By Greg Keller
“To both birds and birders, location and timing are everything.”
I glance once more at my watch, the numbers glowing in the frozen evening air. It really is far too cold to stand here and have any hope of feeling warm feet ever again. “Where are they?” I mutter under my breath. The new housing development near where I stand has been slowly advancing into fertile farm fields here in West Newbury, and it seems to have finally made this prime birding location just another remnant field surrounded by the same cookie-cutter houses and immaculate lawns.
A birder mentally creates a detailed map of our shared existence. Sooty Grouse and Varied Thrush —welcome to the Olympic Peninsula in late winter. A displaying male Lesser Prairie-chicken, proudly strutting and bounding about the grassland, can only mean April on the high plains of New Mexico to me. A singing Kirtland’s Warbler connects me to a well-timed visit in June to Oscoda County, Michigan, the only breeding area in the world for this songbird. Mention summertime in forests of northern Massachusetts, my home location, and my wandering thoughts immediately crystalize into the ethereal song of the Wood Thrush, the plaintive “pee-a-wee!” of an Eastern Wood-pewee, and flashes through the forest canopy of shocking crimson and charcoal black of the Scarlet Tanager. My most recent Mexican trip for Yucatan Jay, Yucatan Vireo, and Yucatan Wren—well…the point sometimes makes itself. Indeed, location to a birder is inevitably linked, actually defined, by what we observe there.
A linguist might hear the soft “r” and gentle “ma’am” linking a southerner to the Tidewater region of Virginia. A foodie with a distinguished palate might remember the distinctive jambalaya flavors that can only be made with the savory ingredients and cultural history in a particular parish along the Gulf Coast. But for me, connections to locations are strictly feathered. As with other birders, the lists I maintain serve as constant reminders of my days in the field. My joy, exhaustion, awe, and surprise are kept in those lists, simple reminders of the beauty that I witnessed on a particular day at a precise location.
My first frigid Massachusetts winter on Plum Island in 2001 was unexpectedly highlighted by a massive barrel-chested predator from the Arctic, the Gyrfalcon. Gaudy does not even begin to describe the male Painted Bunting at Corkscrew Swamp outside of Naples, Florida, with splotches of vibrant reds, greens, and blues brightening the otherwise dreary day in 1998. As I prepare to return to Jaguar Creek in Belize this coming winter, my mind floats across memories of previous visits—the improbably adorned Keel-billed Toucan up the hillside; the ridiculously active White-collared Manakin, dancing and tumbling through a flowering thicket in the early morning near the lodge; the ghostly White Hawk, nearly translucent except for a black tail stripe, cruising through the overstory canopy deep in the rainforest. These are my locations, defined creatively by a sense of shared avian presence, a brief encounter between me and an otherwise indifferent bird before it flits away to feast on juicy caterpillars or carry nesting material to a hidden substrate. These locations mean something to me.
I turn, mutter again—did I end up in the wrong place amongst the meandering country roads? My binoculars are icy lumps between my numbing fingers. My condensed breath surrounds me as the last remnants of the sun finally disappear and commuters return to their glowing wood stoves and pot-roast dinners. I reluctantly slide the car key out of my pocket to return home.
But with an exhalation of relief, I detect the unmistakable yet subtle “peeent” call of the American Woodcock, taking flight to perform its lonely breeding display above the snow-blotched fields. Another linkage, a landmark in my mind of location, time and bird. The birds have returned for yet one more year to this location that serves as their home and mine.
American Woodcock, remnant wet field, West Newbury, Massachusetts, 1 March 2012—check.
Greg Keller, associate professor of conservation biology, is sometimes known as “Professor Roadkill” for his interest in the impact of roadways on small animals. He and his family live in West Newbury, Massachusetts.
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