Our Birds: The Guru and the Grasshopper

“Sensei [先生]?”

The old man turned his gaze toward the boy sitting cross-legged in front of him, “Yes, Grasshopper?"

The boy said, “I’ve been here now for many years. When you brought me here I came because I wanted to learn about birds, to study with you and the others – the masters of birding. And I have learned. I now know the plumages of birds, their songs, their behavior. I can tell auklets apart by silhouettes. I know the time in spring when swallows return and when they leave in the fall. I can go to the far reaches of the land and recognize vagrants.

"And now my time here is coming to a close; I will soon leave through the oak doors where the brands of eagle feathers will weave their place into my arms as I push them open. And yet, I feel an emptiness that I don’t understand. Not in accumulated knowledge Sensei. I know what I know, but, I am confused.”

The old man shifted his gaze away from the boy, turned to look out the window at chickadees moving through cherry blossoms. He knew those three words would come one day from this prodigy of his. He turned back to the boy, “Tell me what it is, that you are confused about, Grasshopper,” he asked. Solemnly, the boy responded, “I know birds, but I do not know what it means to be a birder. Through your eyes that never see but are always seeing, Sensei, tell me what it means to be a birder!”

“To tell you what it means to be a birder, Grasshopper, is to tell you about the one who is known as The Guru! And how he interacts with his world, with others and with birds. Let me begin.”


He stands there on the bow of the boat, legs spread, binocs raised to eyes, hands gloved, layered in wool and outer garments impervious to the rain, wind, ocean spray, noting, “ … it’s nice to see a large flock of Pacific loons like these [point east]; it’s so different than what you’d expect to see of loons from shore. These birds are moving from basic to alternate plumage [pauses to listen to question].

Birds have two plumage types, breeding and wintering. Alternate refers to breeding plumage, while basic is what they look like in winter [pause]. Sometimes, if they take several years to move into breeding plumage, they retain this winter plumage or change very little. Yes. Like Bald eagles do. [pause] OK, good. Seagulls? Yes, those are our infamous Olympic gulls; one of our hybrid glaucous-winged cross Western gulls.”

And he pauses again. Looks around at the others on the bow, these novices eager to learn, and shares what hybridization means; who Olympic gulls are and why the name is beginning to stick to this gull. How many times has he told this story? There’s no counting, no tally, but he tells it over and over with every outing. Sometimes with twists of humor, “… maybe these gulls just didn’t read their basic biology book on hybrid sterility. Or maybe they just like sex because it works for them.”

Walking along the trail, he looks into the cottonwood tree in front of him, searching for the flicker of movement that will show the warbler, pointing when he sees it, guiding the youth’s eyes to where he is looking, saying, “Look into the leaves, there! See the movement [child shakes head, No]. OK, keep looking, watch for movement. OK, there. Do you see it? Good. Now watch as it moves across the branch. What’d it do? [child gives answer.] Right. A bug, probably an inchworm. There, it did it again. It’s feeding. Now, it’s closer. Look at the colors. What do you see. [child responds]. Yes. A yellow and black face. There, did you see it’s rump when it turned? Yes, it is the color of butter. Sometimes these are called Butter-butts!” To watch the child laugh, still looking at the Audubon’s warbler he was showing her, is to truly share a bird. This Grasshopper, is being a birder.

A sing-song voice comes over the speaker inside the boat, “We’re going to be sailing up Haro Strait which was named after one of the pilots, Ganzalo Lopez de Haro, who was with Manuel Quimper aboard the Princesa Real in 1790. The story goes that when the Spanish came through they named all the inlets, islands, straits and peaks. And then when the British came through in the early 1790s, that was Capt. George Vancouver, he also named everything. Consequently, there was a lot of double naming. Sometime later, the British Admiralty sat in conference to sort the mess out.

"But a further complication ensued because an American naval officer, Charles Wilkes, had named many places east of the San Juan islands and furthermore, there was the boundary between British and American lands which complicated the situation … "

The Guru knows these things, Grasshopper. Knows the histories of places where he birds because knowing birds isn’t just about their ID.

A conversation

He sat down on the log, pulled his battered NatGeo out of a pocket, flipped through dog-eared pages, finally settling on a spread of drawings, turned toward the other sitting next to him where the following words were shared:

[TG] ... but it didn’t show the dull yellow supraloral

[O] ... no, it looked whitish

[TG] ... but it did show some blackish stippling on lower throat, did you see that?

[O] ... yeah, not the grayish you’d expect from a fall bird

[TG] ... the eye-ring? Was it complete? Or did it seem broken to you?

[O] ... complete!

[TG] ... the breast was dull yellowish. As were belly and undertail coverts.

[O] ... tail projection past tail coverts seemed short, not longish.

[TG] ... I know, but I don’t know!”

Question what you see, Grasshopper. To assume an ID, to accept what your eyes first see, to call out a name in order to be the first, to know a bird without challenging what bird it really is no matter the season, or patch, or whatever is folly. The Guru knows this, even though the bird he saw was what he thought it was. He questioned not the other, but shared the questions with the other and with himself in order to truly know the warbler they were in doubt over.

One last tale about comes from his connection to the land. He knelt down along the edge of the river, holding a small paper cup in his hand. A cup that held several salmon fry. Just like the many cups that had earlier that day been poured gently into the river from many children’s hands who’d come to help in the release of these young salmon. Salmon that’d been raised in an aquarium in the center. As he lowered the cup down to the water, turning it so the fry could swim out, he looked up river and watched as a dipper flew down the rapids, passed him and continued on as it gave its river call fading now around the bend.

He rocked back on his heels, looked down at the water where the fry was no more, looked down river where the dipper had disappeared and laughed. The boy, known to the old man as Grasshopper, looked up into his face as he, too, smiled.

And the old man knew that a birder was about to leave his dwelling; and just maybe, one day would become one like The Guru.

Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at


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