DRAFT: Confessions of a Bird Listener

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                                   dedicated to Jim


I remember on one of my first school trips to the library, when we returned to class and our teacher went around the room to inspect our selections. She came to my desk and I showed her a book of birds and she said something like “Is that all you could find?”.  I felt like I was somehow not performing correctly. Nevertheless,  the next time we went  I selected what are now called “chapter books” which contained stories of birds and other animals.

Once my mother  saw me trying to stalk birds and she told me that if i could pour a little salt on their tail that I could catch them. So, I spent quite some time stalking them with salt shaker in hand.


Fast forward to about 35 years ago, when I was hitchiking from work in Northern New Mexico and was picked up by a house builder named Jim in an old Ford 250 truck. We got to talking and seemed to get along so he asked if I was interested in going bird watching. I jumped at the chance. I purchased a pair of cheap binoculars and we set out. For the rest of that summer almost every weekend we went to a different location, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas to go look for birds. He had these cassette tapes with the bird calls on them and during  our drives, sometimes through the night, we would listen and  test each other on these calls. Imagine a dry academic sounding nasal voice: 238 The Solitary Vireo*******, 132 The  American Redstart **********, 345 The  Phainopepla  ******* 277 The Green Kingfisher. Lots of fast forwarding and fast reversing to find locations. 


 Now, for those of you who think that birdwatching is for old folks, that is indeed true, there is plenty of birdwatching that they can do and enjoy. But our kind of bird watching took us to many places, many very remote, and many of them required substantial physical effort and the ability and desire to withstand environmental extremes such as desert heat and  snowy cold. Some took us to places, such as Guadelupe Canyon on the New Mexico panhandle border of Mexico that we felt it was wise to travel armed. Funny to reach in your bag and push aside your pistol to get your binocs. But seeing the Thick-billed Kingbird and  Violet-crowned Hummingbird was worth it. On the other hand,  the bugs in the evening reminded one of  swarms of locusts. That was like a nightmare.


Since then, after splurging  more than I could afford on a pair of Zeiss Dyalit 10x40, birdwatching became a regular activity. The binoculars were regularly in my backpack and I was often on the alert. 

Living now in Massachussets I birdwatched the east coast and north to Canada.

During vacations we flew and met up and went on bird trips to South Texas, Monterey California - all over the US. Neither of us have much money so these trips were on a shoe string budget and generally we slept in the truck, the car, or outside on the ground.


At the beginning, generally one cares about seeing new birds and rare birds. You keep a  list, your life list. I dont update mine anymore, but it is fine memorabilia. I can remember the first Yellow-breasted Chat  (who certainly deserves the name) I saw ( Rattlesnake Springs, NM), the first Fork-tailed Flycatcher

i saw (Brownsville, TX). I remember the time my wife saw her first Varied Bunting . We were courting. We drove around the southwest in my 1963 four door Chevy Impala with a 3 speed transmission on the column and if I saw a bird worthwhile, I would pull off to the side of the road, often in a cloud of dust, grab my binoculars and check it. These commando moves were the first sign to my wife that i was not quite right.  The car had two very long bench seats and slept the two of us reasonably well.  Moreover, many of these memories have a truly spiritual nature. For example, we were once in the Huachuca Mountains in Az on a quest to see the Red-faced warbler  , and we spent the morning hiking up to higher elevation. The book said its habitat was spruce and pine so when we got to spruce and pine we were a bit tired and decided to stop  for lunch. We  offloaded our packs, took out our lunches, including our water bottles, and sat down to a very pleasurable AZ mountain summer afternoon, when   two red faced warblers came and joined us for lunch. Hopping around the bushes near us,  it felt like they were not only unafraid, but were actually visiting.  That afternoon we also saw a few buff-bellied flycatchers and  Painted Redstarts . What a day! For those that might want  to try it, AZ has some of the finest birdwatching in the US; Madera Canyon, Patagonia, Sonoita, Ramsey Canyon, Cave Creek Canyon, The Huachucas and The Chiricahuas are all exceptional


My favorite birds to watch are the songbirds, the Warblers. They are small and often very beautiful, especially during breeding season. But most of all it is their songs that I love. I not only enjoy listening to the songs, they are also my primary identification tool. In fact,  for many species, to differentiate them from a nearby species, such as a Western Wood Peewee versus  Eastern Wood Peewee , the only way that you can do it is by voice. Eventually, the voices became a passion of mine. One of the primary advantages  of learning the voice is that you can hear alot farther than you can see, and if you hear a bird that sounds interesting, then you can change path to go check it out.  There is a story of Roger Tory Peterson who was sick once and stayed behind in the morning in his sleeping bag. When the group returned, they asked him how he  was and he told them that he had heard 35 species from his bag.

Having invested much energy in voice identification, this I can believe.


I became so infatuated with voice recognition that i developed a plan to introduce a blind relative of a friend of mine to bird watching. I was severely reprimanded as if I was somehow trying to humiliate him. As I further developed this idea i came to the conclusion that a blind person could indeed become a birdwatcher, could enjoy it greatly, and even became very skilled. The major drawback is that it would require a constant training partner who had eyes who could give feedback as to species. As of today, I think the idea has merit.


My wife has since caught the birdwatching bug. She does not hear so well and I see fine, but she sees much better, so as a team, we have one with eyes and one with ears. it makes  a great collaboration.

IMO, birdwatching is a wonderful activity for couples. You spend alot of time to together and have very exciting and memorable experience together.


Finally, birdwatchers have the reputation  for being a bit nutty and this is well deserved. I have noticed that in the last years that there have been real developments in the quality of binoculars. A pair of Swaroskis can run you $2500.  After researching the new binocs and resisting the temptation I started seeing large groups of bird watchers with these very expensive binoculars. Mine look a little like they are battle worn, in some sense they are. Anyway, I once estimated that in one group of about 15 birdwatchers that there must have been at least 20,000$ worth of binoculars and I thought to myself, Mustafa, do not tell this to anyone you dont trust. If you do, someone in need of a creative way to make some money may become a Binocular Thief.  I spent some time rolling around in my mind a short story with this title.  Anyway, I hope my WB friends will not share this info with the unscrupulous.


One day, while watching an Elf Owl https://goo.gl/images/kLmkDU in Madera Canyon, I was enjoying conversation with someone who travels the world giving bird tours and I mentioned my idea of becoming a binocular thief. He lit up:” Already been done!  I was in Mexico and we were held up at gunpoint and they demanded all cameras, wallets, and binoculars.” Now, like fly fisherman and their affection for their favorite flyrod, many of us are very fond of our binoculars. They have been with us for thousands of hours and are part of remarkable personal history. He told me that when they got to one woman in the  group she said they could have her purse, but NOT her binoculars. After threatening her unsuccessfully with a pistol the thieves found her husband and put the gun to his head and said “your binoculars please”, And she said No, i will not. Her husband said  WHAT?