March 2012

You can see them all over town: bright yellow or green fliers. It is March, and Spring Field Ornithology is back. Many years have passed since I hung my first bird feeder after moving here from the Bronx. Field guide and small Nikon binoculars in hand, I started sorting out the feeder visitors. As the list of birds I could identify grew, so did my sense of knowing all there was to know. But wait, what about all the other birds in the book; where were they? I felt as if they were living in some rarified place where I could not go. I walked often at Sapsucker Woods and hardly saw a bird.

Then one day, I saw a flier for Spring Field Ornithology. Did it take a bit of courage to sign up? I seem to remember so. But that first Wednesday-night lecture was a journey to a new nation with its own language. And the first field trips around Sapsucker Woods cracked the code wide open. Suddenly, all around me, there were birds—vocalizing, foraging, winging it from shrub to canopy to trunk. Really, that maniacal laughing sound is a Red-bellied Woodpecker? A Tufted Titmouse is making that “Peter, Peter” whistle? That “feebee” call is a chickadee song? It was a wondrous four-hour walk.

The world became more real, an obscuring veil drawn aside. A transformative series of moments were gifted by a coterie of amazing leaders who loved birds and knew birds but who also seemed to know what it would mean to me when I could be as intimate with this knowledge as they were. I remember how my mouth dropped open the first time a goldfinch undulated overhead twittering “Potato Chip” and the leader just called it out in a way that was both casual and excited at the same moment. It was a magic trick of the natural world.

From childhood I knew the songs of robins, Wood Thrushes, Veeries, and White-throated Sparrows, but I didn’t know I knew them. We played hide and seek at our family home in the Berkshires as dark was filling in all the spaces in the woods around us, and I heard these birds sing into the duskiness. I heard them, but it took all those years to learn their names. And when I did, it gave me a powerful feeling of finding old friends I hadn’t even known I had lost.

I could reminisce this way for many more paragraphs. Perhaps many of you have birded for so long or from such a young age that you don’t remember the specific instants when you were granted passage through the door to this world. But I doubt it, I doubt any of you have forgotten, and I know you share my feelings. A passport, a context, an insight into the world of birds and nature that surrounds us no matter where we are... That’s what Spring Field Ornithology was for me.

- Linda Orkin