Memories of Long-Ago Birds

Memories of Long-Ago Birds

For Audubon's field editor, these recollections enrich his birdwatching and his being

By Frank Graham Jr.
Published: 01/23/2013

In his 1947 classic of nature writing, Spring in Washington, Louis J. Halle described a moment of intense personal experience while watching birds early one March. Halle had arrived at Dyke Marsh, across the Potomac River from the nation's capital, when he heard a thin, insect-like sound. After groping briefly for a name, he recognized the song as that of the season's first yellow-throated warbler. Though this State Department official and part-time writer knew the importance of birds in conservation, ecology, commerce, and agriculture, he was witness now to their role in the seasons unfolding, to their place in his own life.

"The appreciation of birds, indeed the appreciation of all the phenomena of spring, cannot be dissociated from the accumulations of memory," he wrote later. "The appearance of a familiar bird immediately awakens a train of forgotten associations, and this makes each spring transcend its predecessor. The interest accumulates and is compounded. The first yellow-throated warbler next year will be the more meaningful to me as it brings back that moment in the woods opposite Dyke."

Halle's response is, for me, the resonance a bird sets off between time and place. Again and again, the sight of a certain species triggers associations in my mind. When I watch a black-and-white warbler, I am immediately taken back nearly half a century to the day I bought my first truly functional binoculars.

Before that, the small birds I watched through a pair of hand-me-down "opera glasses" appeared blurry, dingy, remote. When I raised to my eyes my new Japanese-made binoculars for the first time, in New York's Central Park, there appeared a black-and-white warbler as I had never before seen one: resplendent in its fresh nuptial plumage, every detail clear and sharp. It was a revelation. The memory of that long-ago bird has never left me; it amplifies my pleasure every time I see one of its descendants.

That same kind of pleasure recurs for me each spring, with a veery, an Arctic tern, a blue-gray gnatcatcher. I return to individuals of the same species, to beautiful places I have seen them, to memories of good friends who shared this pleasure, even to past readings of memorable texts or viewings of evocative pictures. 

A poem or a painting may spring to mind, renewing the image of a bird now part of my memories and cultural heritage, redoubling a sighting's pleasure. I recall that Thoreau marveled at the scarlet tanager, flying "through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves." Longfellow sang of the bluebird, "balanced on some topmost spray, flooding with melody the neighborhood." From her Massachusetts home, Emily Dickinson watched a hummingbird and bobolink and noted to a friend that "the wind blows gay today and the jays bark like blue terriers."

Of these associations, Louis Halle wrote, "When I go into the woods with someone who does not share them, and listen to the song of a bird, I am sometimes struck by the fact that he hears something altogether different from what I hear. His ear is differently attuned. One must share common memories in order to share common experiences."

For many of us, those begin in childhood. When I was six or seven, a relative gave me a picture book of backyard birds. With the volume in hand, I looked out a window and saw in a bush a black bird with red wing patches. As I looked through my book, I spotted a picture of a species called a "red-winged blackbird." I had identified a bird on my own and accumulated the first of untold memories concerning the "otherness" of living things around me.

I had become a birdwatcher. 

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Frank Graham Jr.

Frank Graham Jr. is a field editor for Audubon.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Goose Island Park birds

On a very nice winter morning while viewing the many birds at the park. I thought about putting some chipped sunflower seeds in my hand. No sooner then said, I had a flurry of birds landing on my hand to eat. Having my Nikon Cool-pix along I took pics of Black Capped Chick-a-dees, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpeckers, White breasted Nuthatches and even a Red Breasted Nuthatch that had taken their turns eating out of my hand. The feeling and sound of these birds was awesome. This was up close and personal.

Yellow throated warbler - most memorable bird moments

I purchased five acres of oak and hickory forest in central illinois. Needless to say, this
area contains a lot of woodland birds, especially woodpeckers.
One morning while working on the grounds, I heard this call that I had never heard before -
sounded kind of primitive. Much to my delight - it was the call of the piliated woodpecker -
I walked around and was delighted to see that a pair of them had made my property home.
What magnificent birds - AND so very big. I just love all of the birds, but, the woodland birds
most especially.

