Sunday, March 12, 2017

Birding: Just Another Pecking Order

This Eastern Screech-Owl is a celebrity in Newburyport.
I've started birding and, yes, I am as surprised as you are.

Birding is for old people with funny hats.

The truth is, though, it pushes all my buttons.  I love taking pictures.  I love to hike and snowshoe.  I love being on the hunt.  I love doing the reading and studying.  And since November, I've been looking for reasons to avoid my Facebook and Twitter feeds, if only to preserve my sanity.

I call it trading Tweets for tweets.

My introduction to birding has been through my backyard feeder, Henry at Wildbirds Unlimited, Carol and the great people at Audubon, The Big Year, H is for Hawk, my new Sibley and Peterson, my e-bird alerts, and a bunch of group excursions looking for owls and eagles and hawks (oh my).

And I'm still a complete rookie--which is good for the soul.  My life list has 38 birds.  They even place me in the front seat of the van when I head off with a group of experienced birders so I "don't miss anything."  When I was first to spot an eagle a few weeks ago, I heard one of the charming older ladies in my group whisper, "Beginner's luck."  So, I'm starting in right field--but at least I'm in the game.

And, as in every human endeavor, with birding, there is a pecking order.  Just like at the office, where there is a clear pecking order.  At the gym.  At the local diner.  At church.  My wife plays in bell choirs and, yes, even when nice people are swinging 3/8-inch thick solid Aluminum/Titanium alloy, polished tempered tone chimes, in unison to Bach, there is a pecking order.

Today's rare bird alert.  It's hard
not to want to drop everything
and go looking.
We are, after all, just apes.  In the case of birding, apes with Swarovskis and scopes and tripods and cameras.  But just apes.

Here's one recent example.



About a month ago, I was on Plum Island in Newburyport, one of the great birding places in America.  It was maybe 7:30 a.m., not long after sunrise, and I had stumbled upon a Red-tail Hawk.  For a rookie birder, hawks are pretty special, even if the Red-tail (I learned later) is the default bird of prey in Massachusetts.  This magnificent animal was perched on a viewing tower, fixated on a vol or mouse in the grass, and was about to swoop in for the kill.

It was just him and me, and I was snapping away.

Then, from behind me, comes Bird Guy.  Remember, I've only been at this for a few months, but already I can recognize Bird Guy.  He is the king of the pecking order.  He's late 60s, maybe 70.  He's dressed in camouflage.  (Really.)  He has a small fortune in technology dangling from his neck and a tripod over his shoulder.  And he has a lens like you might see on the battlefield at Gettysburg.

I have a Canon.  He has a cannon.  If he'd had a caisson I wouldn't have been surprised.

Anyway, he comes up behind me and asserts his place at the top of the pecking order: "Sniff.  Oh, that hawk.  I took pictures of him last spring.  Sniff.  He's always around.  Everyone gets him."

My friend, the Red-tail.  I was excited, even if GI Joe wasn't.
It doesn't matter, I think.  I'm excited.  This is a remarkable bird.  And I'm here for fresh air and my mental health.  I've spent a career negotiating the pecking order.  That's enough.  "Good morning," says I, cheerily.

G.I. Joe looks me over.  I'm new, he can tell.  A threat.  An ape invading his territory.  "Yep," says he.

After all, how much competition can I be with an Orvis jacket and a lens I can haul with one hand?

As he's walking away I can hear him muttering, and I catch ever so softly,  "Sniff.  I would never take pictures of a bird sitting on a man-made object."  What's that, I think?  I can't take a picture of a hawk on a man-made tower?

And then I realize: It's just the ape in us, keeping the pecking order.  I really am going to have to serve my time in right field.

As I was driving home, it occurred to me that a guy dressed in $500 worth of official camouflage from the Army/Navy Store, with $8,000 worth of man-made high-tech swinging from his neck, was chiding me for taking pictures of a Red-tail hawk on a man-made wooden tower.

And that, my friend, is exactly how the pecking order works.

P.S.--I'm off to the Army/Navy Store this weekend to find me a funny hat.