Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Old fogeys, twitchers and stowaways: a birder’s evolution

Mon, 05/22/2017 - 3:45pm

We’re new at this. Bird watching, I mean. I don’t think they even call it that anymore. I mean, we don’t call it that anymore. Something like that.

My husband and I never really did the bird-feeder thing before, either. There is a nice, conveniently located shrub, more like a smallish tree, growing right next to the kitchen window, ideally situated to attract small birds. But as the kids were growing up we tended to have cats, such as Teco, who expressed an uncivilized interest in the birds, and who could vault themselves straight up into the air without any sort of running start or even much of a crouch, and it didn’t seem entirely sporting to attract songbirds to this clear and present danger. The present-day cat, Riley, seems little interested in anything more meaty than dry cat chow and puddle water. The birds are reasonably safe.

It started with the chickadees, and peanut butter, and a bad mood. Some high-maintenance idiot had torqued Paul’s jaw one too many times and he came home exasperated. The chickadees were messing around in the bush announcing the coming of spring, and with little else to offer, he put out some peanut butter. Just spooned a big glop of it onto a branch. They ignored it.

“The birds hate us,” he grumped.

There were a couple of pairs of cardinals around, though, and spring was definitely coming, and somebody finally ate the peanut butter. A few days later I was in the store on the mainland calling home to check on the milk supply.

“Get some bird seed,” says he.

That was something new.

Young people, students, even little children enjoy the birds, but you’ve got to admit that the stereotype exists of the tweedy old-fogey birder: academic, nerdy, and most likely retired. We are definitely academic and nerdy, but I’m not sure I like the rest of the cliché. My husband is getting more than a bit grizzled, and often requires reading glasses, but last time somebody made an idle crack about his being “retired” he damned near came up swinging, and this is a fellow who hasn’t even considered coming up swinging since probably the Eisenhower administration. He is exceedingly not retired.

To be fair, I am getting grizzled and leaning toward reading glasses as well, but will not admit it.

Returning to the subject at hand, I must confess that our bird feeder is a distinctly low-budget apparatus. Actually, it is a clear plastic take-out tub from the Chinese restaurant, the kind ordinarily used for that orange goop which accompanies sweet and sour pork, a couple of holes drilled in it to drain water, fastened to a stub of a branch with a sheetrock screw, in the “snowball bush” outside the kitchen window.

The other day I saw a ruby-crowned kinglet in the bush. Within two days in, on, around, and under the seed bucket we hosted male and female cardinals, male and female goldfinches, red breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, nuthatches, various sparrows including the elegantly named swamp sparrow and some type with a bright yellow spot on its face, and loads of chickadees. I do not know anything about birds. I just like the bright colors, although we sort of have a soft spot for the chickadees. Maine state bird, them, and a good thing.

A recent ferry run to Matinicus, on a day notable for thick fog, delivered several small yellow birds to the island. Captain Dan, on the bridge, told me that the bay was full of migrating birds befuddled in the fog, and that a few had hitchhiked along on the F/V Everett Libby, one even banging around in the wheelhouse. Hard to say whether they had meant to book passage to Matinicus; once in a while riders get on our ferry thinking themselves headed for Vinalhaven. Hard to say, as nobody asked. At least one of them made himself at home underneath Tyler Bemis’ new trap shop alongside the harbor.

I have no idea what kind of birds those yellow fellows were, but they sure were yellow. (I will spare you any wisecrack about the Canary Islands).

The Baltimore orioles showed up on May 2, and Paul called John next door to tell him we had orioles, so John looked out his window and he had some, too.

Two hours later, Robin called to tell us she had orioles.

Everybody calls each other when the orioles show up. We do a better job on Community Oriole Watch than we do managing a decent phone tree when there’s a fire. Robin also had an indigo bunting down her way, which made me insanely jealous, because, you know, I am a serious birder, now.

A couple of days later, as I was once again in a grocery store speaking with Paul on the phone, he mentioned concern over a beat-up, scruffy-looking Baltimore oriole with slightly different coloring. He must have dug into the field guide because later I got an email stating merely this: “Actually, an orchard oriole.”

You can tell that we’re earnest in this pursuit, and learning a ton about birds.

A few days later he said, “Those orioles are still here and they’re eating us out of house and home.”

He ran out of oranges, but they seemed delighted with Braeburn apples and willing to put up with old, shopworn grapefruit. Of course the orioles are migrating, and only stay a few days, but it’s a big event. You cannot just go to the store on Matinicus to buy oranges for them, because there is no store on the island, so we share what oranges we have. The orioles encourage community fellowship, and sharing, and brotherhood, and communism. It’s a very warm feeling. As I said, they don’t stay very long.

Our British friend Liam taught us the word “twitcher” back when he first visited the island as a 9th-grader. A high school friend of our daughter’s, Liam spent his childhood in England where a twitcher, he grinned, is a birdwatcher--perhaps a rather obsessive one. The kind with a list.

The kind who might go pretty far out of their way to see an indigo bunting. All my neighbors are on Facebook saying they’ve had the indigo bunting. What kind of bird seed do they like? I should get some.

Boy, I’m getting old. 

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