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Tales of a Low-Rent Birder

Tales of a Low-Rent Birder
Drawings by David Sibley; foreword by Roger Tory Peterson

Nineteen essays about birds and birding.

January 1994
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173 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 23 line drawings |

Tales of a Low-Rent Birder is a collection of nineteen essays and sketches written between 1977 and 1985. It was originally published in 1986.

  • Foreword by Roger Tory Peterson
  • Preface
  • Preface to the Second Edition
  • Billy Leeds and the Eagle
  • Overflight
  • A Tale of Two Hawkwatchers
  • Pulling Strings
  • Bookcase Bluebill
  • First-Year Bird
  • The Legend of Jesse Mew
  • Birdathon '83—A Saab Story
  • A Lifer for Roger
  • SVAT
  • A Peregrine Going South for the First Time Again
  • Scotch Bonnet Blind
  • A Gift of Vision
  • A Confederate Hawkwatcher from AK-625
  • Shearwater Sunday
  • Death of a Season
  • Sitkagi Spring
  • Macadam Encounter
  • Thoughts While Waiting for an Ice Falcon

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The thought brought me up short. "You don't suppose she meant the field on the other side of the house?"

It didn't seem likely. Linda's instructions had been simple and direct: the bird is in the field across the street from the house with the blue whale in the back yard (which really narrows down the options). And we had searched that field, not twenty minutes ago, turning up one Eastern Kingbird, two species of swallow—but no Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

But, "across the street from the house with the blue whale" is not as interpretation-free as you might think. I'm a product of suburbia, born and raised in one of the planned labyrinths that popped up in the post-war era. Across the street to the suburbanized mind invariably means: across the street from the front of the house (which is the only across the street a suburban kid ever knows). There are next-door neighbors, back-yard neighbors, but only one across-the-street neighbor.

Farm houses, of course, are different, particularly farm houses that sit on corners—like this one did. A farm house that sits on a corner has, potentially, two fields that might be construed to be "across the street".

But, I still didn't give this alternate street theory much credence. The bird, quite simply, had disappeared overnight. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher hadn't lingered in Cape May since Otway Brown had run into this tine-tailed tropical waif back in 1939. It was gone.

But being only one member of a five-member team didn't give me the right to leap to any unilateral decisions. I felt duty-bound to throw the possibility out to the floor.

"You know," I said, "we didn't check the field next to the house with the blue whale."

Everybody stopped. Nobody said a word.

"It's probably not worth going back for," I added. "We're thirty minutes behind schedule as it is."

"Oh, come on," Pete Bacinski lobbied. "It's not that far out of the way."

"We could just go up Bayshore Road on the way out," Bill Boyle suggested. "Just a quick stop."

"I think it's worth trying," David Sibley added.

I turned to meet the gaze of the fifth member of our Big Day birding team, a man whose face would be recognized instantly in any birding spot in North America—a man whom I have known nearly all my life but met for the first time barely twenty-four hours ago.

"Yes, let's give it a try," said Roger Tory Peterson.

All my life doesn't seem like a very long time, now, but it would have seemed interminably long to the scrawny kid who used to wait anxiously next to the mail box on Roosevelt Avenue in Whippany, New Jersey. No zip code. They didn't have zip codes back then.

He was waiting for the red, white, and blue mail truck that was moving down the street, methodically stopping at each yard like a hummingbird going down a row of flowers. He was waiting for the manila envelope with the bold blue label that read—FROM NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY: FOR PETER J. DUNNE. Inside were leaflets, Junior Audubon Society leaflets all about different birds. They were ten cents each—if you ordered six, they were only five cents each. But even five cents each was tough on a budget of thirty-five cents a month and it had taken a long time to get all the leaflets he had wanted.

He had gotten the one about the Baltimore Oriole (State Bird of Maryland), Leaflet No. 26, first along with the Red-winged Blackbird (Leaflet No. 25) because it was common in the tussock-grass marshes near his parents' house (and because it was one of the first birds he had identified). He had added Barn Swallow (Leaflet No. 32), Yellow Warbler (No. 139), and Indigo Bunting (No. 27). He'd never seen an Indigo Bunting (the bird was simply too beautiful to ever see), but he had gotten the leaflet anyway—just in case.

