, Newburyport, MA

May 6, 2013

And I always hear them singing

As I See It
Jack Garvey

---- — Outside my kitchen window this morning, pecking at the ground, is a bird about the size and color of a football speckled with black, some gray feathers underneath.

Would go unnoticed if not for a bright red strip the size of a wristwatch on the back of its neck.

Meanwhile, in the marsh across Sunset Boulevard, a blue heron and an egret seem to have moved in together.

Are they related or are they having an inter-speciel affair?

Such things I ponder on my daily walk into the Plum Island Reserve.

The beach is already closed to protect the nests of piping plovers, and so I leave it at Parking Lot One where a group of birders are taking the platform overlooking the shore with mounted cameras that do resemble cannons with or without the brand name.

They welcome me as if they assume that high-powered field glasses and “Sibley’s Manual” are tucked under my windbreaker.

Overhearing mention of long-tailed duck, cormorants and loons, red-throated and common, I stand behind 15 people on a deck not much bigger than the Screening Room stage.

A man with an Audubon jacket narrates and points as if he is indeed on stage. I wait for a pause before describing that football-sized bird. Without hesitation he calls it a northern flicker, and just as soon another birder holds open his “Sibley’s” in front of me.

No question about it, nor would any be heard as he announces the approach of a northern gannet, a seabird that “points in all four directions.” The men cheer; the women ooh and aah.

A difference in nurture or nature? I ask here in nature.

Without binoculars, I’d think it just another seagull, but the others see details. And frankly, I stew in resentment that my football bird drew no more interest than an Inn Street pigeon rather than the amazement I craved.

When excitement subsides, the narrator turns and surprises me: “By the way, I want to compliment you for describing that bird the right way.”

I must look puzzled, thinking, “If I wanted to know what it was, why would I describe it the wrong way?”

The compliment is a disguise, a way to let me know that he knows I am not a birder. He anticipates my reaction: “Always start with the size. That’s what you did.”

“Does that mean I get another question?”

He laughs, and I press my luck. But he can only guess at my description of a sparrow-sized, jet-black bird with yellow markings on its wings and a red underside. Red-breasted grosbeak? House finch?

Likely a red-winged blackbird with yellow I only imagined. Admitted spying it early one morning before coffee kicked in, perhaps still enthralled by those hyper-piping yellow warblers, those serene swan, that hilarious king eider, that solitary great grey, that ethereal snowy white, that imperious eagle, that beguiling peregrine, that defiant catbird, that nonchalant red tail or any of Plum Island’s many recurrent cardinals or blue jays.

“Northern cardinals,” he corrects me.

No way will I admit that my entire expertise in birding is having seen “The Big Year” 10 times only because I’m a projectionist at the downtown art cinema.

We depart together, and he may think I’m looking to board one of their two mini-vans or their Crown Vic for their birding trip to the island’s southern tip, as he seems to avoid my eye. When he holds a door open for an elderly woman, I’m tempted to give him a start by feigning to step in.

Flippantly: “No, I don’t need a ride, but one more question, please?”

Relieved: “Yes, herons and egrets are related,” and he laughs at my alternative guess.

As their caravan rolls slowly south, I hope to catch them at the pullover just before Parking Lot Three. I don’t, but I do catch sight of a low-flying white bird I ordinarily would think just another seagull, close enough to see its right eye.

Longer and more sleek than a gull, its tail and beak both point sharply, as do its elegant black-tipped wings that fan straight out rather than angling back.

Gliding past, it points in all four directions.


Jack Garvey of Plum Island can be reached at