The main stages in the life of an ornithologist


The evolution of an ornithologist is a lifeline connecting a series of memorable encounters, the dots on a line that define a lifetime. For me, most if not all of the interactive dots involving birds were accidental, and the line is hardly straight. It zigzags like life itself and involves both men and birds.

Now 71, with some 65 years of recorded bird studies, I find myself looking back at those more life-affirming encounters than before the next. Here is the sum of my harvest.

My life with the birds began on a dull summer afternoon in the northern suburbs of Jersey. It was such a dull day, even the grass looked bored. Somewhere between lunch and dinner, I was sitting on our steps when my neighborhood friend, Donna, came running down the street, pigtails flying, knees shining through jeans that had lost all dignity. Wearing a smile so wide it almost pushed her face away, she was carrying something – something so important that she hugged it to her chest.

Stopping, she struggled to catch her breath, then finally managed to exclaim, “Look what I have… [gasp, gasp] … for my birthday!”

In her arms were binoculars and a book about birds with robins on the cover. “Wow,” I said, fully aware of the milestone that had just been crossed. Not toys, not clothes, but real adult gifts, and Donna just two years older than me. For a child, nothing in the universe is as important as growing up.

“Let’s go for a hike with the birds,” she encouraged him.

“Okay,” I agreed. “When?”

“Tomorrow,” she decreed with adult confidence.

Knowing nothing about birds, except that “the early bird catches the worm”, we decided to start our adventure at the first light of day.

Rising in the dark, I soon found myself standing on Donna’s porch with stars still commanding the sky. She went out through her bedroom window (so as not to wake her parents) and we waited for dawn, then we headed towards “the big woods” behind our houses. Donna was wearing her new binoculars and carrying the bird book in a pocket on her hip. I was armed with the 6×24 binoculars my father had brought back from the war. He had taken them from a German soldier “who no longer needed them.” I could use them if I promised to take care of them, which I did. And I do it because these Carl Zeiss Jena twins remain in my custody today because my father also no longer needs them.

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I don’t remember all the wonders we found that day, but one of my most memorable birding encounters came that first summer of bird study, when I shot a corner on the shores of Third Brickyard Pond and found myself eyeballing a Great Blue Heron. Too startled to move, the heron and I locked eyes and silently challenged the other to take the next step. It was the bird that blinked first, spreading 6-foot wings and flying away.

Curiously, my next memorable encounter also involved a large wading bird. On this occasion, while running errands with my father, we passed a small pond, and there in the shallows was a large white bird which my bird book confirmed to be an egret. This identification was verified the following Sunday in Roger Barton’s weekly column on birdwatching in the old Newark Evening News. Someone else had reported the bird.

I was giddy with pride. A bird big enough to appear in a newspaper, and I had seen it.

My next epic moment came in fourth grade when one spring morning our teacher, Mrs. Manning, told us to close our books because we were going for a walk.

As we approached the wall of trees lining the schoolyard, Mrs. Manning’s stride was stopped by the rambling song of a bird with a rufous back and a speckled breast.

“Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?” she invited.

“It’s a Red Thrasher,” I blurted.

“Do you know any other birds, Peter?”

My cover blew, I confessed I did.

“Do you want to show us some?” »

“Of course,” I said, acutely aware that from then on I would be referred to as a “bird boy.” Not a cool thing in fourth grade.

But a minute later, I was at the front of the class, leading my first bird walk and being peppered with questions from classmates who seemed genuinely curious.

It would be wonderful to say that this moment of celebrity status set me on the path that led to my career with New Jersey Audubon. This was not the case and in high school my interest in birds had given way to other fascinations.

It wasn’t until I was out of college that a chance experience put me back on the path to birdwatching. With a vacation to spare, my then-girlfriend decided to drive to the Outer Banks of North Carolina (home to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge). Borrowing my field guide and binoculars, she returned a week later brimming with stories of her encounters with a host of wintering waterfowl, most of whom I had never seen.

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Pricked with jealousy, I suggested we return to Cape Hatteras next weekend. Eight hours down, eight hours back. I drove to Hatteras eight times that year, overwhelmed by the volume of waterfowl wintering there, not realizing that bird-rich sanctuaries existed in my home state of New Jersey. I concluded that studying birds was, indeed, the career path I wanted to pursue, and my mostly unguided steps eventually led me to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania on a windy September day, a day plagued by migrating falcons.

I knew nothing about the hawk migration, so it was pure luck that I was found at the North Lookout, the site’s main vantage point. I’ve seen brown hawks, osprey at eye level and close enough to smell fish on their breath, and of course, in September, billowing clouds of broad-winged hawks. As the sun set, the last pot of hawks of the day swirled through the trees around the North Lookout. For precious moments, we few who stayed found ourselves inside a kettle of Broad-wings. It’s the only time I’ve been so blessed.

Walking down to my car in the dark, still impressed with my experience, I made a promise. Somehow, somehow, I was going to dedicate my life to watching hawks. It was a promise that I mostly kept. Give or make a few forays into other bird families.

And I wonder now, as I write this sentence, how many of today’s famous birders and nature center naturalists owe their careers to a catalytic trip to Hawk Mountain or an equally amazing bird sanctuary.

The most recent point in my timeline with birds is this column, and it led me precisely to you, reader. Writing, as I like to point out, is 50% readership. We are partners, you and me. The next move is yours.

Maybe we should go on a birdwatching hike?

This article first appeared in the “Bider at Large” section of the March/April 2023 issue of BirdWatching.