Each leaflet contained a color plate (that he called a picture) and a matching line drawing (to color in. And he read those leaflets, and read them and read them—until there wasn't any need to anymore, because he had memorized them. They were written by a man named Roger T. Peterson.

When the boy was twelve, he received a marvelous gift—a two-volume book about birds published by the National Geographic Society. Inside the book about Song and Garden Birds was an essay by Roger Peterson entitled "What Bird is That?". It described the Peterson System for identifying birds. There were eight questions to ask when you wanted to identify a bird—and the boy memorized them, too.

These were the books he used as his field guides. They used lots of photos. So, it's not surprising that for several years Hermit Warblers were regular spring migrants through Whippany and waterthrushes went unidentified. New Jersey wasn't exactly what you would call "Northern" but it was still a long way from Louisiana. He didn't know any other birders so he didn't find out about real field guides until some years later (in fact, until after he'd worked the waterthrush problem out). And, know what? The field guide was written by his old friend and mentor, Roger Peterson.

But even that is a long time ago, now; a distant point on a road that carried a suburban kid with an interest in birds to Cape May, New Jersey. And all along the route, there was a man named Peterson. A man who had helped and guided millions of young minds (just like his). The man who taught first one generation, then another, and another the skills they needed to learn about and enjoy the world they found around them—Roger Tory Peterson.

These were some of the thoughts that skittered across my mind one day last January when I called Dr. Peterson at his home. An idea was developing, an exciting idea. We were thinking about modifying the big day birding tradition and birdathon concept to incorporate an element of competition—team competition. On May 19, 1984, big day birding teams representing birding clubs and organizations from several states would bird New Jersey, using all of their knowledge and skills to locate as many birds as possible. There was much to commend the idea. But, there were uncertainties, too. And it would be unthinkable to contemplate an event that would carry birding onto uncharted ground without soliciting the wisdom of the Grand Master of North American Birding. How would he regard the idea? Would he favor it? I needn't have worried.

"It's the next logical step," he said with a conviction that would have put even the most doubtful mind at ease. "Did you know," he continued, "that the British have been holding a two-team competition for several years, now. I've just written an introduction to a book about it called The Big Bird Race," he continued, infectiously enthusiastic. "I'll send you a copy. You'll probably want to read it..."

And then he said something that sent my mind tumbling end over end.

"Whose team can I be on? Can I be on yours? We should start at Troy Meadows, don't you think? And then move on toward Boonton for passerines at dawn...."

This, in case you are not a birder, is a little like having the Pope ask whether he can go to church with you on Sunday.


"...Let's give it a try," said Roger Tory Peterson, the man with the fine spun frosting of hair that frames two of the bluest, kindest eyes ever to regard the world. And he said it with good reason.

For one thing, our tally stood at 183 with only two hours of daylight left. There were only eighteen species of birds that we felt that we still had a shot at gathering between now and midnight. Several of these could be counted on to fail. It was going to take a little luck and a couple of unexpected sightings if we were going to reach our goal of two hundred species in twenty four hours. We were so close—and Fork-tailed Flycatcher was not accounted in those eighteen possible species.

But there was another reason. A Fork-tailed Flycatcher is not just your run-of-the-mill unexpected sighting—not even by Cape May standards. It would, in fact, be a North American life bird for four of our party. Yes, including Roger—Number 697.

The Fork-tailed story had started twenty-four hours earlier when a couple had walked into Cape May Bird Observatory and confronted Mary Gustafson and Linda Mills with a story about a bird with a short, forked tail that was either some sort of tern—or "possibly a Fork-tailed Flycatcher." The bird was chasing insects in a plowed field.

Thirty minutes later, Linda was back at CMBO, pouring details into the phone. I was on the other end, in a familiar kitchen in Whippany, New Jersey, offering congratulations and fending off mild attacks of disappointment. A malfunctioning radio had cost me a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in 1978; now, fate, it seemed, had taken another. Linda and Mary were going to call all of the local members of the Cape May birding block (those that stood a chance of getting to Cape May Point before dark) but neither knew how to change the hotline carrying five minutes of information crucial to the thirteen teams competing in the first annual World Series of Birding. Besides, Fork-tailed Flycatchers never linger. The bird would be gone for sure on Saturday.

