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Her name is Samantha Rey Tringa and this is her story:
I’d just finished writing notes on a bird when she walked up, asking, “Seen any thing good, Sam?” I told her. She just stood there — then “Out there? How do you do it?” She asked in a frustrated way, her Swarovski 10x42s around her neck, her latest new bird guide wrapped in a plastic bag under her arm. Over her shoulder was her 85mm scope on a carbonate tripod. Everything wrapped in protective jackets.
“I mean, like you find all these good birds and I find nothing good, just the same ole, same ole.”
I shrugged my shoulders, my 40-year-old worn and dented Leicas in one hand and a pocket spiral notebook and pencil in the other. “And you don’t even use a scope!”
I looked down at the ground where the old Bushnell 22x was laying against a drift log on its equally old tripod.
She babbled some more while setting up her scope. Then raised her binocs, looking out across the tide flats. She scanned, then switched to her scope.
She moved the scope first one way, then another. Looked up, raised her binocs again. Then back to the scope. Then she picked up the bird book, unzipped the plastic bag, took it out, thumbed through it, looked back through the scope, then back to the book.
I heard her swear.
Then I heard her sigh.
This scenario went on for a while. Finally she put everything back into their protective covers, zipping, tucking, lifting, and walked back up the beach to where I was standing watching her.
Cultivating the birding passion
“How do you do it?” she asked. Julian was a novice who’d discovered a passion in birds. For almost a year she’d been at this new hobby of hers: joining the local Audubon, doing guided bird walks, subscribing to birding magazines, purchasing birding apps for her smartphone.
There was no lack of ambition, passion or desire. But there was a reality check — Julian didn’t know how to bird.
She could look out across a tidal flat and find a Dunlin with its black belly in late spring. Or locate a semipalmated plover and find its picture in her bird guide. But she didn’t know how to SEE a bird and know it as an individual with characteristics giving it an I.D.
She looked, found and then plowed through pages until she discovered a drawing that “ … it looks like this.”
She’d asked again, “How do you find the birds you find? How do you know them when you see them? How do you do it?”
Instead of answering, I held my notebook out to her and asked her to read my notes. 8.09.11/tide flats Dung Bay/300+ shores/working edge of bay water/fast movements/Dunnys/Least/and this one — pale complete breast-band, flanks clear and clean white, face plain, dark lores with light supraloral spot, long primaries well past tertials and tail tip, plume seems fresh, no wear, pale fringed upper parts, looks scaly, buff overall, bright buff head fm forehead over crown, hint of post eye auricular, hint of eye-ring, black legs, black bill same length as head, stands erect, feeds by probing.
She looked up and asked the obvious question, “What does this mean, what bird is it?”
I didn’t answer, yet. Instead I put my scope on a bird close by and asked her to describe it to me.
“It’s small, has black legs, kinda brownish on back, has spots on breast. What is it?”
This question I answered, “Dunlin.”
She looked again, “But it doesn’t look like the picture in the guide.”
“No it doesn’t.”
She looked quizzical, so I did what should have been done with this wanna-be-birder a long time ago. I shared with her and showed her how to see a bird.
See the bird
I handed her a spare notebook, a pencil, and said, “This is where and how we start.
“First, bird-by-bird comparing size of each to others; now look at leg color; bill color; then look at wing projection with tail — explaining what that was; what color is the eye; is there an eye-ring; is there an ear-patch; what color is its forehead; how is the crown patterned; the neck; the nape (she knew bird topography); what pattern are the feathers on its back; is the breast clear, or streaked, or spotted … ”
She stopped me, asking, “Spotted and streaked are different?” I explained the difference. “ … now the underbelly — what’s it like; under-tail coverts; and, as important as any feather characteristic — what is the bird doing? How is it walking, feeding — is it pecking or probing or running along after prey; what’s it doing in relation to other birds?”
I stopped and waited. She was still writing. I then asked her to draw the bird she was now looking at, knowing what her answer would be. “I can’t draw!” Such emphasis on “can’t draw.” Always that.
“Yes you can, even if it’s just a stick-bird, draw it.”
And she did. She looked over at me stating, not asking, “This is how you look at birds all the time.”
I nodded, “No other way.”
She looked back out to the flats, “You don’t use a bird guide, though?”
I reached into back pocket, pulled out and handed her my dog-eared guide. “Ohhh.” That was all she said.
“I use a guide, but I SEE the bird first. I look and take notes on what I’m seeing. And then when I use a guide I know what I’m looking for. I’m not comparing the bird with the book, I’m comparing the book with the bird. For me, that’s the difference in learning to see a bird.”
She nodded, then asked, “So, what’s that bird in your notes?” I moved the scope further right of where it was pointed, and said, “Find it.” It took about 20 minutes, bird-by-bird, until, “THERE! That one’s different!” And she wrote her notes while looking at the bird.
Then I handed her my Peterson’s. She went through checking the characteristics she’d seen until “Baird’s sandpiper! A juvy?”
I smiled. A wanna-be just became a birder!
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.