was one of those reminders that some bird’s beauty is transcendent. It can never really be captured for long in the mind’s eye nor duplicated by any photograph.

“The yellow on a prothonatary warbler is one of those features that qualify. It is one of those transient experiences that is so common to birding and something that has to be renewed periodically to be fully appreciated. I can clearly remember the early morning in May when I got my scope on a Seaside Sparrow, perched precariously on a blade of sea grass. It was throwing its head back to call out with its peculiar “click burr” call. I can remember a kindly, excited stranger pointing out a gloriously marked bay-breasted warbler high in the trees at the “Quiet Please” spot at Hellcat on Plum Island — just before he took one step backwards too many and plunged off the boardwalk.

(“I’m all right! I’m all right!” he assured us. “Get on that bird.” Having made the unwilling sacrifice, he wanted to be sure his effort wasn’t wasted. A nice bird, a true birder.)

“There was the marbled godwit that slipped through the corner of my vision at Stage Island in late May. May is not a time I expect to see godwits. Marbled godwit is not a regular visitor to Essex County, and I got the merest glimpse of it as it flew by; yet deep down inside I immediately knew what it was.

“I do not consider myself a top birder at all; but sometimes I surprise myself. It is most gratifying.

“There was the barred owl that flew directly at me from the far side of a small clearing at Hellcat. A few days earlier it was a Plum Island life bird, I would eventually see it four times. I also reflect upon the regular, expected events of the year; the events that arrive at the right time every year but remain spectacular: the tree swallow staging in August and early September, any good warbler day anywhere, peep sandpipers and their associates piling in to doze and feed at Bill Forward Pool or Sandy Point at the Refuge on late summer on Plum Island, the blue-winged warbler, the yellow-throated vireo, even the warbling vireo, that show up at Lois and my special places every year — these are the moments of the past year that I remember right now.

“As time passes, I know this will change. I doubt if any birder out there has the identical sharp memories of the events of the past year, but I am sure that we all can reflect with pleasure upon what has excited us these last months.”

It’s cold outside and now we start over. The music never stops.

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.