How honest can I be? How much am I willing to reveal on the page? I’m not really sure, but these are questions every writer needs to ask herself. Real honesty makes one cringe a bit and I’ve had more than a few uncomfortable, cringe-worthy feelings lately.
At 5:55 am last Thursday John and I boarded a plane in Bozeman. We were headed to the southern shores of Lake Erie to witness a spectacle that has been ongoing since glaciers created the Great Lakes about 20,000 years ago — the spring migration of tens of thousands of songbirds en route to their northern breeding grounds.
We had been invited by John’s friend Zac, an avid birder who lives a few hours south of Lake Erie. Zac came to visit us late last summer and was nearly 300 birds into a Big Year. The goal of a Big Year is to see as many species as possible in 365 days. Zac was so enthusiastic about birding that he inspired John to do a Big Year in 2016.
It irked me. Why, after I had just left my job as an ornithologist to become a science writer, was John into birds now? I was even more disappointed that it had not been me who inspired his interest in birds.
The decision to leave my job was the most difficult one I have ever made. I spent months agonizing over it. Being a wildlife biologist had been my dream since I remember anyone asking what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a kid I’d watch the Discovery Channel (back when they aired documentaries about wildlife, rather than reality shows as they do now). I’d pour over National Geographic magazines and dream of doing the things Jane Goodall did.
My version of Jane Goodall became banding songbirds across the country. I first became interested in birds while volunteering on a banding project in Yosemite National Park in 2001. My field partner and I would awake before dawn and drive to one of our six banding stations scattered across the park. At first light we’d unfurl a dozen fine mesh nets strung between two aluminum poles jammed into the soil. The nets were like a fish-net stocking with three tiers of loose pockets. When the nets are taut they are nearly invisible and birds fly right into them, fall into one of the pockets, and become entangled.
Checking the nets for birds was like opening a gift. I never knew what each net held. I’d hold each bird in the palm of my hand as I worked strands of net from their wings and feet and head. There is an art to extracting a bird from a net — no two are ever caught in the same way.
At the banding station I’d hang the bags on a tree and work them one by one. Some of the birds were too frightened to do anything in defense of my clunky hands. Yellow warblers would lie calmly in my palm, my fingers stretched around their bodies. They remained still, but their wide black eyes followed my movements and their feet clutched my fingers like twigs. But black-headed grosbeaks bit down on my fingers so hard they drew blood and red-breasted sapsuckers pierced my cuticles with their talons.
On each bird’s right leg I’d squeeze a metal ring bearing a unique set of numbers, then measure their wings, bill and feet. I’d blow softly on their bellies and under their wings to check for fat. In late summer their clavicle would begin to swell and turn yellow beneath their skin. By the end of summer fat had collected along the sides of their bellies and under their wings until they resembled little butterballs. Only then were they ready to migrate south.
I used birds as a conduit to travel. Next came Alabama and Texas, then Georgia, Hawaii and then California again. I learned all the birds everywhere I went. I was good. Really good. I could tell the fall warblers apart, the juveniles even. I could pick out the softest chip note and identify its maker. When traveling to a new area I’d pour over field guides and bird checklists to see what was possible. I’d remember them so that when I saw an unfamiliar bird I’d know what it was. Moving around challenged my skills; there was always something new to see.
I came to Yellowstone at the tail end of my travels, but I didn’t know it was the end. I planned only to stay three months, but I have never left save for a few brief stints here and there. I started out listening to songbirds in flooded patches of willows. For three years I worked on songbirds then moved up the food chain to raptors. I started with peregrine falcons. That first summer watching peregrines tested my skills in ways they had not been tested before. I was so determined to find their nests that I’d camp out in the back of a borrowed pickup below a cliff so that I would be there at first light. I’d stay all day if need be. A few years later I added golden eagles and red-tailed hawks.
I measured my life by the summer field seasons and the arrival of spring migrants. Eleven years passed. But somewhere along the way my interest began to wane. While peering through a spotting scope at a golden eagle I would hear birds singing in the background, but I rarely looked at them anymore. I birded almost entirely by ear. “Oh yes, a flock of pine siskins. I’ve seen those before. No need to look again.”
I eventually stopped birding on my time off. And then at work I only focused on those species I was tasked to monitor. I didn’t bother much with other species. I was too tired and I was losing interest. This is where I really cringe.
I began to forget. It was a slow, insidious, creeping forgetfulness bordering on apathy. My own private amnesia. My interest was fading along with the imprint of the song of an orange-crowned warbler – a bird I tracked for months through the forests of Santa Cruz Island once upon a time.
I had forgotten my curiosity. I had left it behind somewhere out there in the field and I did not notice until John became a birder.
When John and I arrived in Ohio we met Zac in Port Clinton and drove to the Magee Marsh about twenty minutes away. The Magee Marsh is a 7-acre woodland situated between Lake Erie and the flooded marshlands to the south. There is a boardwalk that meanders through the forest. The forest was filled with warblers, thrushes and other birds I hadn’t seen in a decade or more.
By the time these songbirds reach the Great Lakes they are exhausted. They have flown about 2,000 miles from Central or South America. They have crossed the Gulf of Mexico in one fell swoop because there is no where to land. I’ve heard of oil workers walking right up to birds perched on rigs stationed there. The lights are disorienting and they draw them off course. Some birds drop right out of the sky and into the sea below. Their feathers have been found in the bellies of tiger sharks.
But many of them do make it. Blue-gray gnatcatchers with their long black tails edged in white. Black-and-white warblers and red-eyed vireos. They really do have red eyes and soft faces too. Blackburnian warblers with flaming throats. Wood thrushes – rufous ground-dwelling songbirds with black spots splashed across a white breast. Individual trees held six or seven species alone.
Birds practically foraged at our feet. They flew past our faces and once I even had to duck so as to not get slapped on the cheek with a wing. We spent hours of every day on this boardwalk that would otherwise have taken 15 minutes to walk.
I was beginning to remember and it made me want to cry. I did cry. Right there on the boardwalk surrounded by prothonotary warblers, yellow-breasted chats, blue jays, and white-throated sparrows.
I had heard once from a college professor that naturalists were dead. No one calls themselves that anymore. We are now biologists or ‘ologists of some kind. If that is true then that is a shame, but I don’t think he was correct. To be a naturalist is to notice, to appreciate, to work things out by simple observation, to learn with your own two eyes rather than from a book.
“You will find something more in the woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which can never be learned from masters, ” said St. Bernard, a twelfth-century French abbot.
I was ready to leave my job as an ornithologist because it had become a job. Because I had stopped noticing. I no longer feel I need the job title to be a naturalist, or an ‘ologist, or to define myself in either of those terms. All I really needed was to wake up.