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"I guess I'll be a writer someday," I said in response to one of the stock questions asked of, and by, people who are destined to become friends. This assertion, uttered on the north lookout of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 1975, elicited no response from hawk counter Michael Heller. Only years later did Michael confess that he didn't place much stock in my disclosure at the time.
"Everybody," he recalls thinking, "thinks that they are going to be a writer someday."
Today Michael is a plantation manager with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I am the director of the New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory. But back in the winter of 1975-1976, when Michael and I enlivened evenings by knocking back dark beers and reading the passages of favorite authors to each other aloud, I was still searching for my niche and hoping that the hawk migration study I was going to conduct for the New Jersey Audubon Society come spring would lead to something....
A job. A career. Maybe even an avenue to express the cauldron of thoughts and observations that boiled inside me—and have since been forged into essays, stories, and articles:
In magazines like Audubon, American Birds, Bird Watcher's Digest, Birder's World, Birding, Living Bird, Natural History, Nature Conservancy, New Jersey Audubon, WildBird, Wildlife Conservation.
In the biweekly column I penned between 1986 and 1995 for the New Jersey Sunday section of the New York Times, titled "In the Natural State."
In the Peregrine Observer, the newsletter of Cape May Bird Observatory, which served as the first vehicle for my stories and from which the essays of my first book, Tales of a Low-Rent Birder, were drawn.
Followed by Hawks in Flight, followed by More Tales of a Low Rent Birder, followed by The Feather Quest, Before the Echo, The Wind Masters...
And now this book.
Yes, I guess I became a writer—a pretty prolific one too, if the volume of essays discarded while selecting favorites for this collection is any measure. In fact, I do so much writing for so many publications that readers sometimes ask how I can I write so much and not go dry. There are three reasons, I think.
First and foremost, I really love watching birds and delight in sharing my passion with others, whether in the field or in print.
Second, the focus and tone of the columns I write are thematically apportioned so each is approached with a different mind-set. For example, essays written for "The Catbird Seat," my regular column in Living Bird, trade heavily upon the foibles of birders and birding. They are short, whimsical, and sassy. By comparison, essays drafted for "American Birding," the column I once penned for now defunct American Birds, tend to be longer, more situational, and more philosophical.
Articles drawn from my "Beak to Tale" column in Wild Bird News are terse and people-oriented. Those crafted for "Birder at Large," which appears in Birder's World, are nostalgic and focused primarily upon birds themselves.
So each column's essays have a different style, a different perspective (offering a refreshing difference for writer and reader alike).
And the final reason to account for how I can draw from the writers well so freely and not run dry? I'm half-Irish, genetically inked to the planet's greatest race of storytellers.
You may be curious about the title: Small-Headed Flycatcher. Seen Yesterday. He Didn't Leave His Name. It is the title of the book's longest essay, but a piece distinguished more by origin than length. Unlike the other thirty-three essays in this collection, "Small-Headed Flycatcher" was initially crafted to be spoken, not read. The audience was the American Birding Association members on the occasion the associations 1992 convention in Mobile, Alabama.
I'm too sly a storyteller to steal my own thunder (meaning I'll not unravel the story line here), but, as readers must know, stories are not spun from thin air. Behind every story there lies another: the story of the story's crafting. So for readers who would like a peek behind the writer's slate, here is the story behind the story— the story behind the writing of "Small-Headed Flycatcher."
In 1991, one year before the ABA convention, I was asked to be the banquet speaker at the Texas Ornithological Society's annual dinner. The invitation was tendered by then president, and friend, Dr. Bill Graber—a straight-shooting, straight-talking Texas gentleman.
My program, an audiovisual-augmented accounting of the year of birding and travel that was the substance of my book The Feather Quest, went well. Later, over drinks, I asked Bill how he enjoyed the program, and in a Texas-tempered baritone he replied, "Why, Pete, that was a fine program. A fine program," which is, of course, precisely what a guest speaker wants to hear.
"You know," continued the person whose love of honest truth would have earned a handshake from Diogenes, "that was almost as good as a story I once heard Peter Matthiessen give to us, several years ago, about his rediscovering heath hens on some tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts....
"Now that," said my gracious, truth-loving host, "was a fine story."
