Why Pete Dunne is enchanted by birds

Why Pete Dunne is enchanted by birds

So, reader, when was the last time you went bird watching?

Do not chase after a mega rarity.

Not scanning shorebird flocks for certain species that conventional thought should not be there.

Just watch the birds for the pleasure they provide. It’s my favorite brand of bird-study, and increasingly, it’s the only form of bird-study I do: just good old-fashioned birding.

Having survived my own professional adolescence (my list/hunting growth spurt), which was (I admit) halted for many years, I find myself lately just birdwatching as I did in my youth, for fun and insight. Massed Purple Martins in August: bewitching. Short-eared owl hunting in January: exciting. Feeding the house sparrows all year round: all the grain to grind for my bird-loving mill.

Last May, I traveled almost daily to the Heislerville Ponds in southern New Jersey to study the foraging techniques of Least, Semipalmated, and White-rumped Sandpipers. Those least fond of keeping their feet dry, Semis prefer wet mud and White Croupons feed right up to the gunwales in shallow water.

Want to find a White Rump? Look on the wettest side of the herd.

My favorite vantage point for watching shorebirds offered direct proximity to the birds and closed-window protection from the clouds of no-see-ums that plague Heislerville when the wind drops.

Not so long ago, I had no latitude to engage in such quiet study. My Mays were tied to the frantic need to spot species to tie up for our big World Series of Birding viewing day. At that time, Heislerville was our main stop for (perhaps) Curlew Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and (hopefully) Lesser Yellowlegs. All those thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers I enjoy today just got in the way of a serious sweep. Now I relish the feeding flock as the birding gift at the height of the season.

One day last May, I noticed a group of birdwatchers huddled around a pool surrounded by Phragmites about 50 meters from my vantage point. It was obvious they were looking for something. Seeing my interest in shorebirds, one of the group crept up to my door to inform me that I was looking in the wrong place. “Le Petit Relais”, he advised, favored the small swimming pool where the crowds had gathered. I thanked him for his advice and went back to studying the behavior of sandpipers. Surprised by my nonchalance, the gentleman concluded that I did not appreciate the significance of his revelation, explaining that a Little Stint was a Eurasian sandpiper “rarely found in North America”.

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“Yes,” I agreed, “thanks for the tip.” I might have added, but I didn’t: “I’ve seen them on four continents, including this one.”

There was a time (and not too long ago) when I might have run to see the belay, but now I find it more rewarding to find my own birds. There was a good chance that the passage would end up heading towards the swimming pool I was studying anyway. Also, I would much rather see bird species in their normal range than seek out the odd, wayward peek with an inner ear disorder.

I am perfectly satisfied to watch the feeding behavior of the country sandpipers and how their technique differs from that of the Semipalmated Plovers among them. The plovers walk, stop, pick like robins. Sandpipers feed and probe on the run, frantic in search of the next sea worm. As the tide covers the flats, more birds invade the pools and the volume of feeding birds increases (as do territorial disputes). The sound of feeding sandpipers is soothing, moving, and their indifference to my presence is endearing. And it’s not like my quiet study is going to go on forever. By June, the feeding crowds will be gone, spread across the Arctic where they breed, and the curtain will fall on my study of shorebirds. In summer, my interest will fall on the next gift of the season: Clapper Rail chicks navigating paths as thin as a rail or barn swallows making die-cut patterns on nesting platforms. Then, in July, Ma Nature begins serving southbound dowitchers who survey apartments with metronome regularity. It is fascinating and affirming.

A few decades ago, I had a conversation with a Californian ornithologist, a retired physician and one of the architects of modern birding. His life list was up top in the nosebleed section. He evaluated his life of hunting and enumeration this way: “Well, I’ve seen them all. But now I want to go back and see them all again, and this time really enjoy it. He was already in his eighties; I hope he got his wish.

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Me? I can’t count on seeing them all again, so I try to “really enjoy” every bird I see the first time. Each encounter is unique and offers the opportunity to learn a new facet of the bird’s life (no matter how often or how many times I have seen one).

This existential focus was best expressed by my friend Steve Ingraham, who, when he learned that the bird the group was trying to see was a robin, exclaimed with exaggerated glee, “It’s a bird of life for me.”

“Have you ever seen a robin? an incredulous member of the group arrested.

“I’ve never seen this one,” Steve explained softly.

Well said, Steve. Cheer!

I had a somewhat related encounter with an ornithologist in Cave Creek, Arizona one day when I was enchanted by a Painted Redstart, an Arizona specialty. Seeing my attention, a local bird watcher approached me and asked me if I had “got” the redstart?

I’m looking at one now, I replied. “No, not Painted Redstart,” she warned, clarifying that she was referring to an American Redstart that had been reported.

“Sorry,” I replied, “it seems like the universe is serving Painted Redstarts here today. If you want to see an American Redstart, I’d try northern New Jersey. We grow them there.

Yes, I was obtuse, and she went looking for the lost Redtail. I hope she succeeded and was as pleased with her redstart as I was with mine, a designer bird which I first aspired to see in my youth when, count given my situation, a trip to Arizona seemed as likely as a trip to the moon. .

Now on to the red-faced warbler, another Arizona specialty worth savoring.

So am I anti-listing? Heaven no. It would be as silly as being anti-baseball cards. I’m an ornithologist. Try it.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of BirdWatching magazine.