(by Deb Nickerson) – For someone to self-identify as a “birder”, there is usually a transformative experience involving a particular bird that takes one “over the edge” into the birding world. To witness such a transformation is a beautiful thing. To see it occur in your significant other is even better. For in relationships, it is always beneficial to have a partner who understands our set of quirks, and certain birding behaviors could be regarded as “quirky”, odd, if you will, to many others. But we, in the birding community, do not see ourselves as lying outside any normal ranges of behavioral traits. Indeed, we wish more people would develop our keen observational senses, knowledge of bird vocalizations, and enthusiasm for the avian world.
It is important to have our partners, spouses, family and friends understand why it is acceptable to interrupt a deep conversation while on a walk in the forest with, “Listen! It’s a Pacific Wren. Isn’t it beautiful?” Or, at another time point overhead rapidly to show friends the fast-moving flock of Kinglets moving through the trees. I was late meeting a friend for dinner because a Palm Warbler made a rare appearance at Capitol Lake; another BHAS member was there and shared the delight of actually getting to view it for 15 minutes. I mean, really, what dialogue can’t be halted for sightings or sounds of Crossbills or Cacklers? Birders look outward, around and up but it is not because we are not interested in your waxing on about workplace gossip, ailments, politics or the latest Facebook post; we’d rather hear about Cedar Waxwings. It is because we see birds first; our eyes are distracted by shadows and flits and chirps. Excuse us please.
My partner, John, and I have been dating for about a year and a half after a couple years making the transition from acquaintances to friends. I knew I liked him a lot when he was mesmerized by the display of Vaux Swifts entering the chimney at Chapman School two Septembers ago. (He timed it; it took 38 minutes for all to descend for the night). Since then we have incorporated birding into each of our trips. He has wanted to learn more waterfowl because, as a sailor, he is among them frequently. He built his own boat so is observant, precise, meticulous and, well, particular in his own right about how things should be done. Simply because of these exhibited traits, I knew he could fit into our sub-culture. He just didn’t know it.
For two years we have traveled to northern California in December to find warmth and birds. We were both awestruck by the thousands of waterfowl at Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge. And then it happened – last month while walking in a marshy area on the north side of San Pablo Bay, we came across a Say’s Phoebe and that, my friends, was the bird that brought him to our side, playing for our team, succumbing to the pitfalls of star struck staring at a single bird for an hour or more. The Say’s Phoebe lighted on some tall grass and then took off hovering as they do for a bit before diving to pounce on their insect de jour. “It’s acting like a falcon or a tern!” Back and forth it went from stalk to air, striking again and again naïve prey among the grasses. We watched, fascinated. Yes, fascinated.
Two days later found us dining on New Year’s Eve with close friends of his from college days, decades ago. While dining on scrumptious homemade soup and salad, John carried on (and on and on) about the Say’s Phoebe explaining its hunting behavior, tail twitching, and the coloration of his newly discovered species. His friends looked at him askance. He didn’t notice for he was too enthralled in his retelling of our time at the marsh with said bird. They both looked at me, confused, bemused while I, well, I smiled knowingly. “I know,” I said, “you’ve never heard him talk about a bird for so long. He’s come over to the other side you know and become a “birder”. “I’m sorry; it will alter all future times you spend together on the boat each summer. It’s not my fault.” Or is it? Do we share our affection for the feathered without consciously knowing it? We may, but the natural world pronounces its grandeur, and we are sucked into the vortex, never to be the same. John Sherman has been converted and now bows to the birds like we do. Hallelujah!