No storyteller, not even one who appreciates truth, likes to be told (even when it is true) that their story isn't as good as somebody else's story. And while I am a frank admirer of Peter Matthiessen's writing, I felt brazenly confident that I could tell a better story than Peter Matthiessen because...
Because like I said, I'm Irish!
So picking up Bill Graber's unmindfully dropped gauntlet, I cold-bloodedly set out to craft a better birding story than the one spun by Peter Matthiessen, using, for comparison's sake, the same basic story line—the rediscovery of a bird believed to be extinct— but drawing from and weaving in a different set of historic events: those relating to the finding of a bird whose discovery was independently claimed by rival artists John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson.
I threw everything I had into it. Every storyteller's trick. Every wordsmithing skill. All the Irish that was honestly mine to draw upon and even a measure that was not, that came from some vast depth, beyond the reach of my skill.
And at one marvelous moment during that inaugural telling, before an audience of five hundred listeners, I held a pregnant pause to the painful limit and was rewarded by the gratifying sound of silence. Utter silence.
"Got you," I thought quietly to myself. And I did have them too, an audience empathetically bound to the teller by the telling— had them right to the story's uncertain end.
No storyteller hopes for or garners more.
It just so happened that my friend Bill Graber was reigning vice president of ABA at the time and presiding over the banquet. So after the program. After the applause. After all the wellwishers (and the gainsayers) had had their say, I sashayed over to Dr. Graber and asked (oh so very casually) what he thought of the program.
"Pete," said the man who didn't have a shred of memory concerning our earlier conversation, "I've got to tell you, that was a fine story, a fine story."
"You know," he continued after a moment's thought, "That was as good a story as one I once heard Peter Matthiessen tell at a meeting of the Texas Ornithological Society about...." So I guess what I'm telling you is that I tied. I hope you enjoy "Small-Headed Flycatcher."
Cape May, New Jersey
I'm a reserved person—take pride in my ability to face disappointments stoically. But when I opened my third straight birthday card displaying an insipid cartoon canary and the announcement "A little bird told me it was your birthday," I put my face in my hands and wept.
It's not that I mind getting older. Heck, I've been doing that all my life. What vexes me is the unmindful cruelty of nonbirders. Ever since it became known that I'm a birder, nonbirding friends and relatives have been demonstrating their support by showering me with bird-related junk.
And I'm sick of it.
"Why another bird card?" I said to my open hands. "Why not a card depicting some incontinent old drooler welcoming me to the forties or some scantily clad vision promising earthly delights beyond the reach of my years?"
"I'm normal!" I wanted to scream. "I pay taxes... cut the lawn... cheat on my diet, just like normal people! Why don't I ever get anything but bird stuff?"
What is it about birdwatching that makes mothers think that the ugliest lamp in the history of porcelain will make a splendid gift so long as the lamp shade boasts an impossible assortment of tanagers, Old World buntings, and warblers standing in the snow? What is it about our avocation that turns tasteful, decor-sensitive people into the gift-buying equivalent of Roller Derby fans?
In anticipation of my upcoming birthday, I inventoried our living room and took stock of my unwanted stock, to make room for a new wave of kiln-fired kiwi toothpick holders, bluebird of happiness paperweights, music boxes that play "Yellow Bird," and coaster sets emblazoned with all the birds that John James Audubon managed to bend into a figure eight.
Standing upon my deerskin thunderbird rug, I cast my eye over an accumulation of wealth whose most prominent treasures included a throw crocheted by my sainted grandmother depicting a bird-draped Saint Francis of Assisi, a beer stein shaped into the likeness of a kori bustard, a turkey cleverly constructed out of porcelain vegetables, and a wood stove humidifier that looks like a muscovy and warbles like a canary.
Bear in mind that these are the keepers. The stuff we've relegated to the attic would make even the most tasteless Victorian pack rat long for the release of curbside pickup.
Of course, not all the bird-related stuff I get is useless or tasteless. But what's a person supposed to do with four copies of Gone Birding?
One Christmas (via my brother's secretary) I even received a gift copy of my book The Feather Quest. "Merry Christmas to my birdwatching brother," the inscription read. "I saw this book and thought of you."