For my part, I didn't give the bird another thought until the members of the Guerrilla Birding Team—Bacinski, Boyle, Peterson, Sibley, and I—met in the lobby of the Old Mill Inn in Bernardsville for one last-minute briefing. One hour later, we were on the old dike road that cuts across the Great Swamp, listening in a cold, penetrating drizzle for a Virginia Rail that never called.

Somewhere under the cover of darkness, twelve other teams of birders were moving like clouds on a moonless night. They were testing their abilities, not because they doubted them, but because our species seems driven to reach for what is just out of reach. What was out of reach was two hundred species of birds in a single day. No birder and no group of birders had ever recorded two hundred or more species, under the sun or moon, in New Jersey—or for that matter in any state except California, Texas, and Alabama.

There are those who snort, stamp their feet, and mutter indignantly about the simplemindedness that makes grown people want to stand in the rain at midnight or crisscross a state, ringing up birds with the abandon of kids at the Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. "It's not bird-watching," they scream righteously. "It's foolishness." And so it is!

But tomorrow, those same birders who were focusing all of the skills accrued during a lifetime of study onto the location of birds by sight and sound would be standing in the South Cape May meadows, watching the antics of feeding shorebirds or wrapped in a warbler fallout at Higbee Beach—and loving it. The very same ones!

One of the most compelling things about this activity called birding is the breadth of its scope. It can accommodate both the hard-core lister and the backyard feeder birder. In fact, it is so generous in its scope that it can, at once, accommodate not only big day birders, but even people who object to them!

Isn't birding wonderful.

Our route carried us to the Black River (for more birds that make noises in the dark) and then to the elevated railroad bed at Waterloo, New Jersey. It was a cold dawn, a gray dawn. The air hung damp and still. Cinders crunched underfoot as we drew abreast of the field flanked by tight formations of hedges. Quickly we formed a line, facing the field with a bloodless dawn at our backs. It was not a hopeful morning for birds.

But this was no ordinary commander marshalling our effort. It was North American Birding Himself who was standing on the roadbed that morning, feet comfortably spaced, head turned slightly askew, his features tense, waiting. And we stood in his shadow, mere knights and rooks in the presence of the Master and as the dawn broadened behind us, we watched his mastery unfold.

"Blue-winged Warbler," he said, jabbing the air with his finger for emphasis and guidance. "Field Sparrow... Brown Thrasher... catbird... Canada Warbler... Northern Waterthrush ... White-throated Sparrow.... "

"I missed it," a voice said matter-of-factly.

"There," said Roger.

"Got it," the same voice replied.

"Flicker... Chipping Sparrow... Yellow-throat... Chestnut-sided Warbler...."

"Missed it," another voice said, momentarily stopping the flow. "Where?"

"Behind us," said Roger. "Alternate song," someone else suggested helpfully.

It called again. "Got it."

And these were no ordinary lieutenants flanking the Master, not the Bacinskis and Boyles and Sibleys of this world. One by one, each crucial songster was grabbed by the ears—a distant Worm-eating Warbler, a flyover Purple Finch, a lingering Solitary Vireo (making an off, three-note call—each bird a small victory, one step closer to two hundred species.

At Princeton's Institute Woods, we were ambushed by a fanatical band of Peterson admirers brandishing a formidable arsenal of unsigned field guides. We barely escaped with our civility intact. At Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, a CBS camera crew mounted a fifth-column movement—assisted by members of a rival team who intimated to fellow birders that "you-know-who is in that car behind you—but don't tell anyone we told you. "

There were great victories along our route—Orangecrowned Warbler... Ruddy Duck; and bitter defeats—No Summer Tanager! No kingfisher! No Broad-winged Hawk!!! And, here, now, at the very tip of New Jersey, with our total at 183 species, there was just the slimmest measure of hope that the goal of two hundred species was within our reach. And maybe, just maybe, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

We began our retreat through the meadows, according to our fatigue. Quickly we loaded the scopes in the car. Four doors slammed shut with the smartness of a parade-ground salute. The Mercedes moved out of the lot for the short drive up Bayshore Road—our second time up that road today.

