Bird watching has been described (by Ornithologist Joseph Hickey) as "a mild paralysis of the central nervous system which can be cured only by rising at dawn and sitting in a bog." Nowhere is this pleasant addiction cultivated by so many nature lovers as in Boston. Whenever Roger Tory Peterson, author of A Field Guide to the Birds, the bird watcher's bible, leads a field trip out of that city it is definitely the ornithological event of the year—for reasons set forth in the following letter from a proper Bostonian to a bird-loving friend.
R.H. Phipps Piper, Esq.
New York City
You and I have been bird watching since our school days at St. Paul's and through the years each of us has had his moments of triumph. Your greatest moment, I suppose, came when you added the marbled godwit to your Life List. I can confess to you now, Phipps, that until today I have never quite found it in my heart to forgive you that. Mind you, I have never actually doubted your godwit (although the bird is extremely rare and almost unheard of at the time of year you said you saw it), but if ever I had the slightest mental reservation about it, I could not be anything but generous in this—my great moment. For I have had the greatest adventure of my career, and nothing that the future holds for me can be anything but anticlimactic. This day, my dear Phipps, I have been bird watching with Peterson!
I know you will agree with me, Phipps, when I say that Roger Tory Peterson is the finest all-round bird man since John James Audubon. I grant you Audubon may surpass him in sheer artistry, but—to me—Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds is far and away the finest handbook ever published. I've said that for years and now—knowing Peterson—I believe it more firmly than ever.
March 21, 1955
RENDEZVOUS AT NINE
Do I hear gnashing of teeth? Very well, old man, I shall come directly to the point. Through some mischance, the notice that Peterson had come to Boston to lead a bird walk did not come to my attention until late yesterday afternoon. Naturally I was quite excited by the news and immediately called Audubon headquarters. I was told to be on hand in the lobby of Hotel Bradford at 9 o'clock next morning. Let me hasten to say, Phipps, that I did think of calling you in New York, but decided against it, feeling that the trip to Boston and the excitement of meeting Peterson face to face might be too much for you.
There were, I should say, about 75 bird lovers milling about the hotel when I arrived. Peterson himself was not in evidence—although I had never seen him in person, I felt sure I would recognize him instantly from his photographs. I took advantage of the wait to study the people who would be my companions on this historic (for me, at any rate) field trip. Outwardly they seemed to have little in common. They were of all ages from the teens to the 70s, a pleasant-looking, clear-eyed group whose spirit of happy anticipation gave me a warm glow. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a glorious feeling that strikes all true bird lovers from time to time, namely that we share the finest (perhaps the only worth-while) hobby in life. Impulsively I leaned over and exclaimed to a matronly lady next to me, "Good morning! I'm Bayard Ashcroft, Harvard '14!"
She smiled, but before she could reply (as I'm sure she intended to), there was a stir in the crowd and cries went up: "There he is! There's Peterson! etc., etc." All heads went swiveling toward the main entrance and now I could see, advancing through the crowd, Roger Tory Peterson himself, striding purposefully, head held high, waving and nodding as he moved easily among us. I hurried forward for a better look.
Let me give you my first impression. Roger Tory Peterson looks every inch what he is—the world's foremost authority on birds. He is a big man, splendidly proportioned, square-shouldered and erect. He has a fine large head, strong jaw and chin and at the corner of his eyes, deep-set and blue, are those permanent wrinkles that have come with his years of patient scanning of the sky. His artist's hands are slender and fine-boned. He exuded an air of quiet satisfaction, the air of a man completely happy in his work, at peace with the world and himself. It was easy to see that field trips were an everyday affair with him, for he wore no hat, no heavy boots and only a light topcoat over his sports jacket. Now he smiled briefly in acknowledgment of the applause and, his face sobering, he held up a hand for silence. I cupped a hand to my ear, fearful of missing a word.
"There are two buses," said Peterson clearly and firmly. "I shall act as leader for one bus at the start and then—midway in the trip—I shall move over to the other bus. In this way I shall have an opportunity to meet and chat with each one of you."