I know that I'm not the only birder singled out for persecution. I have a naturalist writer friend named Diana whose friends also convey their affection with an avalanche of avian knickknacks. After the holidays we compare notes—a sort of birding bric-a-brac Big Day competition.
"So how many goldfinch/painted bunting/cardinal dish towels did you get this year?"
"Beat you there. I got five. How about salt-and-pepper shakers with bluebirds feeding nestlings on them?"
"Ooooh, tied score. What about lacquered pieces of driftwood boasting hand-painted kinglets?"
"If you let me count the goldcrest/firecrest combo along with the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned ensembles, three."
I used to think that the books that ended up on the bookstore bargain tables were publishing blunders—books whose sales simply could not realize an optimistic overprinting—but no longer. Now I believe that those half-priced coffee-table bird books are printed specifically to get people who know nothing about birds to buy them for friends who do.
And I've got an attic full of them.
"Oh, why," I pleaded to my hands, "can't I just once receive a normal present? A juicer. A breadmaker. Whatever happens to be in vogue this season. Why am I condemned to bear the brunt of so much misbegotten kindness?"
A single envelope remained on the table, one addressed in colored crayon, bearing the brand of a favorite niece. Bravely I opened the flap, withdrew a homemade birthday card, and stared at the lovingly drawn illustration. An illustration that replicated the outline of a child's hand. An illustration that resembled, not the expected bird, but—beyond all hope—a long-limbed, long-necked turtle.
"Oh blessed child," I whispered as tears flooded my eyes. "Favorite of my heart. You can count on a big fat check from Uncle Peter for the holidays."
Only then did I realize that "Happy Birthday" was written upside down. When righted, what had been a long-limbed turtle became just another turkey.
This is a tribute to the Unknown German Soldier—the man who changed my life. I do not know his name. I do not know what part of Germany he came from. I do not even know if he was a birder or a naturalist—although he may have been. Most Germans, at least most of those it has been my privilege to meet, have an abiding love of nature.
The fact is I never met the Unknown German Soldier. I only know the man who met him, briefly, soldier to soldier. That man was my father, Corporal Dunne, an American GI in his early twenties who was playing a small part in a big war.
"I took them from a German who didn't need them anymore," was all my father said of the instrument I held in my hands—a pair of six-power binoculars. The device lived then in the drawer where all the tokens of my father's life were housed—chains attached to watches that didn't work, old coins that didn't shine, medals that proved my father was the hero every four-year-old knows his father to be.
But the thing I coveted most, the thing that I courted the risk of a spanking just to hold, was the magic look-through thing: the 'noculars. I had discovered that this sleek black instrument had the power to change the world.
If you looked through one end, it made the world smaller. But if you looked through the other end, the world got BIGGER and everything looked CLOSER.
The photos on the dresser... my mother in the kitchen... The birds! Feeding in the snow. Closer... and alive. They seemed, these sparrows and juncos and cardinals, more beautiful and more alive than anything in the whole wide world (whose limits lay just about where my parents' property line was).
Those magic 'noculars, taken from a soldier who didn't need them anymore, were the portals through which knowledge and discovery flowed, bird by bird. They were the catalyst that turned a suburban kid into a birder. They led me to a career as a New Jersey Audubon Society director and to the person I am today.
Fifty years after the war that brought the 'noculars into my hands, the instrument sits on my mantel, nestled amid the tokens of another man's life, my life. They are scarred by use and time, but they still function. I could take them out right now and filter birds through their prismed tubes, just as I did as a child—when the world was filled with undiscovered wonder and its borders were defined by my parents' property line.
Sometimes in the evening, when the fire draws down and my mind turns in upon itself, the 'noculars will catch my gaze the way they once drew my hands. Regarding them, I see once again the birds they brought to life and consider the strange fortune that brought them there.
At these times I find myself wondering about the Unknown German Soldier. Who he was. Whether he, like my father, had children. And if so, whether they have children now who are turning their eyes upon the world, seeking wonder.
Because if he did, and if they did, and if there was a way, I fancy that I would take those binoculars back to Germany and place them in their hands. To keep the magic flowing. To honor the man who was its source (though I do not know his name).