NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 2, 2013

When Matilda came to visit

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — It is surprising how many rare or unusual birds show up at bird feeders. This month alone, a black-throated gray warbler visited a feeder in Taunton, a Cape May warbler was a regular visitor to a North Andover feeder, and a blue grosbeak still visits a feeder in Merrimac.

In recent years, boreal chickadees, Townsend’s warbler, Baltimore oriole, and even a rufous hummingbird were frequenting area feeders into the winter. If you are lucky enough to have a different bird show up in your yard, you then have to make the decision whether or not to share that bird with others. Depending on the rarity of the bird, you could have tons of birders stopping by to view it. At times, that can be a problem. In most cases, though, it becomes a rewarding experience for the homeowner. Dana Fox, and her husband Bob, hosted the Cape May Warbler in North Andover last month.

With Dana’s permission, I will share her sentiments on the experience:

“On Friday, Jan. 4 at 9:30 a.m. a ‘special’ bird arrived at our feeders. It was only a few days earlier that I had speculated with a good birding friend about what I would do if a ‘special’ bird arrived in my yard. As I recall now, I voiced a reluctance to have a raft of folks coming into my yard — both Bob and I are avid gardeners and are quite particular about our garden. Well, if you have been watching Massbird recently, it wasn’t more than a few minutes later (my email record says 9:34 a.m.) that I posted the arrival of the bird and began to make a few phone calls to nearby birding friends. Soon, she — who along the way became he, and then back to she — even had a name ‘Matilda.’

What has transpired since then is quite remarkable and should be noted. In three weeks, 85 guests of all ages came to see her and none went away disappointed. The birding community was gracious, thoughtful, generous and encouraging. The only ground rules that I set up were that people needed to call and set up an appointment, and that they had to take off their boots when coming indoors. We decided that viewing the bird from our kitchen window, since the feeders are right out the window and there are no other real first floor options, was the best idea — besides it was warm. A white (yes, white!) tile kitchen floor would survive if boots were removed.

Being encouraged to be especially tidy in my kitchen and breezeway wasn’t such a bad idea either. I decided folks would have to adjust to us eating breakfast or lunch, and me in my bathrobe (never Bob!) if circumstances prevailed. Somehow, Christmas decorations got put away.

My vivid memories include: generous visitors coming, some bearing meal worms or peanut butter, or leaving funds for her care; exchanging so many wonderful birding memories with our visitors; observing her plumage in infinite detail and her distinctive behavior while far from her normal Caribbean wintering home; phone calls, ideas on how best to care for her, even a godmother; emails of encouragement and interest; showing our array of feeders and log rolling plastic bottles to all assembled; finding other good birds in the yard with our guests while they waited; pictures shared, trying to track her progress, comparing her to last year’s Odione, N.H. male; sharing recipes and serving soup and drinks; international gatherings on some days; old friends coming and meeting so many fellow birders — some new to birding, some old hands, and some young birders so enthusiastic and bright; getting to know the other current North Shore host family (the Buxtons of Blue Grosbeak fame); being totally overwhelmed by how many people have read my posts and have been tracking her progress; fretting over how she would survive in the bitter cold, and watching how I, the Jewish mother with no qualifications, and Bob, the much more reserved of the two of us, adapted to a very different life. A birding adventure pulls us away for a few weeks but my heart will remain here. Rest assured, I have arranged for her to be fed.”

Yes, hosting a “special” bird can be a positive experience, I know and hope that it can be for all who choose to share those special moments.

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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.