The car drew slowly to a stop, midway down the length of a plowed field. The blue whale grinned widely off to our left. Indifferently, I brought my binoculars up and felt the others imitate the gesture. Several kingbirds perched casually on a row of bushes about one hundred yards out—along with a slimmer, longer bird that seemed to have a pale, blue back: Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

"There it is," David said.

"I got it," I said, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice.

The car emptied immediately. Five scopes emerged from the trunk amid a frenzy of arms and tripods. At 22x the bird stood out like a Peterson plate: a young bird, lacking the long streamer tail feathers of an adult. Under scrutiny, it made a short sortie into the field, grabbed something, and moved back to take its perch.

"I haven't got it yet," Pete said in tones that barely disguised his anxiety.

"On the ground," I said. "Here, it's in the scope."

David's silence and studied expression left nothing to question. Bill's fine focusing maneuvers at the helm of his Questar overshadowed any doubts from that quarter.


His scope stopped moving. His hand touched the focus wheel lightly, and North America's birding patriarch gave his attention to the eyepiece—and whatever lay beyond.

"Yes," he said quietly, intently. "Yes," he said, straightening up, smiling widely. "I've seen the bird, you know, in Mexico. But it is my first for North America. "

We knew.

We gave the bird two minutes of study—two minutes more than we had to spare, and left, heading north. There was less than two hours of daylight left. And sixteen species to go.

The bird opened her eyes, and this was the only sign that she had wakened (not, of course, that sleepfulness is ever far from wakefulness in a Peregrine). From her perch on the narrow ledge, she absorbed the world through the dark portals of her eyes in typical Peregrine fashion, taking in both the familiar and unfamiliar, sifting the consequential from the inconsequential.

Before and below her was water, a bay. Beyond, stretching south and slightly east as far as her vision could carry, was the coastline. This was the direction in which she was headed. To the east, where the sea was beginning to glow in anticipation of the sun, lay a town.

The bird had seen more and more of these. She avoided them if it was convenient to do so. They were cramped and cluttered and lacking in prey. There were also numbers of people associated with them—a factor to be considered. Seeing the town brought to mind her first encounter with one of these people—on the ledge overlooking the river. On her leg, still drawn tight against her breast feathers, was a token of this first meeting.

The name of the river was the Coleville and its course bisects the North Slope of Alaska until it spills its waters into the Arctic Ocean. The bird, of course, did not know the name. And the man was Bob Dittrick, a biologist contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to survey the region for nesting Peregrines—but the bird did not know this, either. A name has no bearing on its object, no cause and no effect, and therefore no meaning for a Peregrine. A Peregrine is all cause and effect.

The bird knew that it was the river, and in the razor-apt clarity of her kind could recall every outcropping of shale, every coal seam, boulder, pipit nest, tundra pool, and gravel bar that was there and had bearing on her and her existence (because to a Peregrine, these are one and the same).

The memory of a Peregrine Falcon is not dim, as some have said. For a large part of the world that we perceive (and a measure that we do not), it is precise and direct as point-to-point flight. Things that are important fall neatly into the data-ready channels that genetics and evolution have provided. A Peregrine's memory is only dim where evolution has laid down no paths—for the naming of rivers, for instance.

Another aspect of Peregrine memory that a human would find strange is the time sense—or lack of it. For the bird, there was nothing to distinguish the cotton grass that sheltered her nest ledge and the three brothers who shared it with her from the man she could see walking on the beach with his dog or the sun that was only now cresting the horizon south of the town. Cotton grass on ledges and men who walk dogs on beaches are realities that are merely separated by distance and time—and what concerns are these to the like of a Peregrine Falcon. Facts are facts whenever and wherever they occur.

The sun washed the narrow ledge and the bird; it burnished her darkly streaked underparts with copper. Her face was highlighted by the dark sideburn-slash of her kind, and her head was the color of dwarf willow in autumn. She was a tundra Peregrine, and with or without the sun she was beautiful. This was her first trip south, though in the pathways of her mind she had done this thing countless hundreds of times before.

She had come in off the ocean in the last light of evening and found roost on this odd cliff as much by the lights cast from the town as by the rays of the dying sun. The cliff offered a measure of familiarity in a place where everything was marred by the unknown. It was the most comfortable perch that she had taken since leaving the Arctic—a long, wandering journey that had seen roosts, among other places, on the radio antenna of a Soviet research vessel and a grain elevator near Churchill, Manitoba. In her travels she had encountered many thousands of other birds stirred to restlessness of movement and among them she had encountered many other Peregrines, adults and immatures like herself.

