For the Birds Radio Program: Trip down Memory Lane: Savannah
Memory Lane My three children grew up with wild birds being rehabbed in our house, and I brought them along on dozens of birding trips while they were still too little to protest. As adults, they all take an interest in birds and are strong conservationists, but none of them are birders. When they were little, I offered to get each of them their own copy of the National Geographic field guide if they got their life lists up to 75. Joey immediately said, “Uh, Mom, if I ever wanted to look up a bird in a book, I could use yours, right?” When I said yes, he added, “Then why on earth would I keep a list?!” Katie took the offer as a challenge, and for a couple of months came along whenever I went on a birding jaunt. As soon as she hit the 75-mark and received her prize, she moved on to new interests. Tommy wasn’t interested until the day I dragged them and Russ up to Grand Marais to see a vagrant Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Tommy was so impressed with that bird’s beauty that he started his list right there and then. But like Katie, once he reached the threshold and got his field guide, he too lost interest. It was only after having children that I realized that keeping a bird list isn’t something everyone on the planet would happily engage in if only they knew how. Suddenly I had to accept the reality that I was a minority, in the larger world and even within my own family.
Back when I was a new birder, in June, 1976, Russ had a scientific meeting in Savannah. We went together to Fort Pulaski and Skidaway Island, and I went birding on my own in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. I saw a great many birds for the first time down there, from clownish Brown Pelicans to exquisite Painted Buntings, gangly Purple Gallinules to graceful Least Terns. I’d never imagined that our planet included such creatures, much less that I could walk around on my own and find them. It was an epiphany that earth could be filled with such riches, so easy to find and free for the taking. Last month, Russ and I headed back to Savannah for Joey’s college graduation, and of course we gravitated back to the lovely places we’d been to 34 years ago. How have things changed? Back in 1976, there were more of some kinds of birds. Purple Gallinules and Cattle Egrets walked about in every roadside ditch—Russ and I both remember that. Now neither species was to be seen anywhere near a roadside. Back then I seem to remember that there were more wading birds in general, but I didn’t see nearly as many Ospreys carrying fish as I did this time. I wasn’t as good at finding birds when I was so inexperienced, but I did see my lifer Painted Bunting singing away at the refuge. This time Russ and I saw several of these shockingly vivid birds in several places. And this time we saw plenty of alligators—neither of us had seen a single one back in 1976. The Savannah air doesn’t smell nearly as bad now, though smoke stacks continue to belch away. In other words, we’ve taken some definite steps forward as well as backward. But the entire trip was tainted every time I turned on news reports of the black stain spreading insidiously in the Gulf of Mexico. As oil is swallowed into the Atlantic by currents, these Savannah birds that I was taking such joy in would be imperiled. These beautiful birds reminded me that to love is an active verb, and that to fail these precious beings is not an option.