FROM WATCHING BIRDS TO BIRDWATCHING
It began innocently enough, I swear. No notion of its impact on my life grazed the edges of my consciousness. It began on the fateful day I first went owling.
My travel article about visiting the Outer Banks out of season had just been published in The Washington Post. In the article, I expressed a desire to learn the “peeps,” the small shorebirds that frequent our Atlantic beaches. As one thing leads to another, I got volunteered to go owling with Tom Valega, sometimes known as “the wizard of owls,” who had great delight in sharing his birding knowledge. I was not quite a newbie, as I did know most of the backyard birds that came to my feeders, but that was about it. A mere watcher of birds.
I met Tom at 4:00 a.m. in Rockville and the chase was on. First stop was a bridge over a creek that winds through woods near Lake Frank. In darkness under shadowy trees, the night resonated to the eerie calls of a barred owl. Then Tom turned off his cassette player. “Now, we listen, and watch the trees for motion.”
We listened to silence, scanning the leafless branches outlined against a moonlit sky. Breath became fog in the chill, damp air. Clear and windless, it was a good morning for owling. I was psyched. I had never seen a free wild owl.
A shadow flickered through the trees. A barred owl had come to investigate. It perched, looking like a dark football on the branch. We shone our flashlights on it. Through binoculars, I could see the owl’s large round head with its reflective eyes. In the light, those eyes glinted gold. The owl preened for a moment as if aware of its worthiness, then floated away as silently as it had come.
We drove to other locations where Tom had seen or heard owls. Near the Meadowside Nature Center, a screech owl tape provoked some calls in answer. By the county landfill, where rats were doubtless plentiful, a great horned owl hooted in response to a tape of its deep-voiced vocalizations.
Now the sun was coming up. Time to stop annoying owls and let them go to roost.
“Once a birder gets started, he never wants to stop,” Tom said. “Want to go check out this farm pond?” Sure I did. A great blue heron flew off as we approached, leaving the pond to a few ducks and a chatty company of red-winged blackbirds.
Our next observation point was a brush-covered landfill area near the farm, where Tom said there were usually a few hawks. We heard a harsh two-noted call. “Red-shouldered hawk,” Tom said. He swung around. “There.” The hawk banked down on broad wings, perched before us on a stump for a splendid moment, and then departed.
I heard a short, dry trill like a fingernail going down a comb. “Carolina wren,” said Tom. He turned and pointed to the jaunty little bird probing a log for breakfast.
He knew the birds without looking. Could I ever do that?
When an experienced birder shows you what to look for, what to listen for, it’s as if a covering was peeled off the world to let you appreciate the brilliant, teeming life inside.
I was hooked. I became a birdwatcher. Not quite a birder, as I don’t keep many lists and I seldom “chase” rare birds, but birding was now in my blood.
In the 24 years since that day, I’ve bought better binoculars (don’t ask how many pairs), learned dozens of bird songs, traveled to many different birding areas across the U.S. and overseas, participated in official and just-for-fun bird counts, published articles about birds and birding, and gratefully enjoyed the new dimension added to my life.
And occasionally, I still get up at 4:00 a.m. to go owling.