Friday, October 12, 2007

You're Only Young Once

The following is another essay that I entered in the Young Birder of the Year competition a few weeks ago. Hope you enjoy it.


You’re Only Young Once: A Collection of Birding Memories

By Benjamin Berkompas, June 19, 2007

The metronomic beeping of my watch alarm slowly brought me to consciousness, and I drowsily fumbled around on the shelves above me to find the culprit and silence it. By the time I retrieved my watch and groaned at the early hour it displayed, I finally recalled the reason why I had it set for 6:00. Slipping quietly out of bed, I put on some warm clothes, shouldered my camera bag and with binoculars in hand set out through the pre-dawn gloom of the forest toward my destination. The brisk morning air restored me to complete wakefulness. After wading through the dew-laden ferns and grass I was soaked, but on a morning like that you hardly notice. Birds were singing and foraging energetically in the canopy, and after exiting the forest I wound my way through a maze of clear-cut state land dotted with young pine trees and finally reached my familiar little gravel road. The sun had just crested the surrounding hills and bathed the road in golden light. I enjoyed a few hours photographing Golden-crowned, White-crowned and Song Sparrows at my feeding station, nothing really special. Nonetheless, mornings like that remain some of my fondest birding memories. For birders, there’s nothing quite like rising with the sun.

Even though I’ve only been seriously birding for about a year and a half (at the time I’m writing this), I have a certain nostalgia for the “early days,” when I assumed Varied Thrushes must be some kind of Oriole (“they’ve got orange on them, what else could they be!”), and almost every bird I identified was a lifer (“what’s a lifer?” ☺). Everything was new and exciting, and I was blissfully ignorant. It’s kind of embarrassing to share this but in my very first attempt at “birding” I sauntered into the woods, threw some birdseed in a clearing and sat down to wait for the birds to throng to it! Here’s a brief excerpt from my journal, a real-time account of my first glimpse of a Red-breasted Sapsucker:

May 15, 2006
“Leaving the house at about 6:40 a.m., I arrived at my destination on state land at about 7:00 a.m. The weather is slightly overcast and cool—though later it’s supposed to escalate to about 90o… I’m hearing songbirds all around me but have yet to actually see one…wait, I just did. It flew very fast but looked a little smaller than a robin—with a bright red head, and white breast speckle-fading into it’s black body. It didn’t fly like a finch, but very fast and smooth. I didn’t notice it’s call. It may have been some kind of tanager or woodpecker, but it will be hard to identify on so few clues…”

In some ways I think I learned more back then, not only because I was wandering through a vast forest of new information and there was so much to discover, but because I walked with my eyes wide open. Once I stopped trusting my intuition to identify unfamiliar species, I had to observe and remember every possible detail to use later as I pored over Sibley’s. Since I’m the first dedicated birder in the family, I had to start from scratch, but as some of my younger siblings have gotten interested (no, fanatical!) it’s been funny to watch them grow. I’ll be sitting at my desk studying when all of the sudden I hear kids scampering to the window and Zachary shouts, “Hey, Benj! There’s a new bird at your feeder!” Oh yeah, it’s a Black-throated Gray Warbler. “Wow, cooool!”

I said I was learning with open eyes, but the truth is, in birding, your eyes are only as good as your binoculars. Back then my vision wasn’t exactly 20/20! But using an inexpensive Simmons 8x20 binocular was helpful in a few ways; I was able to fully appreciate the leap to a nice antique Nikon 7x35 binocular that my late grandfather used in the military, and then of course the view through my new Leica Trinovid 8x32’s made my jaw drop all the further. If there ever comes a day when I’m not satisfied with my Leicas (like that will ever happen!), maybe a peek through the old 8x20’s will cure me.

Another experience that cracks me up to think about it happened about a year ago in our yard. I decided I wanted to sketch and photograph the birds that frequent our lawn in the early morning, and since they always seemed to be so skittish a blind seemed to be the solution. Well, how does one go about making a blind? Maybe you could construct a simple square frame with sticks bound together and then duct-tape black plastic garbage bags around the outside?... It wasn’t a bad feat of engineering, aside from the fact that it was about 9 square feet and really ugly! The next morning I was up bright and early sitting on a stool in my blind with some birdseed, a sketchbook, digital camera and my laptop to assess my photos. Though it seems pretty silly now, that morning was a lot of fun. I saw and photographed a pair of Mourning Doves foraging in the grass, which isn’t a common sight for us. The blind soon succumbed to the weather, but even though I’ve since replaced it with a Grizzly G-20 pop-up blind, that remains my best birding-from-a-blind memory.

Every winter the Robins hand over their lawn care duties to the Orioles—oops I mean Varied Thrushes!—which are everywhere but extremely wary. After many frustrating attempts to photograph them, I struck upon an idea. A flock of about 12—sometimes as many as 20—liked to congregate on one side of the house to forage in the grass, and happily we have a collapsible canopy right next to the lawn. With my Minolta 5D and 100-400mm lens mounted on a monopod, I crept into the tent, positioned myself in one corner and carefully undid the fastenings so I could peek out. Some of the more alert thrushes cocked their heads but showed no signs of alarm. Then followed a fun hour of shooting. A few days later a lone VATH perched sleepily in the Japanese Maple by our front porch, and I was able to easily capture full-frame images of one of our prettiest thrushes. They sure bring a bit of color to our dreary Northwest winters.

The good memories always last the longest. It doesn’t bring me a lot of pleasure to recall the times I’ve loaded myself up with gear like a pack mule , hiking many weary miles only to come home empty-handed and thirsty. But I’ve been learning every step of the way, and that always involves some ridiculous errors. Remembering the first time I saw a Black-headed Grosbeak, and my first experience photographing hummingbirds with my Dad always makes me glad for those early days. Some things only happens once, and good thing too, or I would still be out in the woods sitting on a stump with a handful of birdseed just waiting.

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