The sun had risen an hour ago, according to my watch, but the sky was so overcast that a heavy darkness hung in the trees. I shuffled along a grassy pathway with a handful of birdwatchers, all of us hopefully aiming our binoculars into the shrubbery. Supposedly, Ohio was enjoying weather perfectly tuned to deposit flocks of migrating birds at our fingertips, if we could have seen them. We could at least hear them.
We bird-lovers, hailing from the four corners of the country and beyond, had gathered on the coast of Lake Erie for the Midwest Birding Symposium, the World’s Friendliest Birding Event, at Lakeside Chautauqua. In spite of the weather that morning, I was having a fabulous time.
Back in the damp, dark woods, a case in point: a split-second flutter, a tiny, inscrutable bird perched high overhead. It vanished before I could focus my binoculars, and I was completely boggled until someone named it, “Tennessee Warbler.” The voice belonged to Scott Whittle, co-author of a new guide to warblers. He’d been naming imperceptible birds for us all morning (and describing them, since we couldn’t see anything), along with co-author Tom Stephenson, as the two of them guided one of the most informative field trips I’ve ever joined.
I couldn’t be envious. Similar things had been happening since I’d arrived at Lakeside Chautauqua, and I continued to be flabbergasted that their level of expertise was possible at all. Scott and Tom say that anyone can do it, with enough study and experience, and they doled out hints and tips all morning. I still maintain there’s a whiff of witchcraft hanging around the entire affair. And yet when the sun brightened at last to reveal the birds we’d been squinting at, lo and behold, the birds were as they seemed.
As someone who often feels I missed my calling in life, I’m so happy when I get to fill in the blanks of everything I’ve missed learning until now. I’m an opportunistic learner. At any given field trip or conference about nature, you can count on me, a late-blooming 30-something grinning like Pippi Longstocking, sticking out a little in a crowd of teenaged future geniuses and expert retirees. And yet, I’ve never met a friendlier, more generous group of experts than the folks I met at MBS. I left Lakeside with my head full of new ideas and intriguing possibilities, and my heart full of new people from around the world. Many thanks to Birdwatcher’s Digest for inviting me. I can’t wait to join everyone again in two years!
Photos from Thursday night’s Lake Erie Sunset cruise. Soggy weather kept me from bringing my camera along on other birdwatching field trips.