Before we get going, I must inform you that birders are bullies.
Yes, this came as a shock to me as well, as I would not have expected self-described “bird nerds” to be the sort who would try to stuff me in a locker. But that was before the Green Heron Incident.
The GHI occurred last May, during week nine of our brief two-week lockdown, when my then 10-year-old son and I entered Mass Audubon’s annual Bird-a-thon — a statewide scramble where teams try to see or hear as many species of birds as they can in 24 hours — as a way to get out of the house. We weren’t birders, per se; we knew the backyard birds, and that only muggles use the terms “bird watching” and “sea gulls.” But we were wildly unprepared for the cutthroat world of the Bird-a-thon.
In competitive birding, no one cares about the common birds. Everyone is going to get the usual suspects. To win, you need to find the rarer birds, so I told our team leader to give us a hero assignment. I should not have said this, for she assigned us the task of finding a green heron, which my bird guide described as “secretive.” What it should have said is “any attempt to find one will end in tears,” for that is exactly what happened to us, standing along a marsh, crying into our binoculars as the Bird-a-thon ended.
Nearly a year has passed since then, but it’s still difficult for me to talk about what happened next, for as soon as I published an article about our failures, the bullying began. Birders were practically tripping over themselves to send me photos they’d allegedly taken of green herons. They mocked my birding abilities. They called me an insult to those who use “bird” as a verb. It was relentless. But the more they pushed me, the more vengeance brewed in my blood.
So when the Bird-a-thon rolled around this year, I insisted on an assignment that, if successful, would end with my North Shore teammates carrying me down the street on their shoulders as old men whispered, “There goes the best darn birder who ever lived.”
I wanted to take down a rare warbler.
Like bigfoot, unicorns, and green herons, rare warblers probably don’t exist. Warblers are supposedly a family of tiny birds that are very good at hiding in foliage, according to people trying to come up with explanations for why no one has ever actually seen one, so they are often identified by their song (which counts in the birding world). A warbler is considered rare if it is generally scarce or if it’s spotted far from where it is supposed to be. In either case, any reports of a rare warbler are met with excitement and heavy skepticism.
So it was that I found myself at dawn on Saturday in a cemetery in Salem, of all places, staring into the ether with my binoculars, which is totally normal behavior. There were rumors in the birding community that a yellow-throated warbler had been seen near a small pond in Green Lawn Cemetery, even though — like Aqua Net hair spray — you usually can’t find it north of New Jersey.
I had spent the previous day studying up on the yellow-throated warbler’s song, which “The Sibley Guide to Birds” described as “teedl teedl teedl teedl teedl teedl teedl tew tew twee.” Got it?
And so I strolled the cemetery listening for teedls, as one does. Soon, there were rival birders around the pond, everyone keeping their distance and pretending like they were just ambling about in a cemetery at dawn and totally, definitely weren’t looking for a tiny yellow bird.
Finally, a man carrying a camera with a lens the size of a Howitzer asked me if I was having any luck, which caught me off guard. “Are you in the Bird-a-thon?” I interrogated him, as I looked around suspiciously, convinced this was some sort of trap.
“Is it the Bird-a-thon? I didn’t even know. I just love birds,” Steven Ross replied. We chatted for a bit. He told me he was from Danvers, came to the cemetery to bird all the time, and gave me some curious advice. “To be a real birder, you have to learn the songs. A brown-headed cowbird just called, and since you don’t know it, all you hear is just pleasant springtime sounds.”
This simple statement sent me into deep contemplation until another birder appeared and said something awful. “Did you see the two green herons that just flew over?”
I got in my car and went in search of a bar, but since it was only 7 a.m. they were all closed, which is ridiculous. So instead I went home and picked up my family and we headed toward Daniel Boone Park in Ipswich, where there had been rumors of a Kentucky warbler. The Sibley guide describes this bird as “difficult to see,” with a song that is “a rolling series of vaguely two-syllable phrases similar to Carolina Wren or Ovenbird, but with richer quality, steady rolling tempo, and lack of clearly defined syllables.” Easy enough.
But after two hours of walking the trails with no signs of the Kentucky warbler, my two boys were preoccupied with the frogs on the edge of the ponds, my wife was preoccupied with trying to keep our little guy out of the poison ivy, and I was preoccupied with that old quote, often misattributed to Mark Twain, that “golf is a good walk spoiled.”
The reason serious birders hate the term “bird watching” is because it is too passive; it robs them of their game and makes them sound like a strolling naturalist. But here’s the thing: I quite like being a strolling naturalist. I like “just pleasant springtime sounds.” I like calling them sea gulls.
I like ... bird watching.
So I quit birding. You bird nerds can keep your stupid game and your expensive scopes and your fake photos of fake birds. I’m taking my binoculars and going home. Teedl teedl this.