For the Birds
One Christmas when I was young my grandmother gave my father a book, a field guide titled The Birds of North America. Never in my life have I known my father to be a bird watcher. As far as I could tell my Dad was indifferent, at best, to the wildlife around us. I inherited his antipathy. As I grew older I regarded birders and their giant binoculars with mild suspicion.
Then I came to ERBA.
The river basin where we paddle sits, protected, behind Crane’s Beach. If you’ve visited Crane’s you know that much of the area in and around the dunes is protected as a nesting site for piping plovers. (Ignore the bumper stickers claiming they taste like chicken.) Just to the North of us you’ll find Plum Island similarly protected. In short, this area is for the birds. Whatever skills I brought to guiding, answering questions on birds was going to be a problem.
Luckily ERBA guides are geeks. On my fourth tour I was paired with a guide named Pete. He pointed out two peculiar habits of the double-breasted cormorant. The first was on take off. The cormorant takes off low on the water and as it moves forward it’s butt comes down and splashes on the waves several times before it gets enough altitude to fly clear. The reason, he explained, was the cormorants weight. They have more solid bones than other birds and they need to use their legs to push off the water in order to gain altitude.
The other habit is that cormorants often sit perched on shore with their wings spread wide like Batman. This is to allow their feathers, which have less oil, to dry. Otherwise they can become too heavy and drown as they dive for fish.
Listening to Pete talk about cormorants I became interested...in birds. The idea took some getting used to. As time went by I listened to the other guides share their knowledge and I added my own observations of the birds on the basin. At some point I became a bird person, albeit without the oversized binoculars. Obviously I was forced to hide this from my father.
What brought about my change of heart? As much as anything it was Pete’s enthusiasm. That has long been the best part about working at ERBA for me. The guides that I work with care deeply about birds, history, tides, sea creatures...pretty much everything except spiders. They’re curious to learn more and eager to share what they learn. When I can’t kayak I teach high school English and if there’s one thing I know from that it’s that enthusiasm is everything.
As for that copy of Birds of North America...we still have it. Although it serves more the artifact of a long running family joke than as a field guide. But that’s not for lack of interest. As with everything these days...there’s an app for that.