One summer I found myself assistant director of a YMCA overnight camp, a thousand miles from my friends. I didn't know it, but it was a lucky circumstance, because the social vacuum made me, at 28, truly notice birds for the first time.
One summer I found myself assistant director of a YMCA overnight camp, a thousand miles from my friends. The authority of that role, trivial in the real world, isolated me at camp. Besides, I was a Yankee, and this was deepest Texas.
I didn't know it, but it was a lucky circumstance, because the social vacuum made me, at 28, truly notice birds for the first time.
A pearl-colored bird with an absurdly long tail caught my attention first. Then I heard a seemingly invisible something trill descending scales behind my cabin. One twilight walk in the hills, I encountered a row of small owls, one of which uttered a most remarkable warble.
At the time I did not know the names of many birds, even of those seen most frequently. To a stranger in a strange state, the birds were lovely, industrious and interesting, though diffident with respect to close approach. I invested in a field guide, located my binoculars - long-owned but seldom used - and started looking. Paying attention to birds made my life a great deal richer then and has ever since.
The long-tailed bird was so distinctive, it was easy to look up: a scissor-tailed flycatcher. Like other species in the flycatcher group, it continually flew out from a perch to capture bugs. The little Eastern phoebes, flycatchers that have just made their spring appearance here in Massachusetts, use a similar method of hunting.
It was more challenging to identify my musical neighbor. It took persistence to catch him in view. His voice was far larger and more conspicuous than his stubby body. Eventually I had enough glimpses, and enough familiarity with the families of song birds, to peg my tiny brown acquaintance as a canyon wren. The limestone bluff behind my cabin made him right at home.
The owls were screech owls. They make pretty sounds - I'll never understand why they have that name.
When I returned to New England, my new curiosity about birds came with me. I bought Roger Tory Peterson's "A Field Guide to the Birds" and through it found new friends - both winged and two-legged.
I'll never have the marvelous recollection of our experts. I have to relearn many common bird songs every spring. Birds I only see once or twice a year - migrating water birds and warblers - I look up every time. It doesn't matter - it's all a pleasure. The birds don't care what we call them. They are self-validating shots of pure vitality.
Whether at home or abroad, an investment in bird awareness pays good dividends, not subject to exchange rates or to the rise and fall of markets. Spring is for new beginnings.
Ron McAdow is executive director of the Sudbury Valley (Mass.) Trustees and author of guidebooks to the Charles, Concord, Sudbury and Assabet rivers.