A STROKE OF LUCK
A delighted murmur burst from the group and the lady next to me cried, "How like the man!" I was so caught up in the excitement that I shouted, "I propose three cheers for Roger Tory Peterson!" Alas, I was drowned out in the babble of the bird lovers as they suddenly started for the street doors. Clutching my binoculars and Field Guide, I was swept along with them and by a great stroke of luck was carried into the first bus and deposited directly across the aisle from Peterson! Thus I was able to hear Peterson as he chatted with a young woman from one of the newspapers. This was clearly my day of days.
Now, Phipps, I shall attempt to set down the young woman's questions and Peterson's answers as accurately as I can remember them.
"What," said the young woman (rather aggressively, I thought), "is the bird population of the United States?"
"About 5,750,000,000," replied Peterson promptly, adding for good measure, "The world's bird population is approximately 100 billion."
"Is bird watching increasing?"
"Enormously," said Peterson quickly. "As evidence, I can cite the sales figures for my own Field Guide. In 1939 it sold about 5,000 copies a year. Now it sells more than 34,000 annually. All told, more than a quarter of a million copies are now in use."
("Hear, hear!" I exclaimed under my breath.)
Then the young woman asked what I thought was a rather silly question. "Why in the world," she said, "do people take up bird watching?"
Peterson was not at all irritated. He smiled a little and leaned back in his seat. Then a thoughtful look came over his face and he said seriously:
"Bird watching brings one out in the country, gives one a chance to identify one's self with nature. Weekend bird watching offers a wonderful release to people trapped all week in the great stone cities." He was silent an instant and then went on:
"Birds in their flight are a symbol, I suppose, of the freedom we all covet."
I thought that was perfectly fine and made a note of it on the flyleaf of my Guide.
Now the young woman asked a question which I thought was perfectly shocking. (How I wished that the Boston Transcript was still being published—the Transcript always had one reporter who did nothing but watch birds.)
"Is there any relation," asked the young woman boldly, "between bird watching and the current vogue for keeping parakeets?"
I watched Peterson closely. Did he betray the slightest irritation at this gauche query? Nothing of the kind! The man is above that sort of thing.
"No," he said evenly. "No, my dear young woman, there is absolutely no relation at all."
At this point, there was a cry from the rear of the bus.
"Sparrow hawk on the right!"
Peterson looked around quickly, spotted the bird and nodded in approval.
Now came the cry:
"Lark on the left!"
Peterson looked quickly again, and again he nodded in confirmation.
"White-rumped sandpiper in the marsh!"
Without looking around, Peterson frowned ever so slightly, then turned to the woman behind him who had cried out.
"Not likely," he said gently, "for a white-rumped sandpiper to be about at this time of year."
The poor lady turned red as a beet and buried her head in her Field Guide.
Soon we had arrived at Folly Cove, which you and I know so well, Phipps, and we all piled out of the bus and formed a group around Peterson. He set up his Balscope (a prismatic telescope mounted on a tripod) and within a half hour had identified the white-winged scoter, European cormorant, common loon, horned grebe and Holboell's grebe, a gannet, a murre and a black guillemot. This last provided the greatest excitement and there were cries all around me: "Lifer! That's a Lifer for me!" I couldn't hide a smile, Phipps, for both you and I added the black guillemot to our Life Lists years and years ago.
Next stop was Andrew's Point and here, Phipps, I thought the naturalists in the group were rather inconsiderate. At the very moment that Peterson was setting up his Balscope they went scrambling down the rocks searching for sea creatures caught in the tidal pools. I was quite irritated by this digression and looked anxiously at Peterson to see if his reaction might be the same as mine. He said nothing, but we exchanged glances that spoke volumes.
We moved on to Gloucester and here there was great excitement when Peterson spotted a Kumlien's gull. Again this was a "Lifer" for many in the group and when Peterson called for a show of hands by those who had previously observed the gull, my hand shot up at once. "Perhaps," said Peterson, "someone can tell us a bit about it?" Phipps, it was one of my sweetest triumphs, for I had been leafing through the section of the Field Guide devoted to gulls only the night before.
"Kumlien's gull!" I cried, my voice trembling a bit, I fear, "once regarded as a hybrid between the herring and Iceland gulls—now believed to be a race of the latter! Ranges from the Arctic to New Jersey and the Great Lakes in winter!"