The bird could not have known, of course, that a decade ago, this would not have been the case—or why. The channels of her mind had no place to absorb abstracts like pesticide poisoning, reproductive failure, or species decline. The crash of her kind, and its recovery, occurred in a flash of evolutionary time—too fast for genetic channels to be laid down by survivors. She could not have known that by 1975, the Arctic population had been reduced by more than half and that on the river only thirteen pairs of Peregrines attempted to breed. In 1982, there were twenty-six pairs, and these produced forty-eight young. She was one of these.

The biologist Dittrick understood both the decline and the recovery because it is the nature of biologists to know these things, and because for three years he had surveyed the river. Before that, he had manned banding stations along the Atlantic Coast. He knew that other biologists working on the Gulf Coast in Texas had taken blood samples from Peregrines returning from tropical wintering grounds. These samples showed that between 1979 and 1980 alone, there were significant reductions in the level of DDE in the birds examined and that less than ten percent of returning females had levels that might inhibit successful reproduction. These findings correlated well with surveys that disclosed greater numbers of nesting Peregrines and increased nesting success all across the Arctic.

But the bird knew none of this. She knew only that during the days and the miles that stretched back from this ledge overlooking this bay to the ledge overlooking the river, she had seen many of her kind, though few had traveled as far as she had. Most of her kin from the Coleville region had moved south along the flank of the Rockies and filtered down along the coast of Mexico. But she had wandered after her family had dissolved during the last part of August. Her course led south, but the large swirling patterns of cold northern air that had tracked high across the continent, system after system, had carried her eastward. The bird could have adjusted her flight to compensate for the gradual drift across the continent, but there seemed to be no reason to do so. Food was plentiful along the route and air was air.

Two days ago, she had left the continent behind and struck out over open water. She was now sufficiently south that her flight passed through the lower portion of the clockwise flow of air. The winds were northeast. After an uncomfortable night aboard the Belegorsk, she had continued south but drifted west with the wind and put in, reluctantly, as darkness overtook her.

Now she was hungry, and it was with the mindfulness of hunger that she probed the world around her. She saw the flicker while it was still several hundred yards from shore. The flicker was exhausted, its energy spent by flight. Several times its weakened undulating flight almost carried it into cresting waves, but it had seen the shore now—and its danger too late.

The Peregrine dropped the updrawn fist of her talons and disclosed for a moment the band that flashed silver in the sun. She roused, muted, and pushed off with the directness of singleminded purpose. She closed quickly on her quarry, reached out with the broad net of her talons, missed the dodging flicker by a shadow's breadth, swung around in a wide arching turn (in typical Peregrine fashion), closed, and did not miss again.


In the south banding station at Cape May Point, New Jersey, Bob Dittrick saw a Peregrine coming in off the Delaware Bay flying heavily, carrying prey. He worked a jacketed lurebird reflexively—once, twice—but without much hope of interesting the bird. He was much too experienced for that. The Peregrine ignored the offering, swung wide of the old concrete bunker where she had spent the night, and took a perch on one of a stand of trees that lay surrounded by open marsh. She attacked her kill in falcon fashion, giving the feathers to the wind.

Releasing the lure line, Bob reached for his binoculars, trained them on the feeding bird, and settled into a comfortable position. Her back was to him and he could not see what kind of prey she had taken. He could only see the tight overlapping mosaic of brown feathers on her back and, when she brought her head up to look around, the dark sideburn-slash on her face and the golden wash of her crown.

"She's a pretty young lady," he said aloud in the Virginia-softened syllables that had not been erased by three years of Alaskan residency. "I'd put a band on that little sweetheart any day she'd say yes."

On her perch, the bird fed hungrily and quickly. She was restless to return to a place that she had never been but would recognize when she got there.


“In these tales about birds, birding, and birders, Dunne has captured many of the feelings that make birding special.... Almost any ornithologist or naturalist would enjoy this book.”

“His sketchbook tales . . . are lively and brimming with wit, satire, and sensitivity.”
New Jersey Audubon