For the Birds Radio Program: Mark's Warbler Stories
Last week I got a cool email from a listener named Mark in Maryland. He writes:
"Your move to upstate NY has caused me to remember the first time I started actively keeping a life list, while working at the Ashokan Field Campus. In the spring of '81 I would often get up before the staff was on duty, to go birding. There were a few memorable 'chases' as I tried to track down good looks at birds I could hear but not yet see."
Mark adds that he used the exact same strategy I did when I started out—he writes, “I was fortunate in learning early on the benefits of being an auditory birder, and I quickly adopted a strategy of going outside, listening for any call I did not recognize, and pursuing that bird until I got it or it left.”
Mark continues: "One morning in May of '81 or '82 I was walking through an overgrown field along a wooded slope above a stream at Ashokan when I heard a new call. I soon found myself part way down the dry, wooded slope, crouched still, desperately looking for the caller before it stopped or left. I spent nearly an hour before I finally visually ID-ed my first Worm-eating Warbler. Was I ever excited. 20+ years later in MD I had very nearly the same experience when I finally saw my first Kentucky Warbler. I remember the field guide commenting that they were much more often heard than seen, but I was determined to see that bird."
Mark also reminisced about birding in Minnesota while he was involved in a wetlands workshop in the mid-90s. He writes,
I had about 6-8 hours to go birding the day I was due to fly out of Duluth. I drove north to a remote area ,maybe Isabella, where I figured I would get whatever I could get, but I really wanted to HEAR Mourning Warblers SINGING on territory. (I had previously SEEN them in New England on migration). Well, time was running very short, and I was in what seemed to be perfect habitat (cut over area of trees) along a very quiet road, but no luck/no calls. I remember standing along the roadside thinking there had to be MW there, but I was late to head back to the airport so I figured it wouldn't hurt to pish a few times in desperation. Wouldn't you know it... a pair of MW popped up nearly at my feet from the roadside drainage ditch in front of me. I was too close, and they scolded me good. I tried to get down the road away from them on foot as fast and far as I could, in the hopes they would stop following/scolding me, and maybe they would then celebrate their successful 'eviction' with a burst into song... but no. I finally had to leave feeling very disappointed despite seeing the two on territory, because I had not HEARD them. For me, seeing a beautiful songbird without hearing its song is, well, like kissing your sister rather than your girlfriend/ spouse."
I wouldn’t have used quite that analogy, but I completely agree with Mark that we’ve never really experienced a bird if we’ve only seen it and never heard it. My father used to scold us that little children should be seen and not heard. But the most wonderful experiences with birds are when they’re both seen AND heard.