There was a spontaneous burst of applause. I looked at Peterson, who said nothing but smiled in a way that was fraught with meaning.
For me, Phipps, a high point of the day was our stop for lunch along the roadside near Newburyport, for it was my great fortune to find a place not far from Peterson himself. One member of the little group that sat under a tree with Peterson was a Harvard graduate "Benson here has come up with quite an idea!" student who sparked the luncheon talk with a truly fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of the study he is making of the endocrine systems of silkworms. A splendid young man who is destined to do great things with worms. But it remained for Roger Tory Peterson to tell a story with which you can have great fun among your bird-watching friends in New York. It seems, Phipps, that not long ago Peterson undertook a 30,000-mile tour of the North American continent and in the course of it he visited a remote Alaskan village. The chief of the Eskimos turned out to be an avid bird watcher (although, as Peterson laughingly remarked, perhaps for "ulterior motives") and was equipped, if you please, with a Balscope—which is supposed to be the latest thing here in Boston! But here is the really hilarious part of it, Phipps. When Roger Tory Peterson asked the chap his name, he—the Eskimo, mark you—replied, "My name is Peterson!" Well, Phipps, you can imagine the effect of the story on us all. I myself laughed until the tears came!
A BLUE GOOSE LEADS
Plum Island was our next "port of call" and there we visited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service station whose director—fittingly enough—is named Gordon Nightingale. A pleasant young man in his 30s, Mr. Nightingale had just begun a talk on the work on his station when Peterson stepped forward, apologized quickly and then pointed skyward. There—stretching out like a ruled line above the horizon, Phipps,—was an enormous flight of Canada geese. Peterson trained his Balscope on them at once and then cried out excitedly that the flight was led by a blue goose, which—as we know—is smaller than the Canada with a white head and neck. Everyone began chattering at once (again there were cries of "Lifer") and Peterson held up his hands for silence. A hush fell over us all and then we were thrilled to hear the faraway cacophony of the honking geese.
As we trooped back to the bus, I thought to myself that surely my day had been filled with thrills—never imagining that my greatest thrill (next to meeting Peterson, of course) was still to come. For it was while we were rolling along the highway that something caught my eye as I gazed dreamily out the window. The thing did not register immediately and perhaps half a minute had passed by before I jumped to my feet and fairly screamed!
"Snowy owl on the hayrick!"
There was a screech of brakes as the alert driver brought the bus to a tooth-jarring stop. Cries went up: "Where? Where?"
"Perhaps a sixteenth of a mile back!" I shouted. "Reverse gear, driver! For the love of heaven, man, reverse gear!"
In no time at all we were piling out of the bus. I had a dreadful moment, fearing that my eyes had played tricks on me in the fading twilight. But no! There he was for all to see—A genuine snowy owl—sitting solemnly on the hayrick—the very image, I might say, Phipps, of your Uncle Fowler.
I looked anxiously at Peterson. He nodded and trained his Balscope on the hayrick. Then he turned to the group.
"Snowy owl," he said, "and an excellent specimen. Whiter than most."
There was a moment's silence and then I stepped forward.
"The snowy owl is a day-flying bird," I said firmly, "prefers marshes, meadows and shores. Perches on posts, dunes, muskrat houses and haystacks."
There was a cheer and some applause for, as you have already guessed, Phipps, I was quoting directly from the Field Guide.
Just then the snowy owl took it into its head to fly off and out of sight. There was a murmur of disappointment. Then once more there were the cries here and there of "Lifer! Lifer for me!" As a matter of fact, as you know, Phipps, it was a "Lifer" for me as well, but I couldn't bring myself to admit it.
THE BIG DECISION
Later, while we were all having coffee and doughnuts at the Ipswich Sanctuary, the last stop of the day, my conscience bothered me a little as I filled out my field card. I thought perhaps I should confess to the others that I had never seen a snowy owl before. But then I thought it might reflect discredit on Boston bird watching in general and so decided to say nothing. Instead, on an impulse—brought on, I am sure, by the excitement of my greatest adventure with the birds—I jumped to my feet and shouted: "I propose three cheers and a Tiger for Roger Tory Peterson!"
They were given with a will.
Your friend in bird watching, Bayard