Birds of a feather
It’s a little after 7 on a cool April morning and I am skulking around the duck pond in the rear of Evergreen Cemetery like some kind of perv. In the distance I see a man with gray hair and a substantial mustache approaching me. We’re the only two out here, and our hookup is inevitable. I continue along the water’s edge until we meet. We nod our good-mornings, then wait for the goods. “You got anything?” he asks. I shrug and shake my head. This is bad form. Everyone out here should have something to bring to the table, something to exchange. I was pretty sure I’d seen a flash of yellow in the underbrush, but not sure enough to mention it. “You?” I ask hopefully. “Nothing but a creeper,” he says, cocking his head backward, toward the path where the trees are still shrouded in the morning shadows. “But up here,” he points to the shimmering branches above us, “kinglet city.” We both stand and stare up at the trees where the kinglets were but are no longer, and say nothing more. Eventually we both wander off.
And that’s how it is leading up to, and during, May migration at Evergreen.
For those of you not up on your creepers and kinglets, they are birds, and for those of you not up on your birding hot spots, well, Evergreen Cemetery is the place to be in May. I started going out there a number of years back after doing several birding-related stories for Down East magazine. I had clomped all over the state — scrambling down ravines and along railroad tracks, scaling mountains, mucking through bogs and over riverbanks — and stood stiller and quieter than anyone could ever imagine me being, just for the hope of a flap of a wing, the flick of a tail, the flash of color that would bring a bird my way. And then I found out that one of the best places in the state to witness the magnificent May migration, when so many of our songbirds and others come north to roost, is right in my backyard. Since that time, making the scene at Evergreen has been a rite of spring for me. Like it is for countless Portlanders.
I was shocked at first by the sheer masses (sometimes it’s cocktail-party, elbow-to-elbow out there), and then by the number of familiar faces. I don’t know if birding is like AA and you’re not supposed to namedrop, so I won’t. But it’s more of a mix than you might imagine. Yes, there is the Audubon stereotype (field vests with multiple pockets, Tilley hats, cargo pantlegs tucked into socks), but there are also men in ties stopping by for some early birding before they park themselves at a desk all day. There are dainty bird ladies and burly photographers in full camo. A busload of coeds from Bowdoin College showed up early this past May. My friend Lynne said she saw an empty cab pulling away one morning. Perhaps there was a fagged and tiny fare in the backseat: “Canada, Mac. And step on it.”
Within this community, it is understood that sightings will be shared and that those sightings are based on authority. Problem is, I’m not very good at birding. Well, that’s not entirely true. People who do not look at birds would think I’m an expert. I can tell the difference between a butter butt and a Maggie (a Yellow-rumped and a Magnolia Warbler, respectively), but when I get around the pros — like those you will find at Evergreen — my feathers fade. My Nikon binoculars, while fine, are not quite up to snuff. Real birders wear Zeisses strapped and harnessed to their chest. I don’t really dress the part. I bike there, so I’m usually wearing leggings and sneakers, a weatherproof shell of some sort, gloves and a ball cap. But most critically, aside from some obvious calls, I don’t know my birdsong. This is an issue, because in the exchange of information, people not only want to know what you’ve seen, but also what you’ve heard. And the more I bird, the more I want to fit in with the crowd. I don’t want to admit that I can’t tell the difference between the Black-throated Green Warbler’s zoooo zo zo zeet and the Blue-throated’s zo zo zo zo zeeeee. I don’t want to get caught looking something up in my Sibley’s field guide (which is why I usually do it behind a tree). And I don’t want to hesitate when I see a flash of orange under a wing. I want to say “Redstart” with confidence. But I still can’t quite pull it off. Which is why, when asked what I’ve got, I usually make up a lame-o excuse like, “Oh, I just got here, and my glasses are still steamed up.”
But there’s no need for the ruse. Of all the things I do that I’m not very good at (and their numbers are not few), I have found birding to be the most accommodating of an enthusiastic novice. Show up with subpar equipment, enough knowledge to be trouble and an eagerness to learn, and you will be (OK, I can’t help it) taken under someone’s wing.
Which is why I had been sidling up to my mustachioed friend since the middle of April. I figured if there were anything to see, he could clue me in. In the beginning, it was just the two of us out there, and, aside from the kinglet morning, scant birds. “Real quiet out here,” we’d say to each other in passing. (That’s something a novice can say with assurance. You can be pretty sure when you don’t see anything.) One morning he asked if I’d been to Junk Pond. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, so I shrugged and gave an idiotic smile. He waited for a response, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. After an awkward silence, I figured it was time to fess up. “I’m still just a fledgling birder,” I said, flapping my elbows as though I were doing the chicken dance. I thought he’d be disappointed that I don’t have real birding chops, but no matter. He gave me directions to, yes, Junk Pond — down a secluded trail — and I blithely trotted off, where I was rewarded with a pair of Wood Ducks.
(Just so you know, I don’t make a habit of placing myself in seemingly sketchy situations, and I barely talk to people I know, let alone strangers. But I feel safer in the back of Evergreen than almost anywhere in Portland.)
In the following days, a smattering of warblers started to trickle in, and with them a smattering of birders. We’d wander on our own, occasionally forming impromptu summits. We’d stand in a circle and speculate why our birds were no-showing. One fella said the weather had been too nice, that the birds were just continuing on to their northern destinations without stopping. What we needed, a younger guy in a knit cap said, was a push from the southwest, with an easterly breeze to impede them. Or rain. A bit of rain might knock them down. And we’d nod our heads with folded arms, looking up into the canopy or staring at the ground. Then, just like that, the group would disperse.
On the ninth of May, however, I arrived at my usual hour after a few days in the North Woods to find vehicles lining the road on both ends of the pond. Despite the drizzle, singles and small groups fanned out over the grounds and in the woods, looking like something from a zombie flick. A gaggle of about 20 people clustered around a Maine Audubon guide, with 20 pairs of binocs trained on a branch. (The organization sponsors free guided walks every May, which is an ideal way for an enthusiastic novice to earn her wings.)
I scooted over to the trail and secured one of my favorite spots, along the north end of the pond. Surely all these people meant the action had picked up. So I stood like an American bittern, chin to the sky, and waited. And waited. The only flicks I saw were head fakes. Rain on leaves.
Finally, the Audubon group came by. The leader looked a little desperate. “See or hear anything?” Now, these were pros. They had the gear and the know-how. And yet, a voice of confidence rose up out of me. “Well, I’ve been coming out since the middle of last month. It’s been real quiet, although I had a Palm and a couple Yellow-rumped in April. And I had a Black-and-white right about here last week.” I could feel my hold on my audience. “I was up in the Western hills yesterday, and I had a Blackburnian, a Northern Parula and a Savannah Sparrow.” I looked thoughtfully at the sky. “I was hoping this rain might’ve knocked a few down, but… “ I shrugged and shook my head. Then I added, “Have you been down to Junk Pond?”
For a moment, I was the It Girl of Evergreen.
I know all this standing and gawking might seem a waste of time to some. And I know it’s kind of a silly pursuit — getting a thrill from a flash of yellow no larger than a cotton ball — but it’s my pursuit. And these hooded hoards that join me, they’re my peeps.
Elizabeth Peavey squawks and preens here monthly.