Yellow--throated Warbler

Thanks to the photo of the Yellow-throated Warbler in the invitation to this blog, I share the following. Recently I was seated sideways in my car, feet on the ground while reading a book. It was a delightful spring day in mountains of NE Tennessee. Bright sunshine, cool breeze. Suddenly there was a flutter and a bird lit on the edge of my book. It was there for only an instant. Probably as surprised as I was to discover where it was, just 16 inches from my face! I got only a mental snapshot of the bird before it was gone and realized I was sure of its identification. But I got enough key characteristics to sort it out in my field guide later in the day. The one item I missed for proof positive was the white patch on the side of the head. My life list showed no previous record of the YTW so I was eager to confirm the ID. When I returned to the same spot the next day I wasn't that confident I would see it again even with my binoculars in hand. But there it was. Only this time high in the trees overhead. And, sure enough, there was the defining white patch. Yellow-throated Warbler! I guess it would have been a delight to have any bird land on my book, but what a gift to have it be a lifer and such a beautiful one at that.

The Rose Breasted Grossbeak

Phyl and I are "perched" on the high point of ten forested acres in far western NC. We thrive on visits from any bird species but it has been our pleasure to host a throng of Rose Breasted Grossbeaks. We first encountered these beautiful birds six years ago. Near as we can figure we aren't on their favorite flyway but we are happy they started coming in and as the years pass we welcome a growing flock of wayfarers. This year has been exceptional as the first group appeared the last week of April and we have observed their departure just this third week of May. Certainly the males are impressive sporting their rose colored breast and their black and white wings but the females and immature males present a beauty all their own. We marvel at their arrival and mourn their departure for all points north then we are again happy to usher their brief visits in the Fall. Each of you who honor us by reading these words understand the intense rush one experiences when one's senses are stimulated by a familiar friend. Nothing else on our planet commands our attention like the Grossbeaks do and we are so energized by their presence.

Northern Flicker Memorable Bird

I was taking a walk in a small town in SW Minnesota one evening. Sitting in a tree hole was an unfamiliar bird with a mustache and spots on its breast. I also noticed the red on its head. I kept thinking about that bird and searched the bird books in my Mom's house to determine what that bird was. That bird opened up to me a whole new world of many unknown birds that I would come to learn about. Each time I see a Northern Flicker I am grateful that I saw that bird years ago looking out its tree hole.

Baby robin

All the grandkids from east and west coasts were in Iowa visiting Grandparents. There was a terrible storm. After, on a walk surveying damage, the kids found a baby robin on the ground, no feathers yet and no sign of any other life. They took to it Gramma who made it comfortable, sent the kids to town for baby food pureed meat, and set a homemade nest next to the 'fridge motor from where heat was constantly coming. Everyone went home....Gramma continued caring for the robin who grew and soon occupied a bird cage. When ready he was released to the back yard. The following spring, Gramma was in the yard and a robin came to her as if to say hello and thank you. She is sure it was the one that had been rescued.

Early spring highlights!

I was probably in about 8th grade, it was early spring, and I decided to go out into our grove of trees when I got home from school to see what I could see. I ended up crawling on the damp earth so I wouldn't scare the birds I was watching. That afternoon I saw a towhee and a fox sparrow doing their jump scratch. I saw juncos, redstarts, and even found my first wild ginger flower. They were all new to me and I was really excited. Mom called me to come set the table for supper and I couldn't respond because I didn't want to spoil the magic of the moment. It was one I have remembered for over 40 years.

bird experience

I love the song of the Wood Thrush. When I walk though the woods it always delights my soul.

memorable bird encounter

It was one of those lazy perfect still mornings in mid summer which I would like to share. I had portaged my canoe to a lake and travelled through a marshy series of steadies to get to my favourite trout fishing spot. I was using my flyrod and the fishing was good when a brood of gosling Canada Geese investigated this strage new creature in their world. They showed an investigative curiosity and started picking at my canoe and my paddle. The mother goose which was about a hundred feet away didn't seem to mind. After they got tired of me they swam off to explore some other part of their world. While this was happening a mother moose and her young calf came out of a thicket and waded out in the water to eat some suculant water plants. I felt a special connection with nature for that one special hour and from then on I became a naturalist at heart. It was like God was telling me this is what life is all about.

Beautiful! Brought a tear to

Beautiful! Brought a tear to my eye...

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