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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Birding with Marc; Zone-tailed Hawk at Cape May; Is Birding Racist or Sexist?

Photo credit and source: Biotrope
Saturday, September 27, I got up at three a.m. I hadn't really been sleeping. I was too excited. I took a shower and coaxed my mouth to accept some yogurt and candied ginger. Ginger is a great car sickness preventative. I went downstairs and studied a pair of headlights in the distance, growing larger, heading straight for my front door. I assumed the driver was aiming at me, even though he had no idea what I look like. Actually it's a pretty safe bet – I am usually the only white woman in this neighborhood. Certainly the only white woman standing on the street at four a.m. with a pair of binoculars slung around her neck.

I had no idea what Marc would look like, or how old he would be, or what his voice would sound like, or what kind of car he drove. I had no idea if he would want to listen to heavy metal music during the several-hour drive, or Country Western, or rightwing talk radio. I had no idea if we would chat, if he would be a talker or a listener, or if he'd talk about God, conspiracy theories, or tell dirty jokes. All I knew was that he had offered to take me birdwatching to Cape May, and that was enough.

A smiling face peeked out the glass. I opened the door.

"Are you Marc?"

"Yes. Are you Danusha?"


I got in.

The awkwardness of our meeting in predawn darkness was eased by my need to instruct Marc in how to get to the Garden State Parkway.

Then Marc was kind enough to ask me a question with a complicated answer, and I started talking, never hard for me, and so we fell into easy conversation. It was a pleasant ride.

Our first birding stop in Cape May was Higbee's Dike. You can view video of birding at Higbee's Dike at the link, below.

There is an elevated wall of sand at a point in Cape May. Birds migrating south face Delaware Bay and turn around, hoping to minimize the time they spend flying over water. Birders congregate on Higbee's Dike in order to view this concentration of birds.

Hundreds of birds flew past us, many at eye level. The birds were flying very quickly.

Marc, who is a birding champion, rattled off the names of the species as they flew past: black-throated blue warbler, black-throated green warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, Northern water thrush, red-eyed vireo, etc.

These birds are all familiar to me. I'd seen them all before, many times.

I could not identify a single one of these birds.

To me, they all looked like undifferentiated, rapidly moving, blurred, blue-gray silhouettes against the pearly dawn sky.

I wondered why Marc and the other birdwatchers surrounding me could identify the birds flying rapidly past, and I could not.

Is it because my binoculars were inferior? Is it because my eyesight is poor? Is it because I have a slow reaction time?

I don't know. I do know I suck at this kind of birdwatching.

I was especially heartbroken when Marc announced that he could hear a killdeer. Nothing is more familiar to me than the call of a killdeer, and I couldn't hear it at all, not even with my good ear. Ah, for the long-gone days when I could hear better.

The "counter," a man assigned by the Audubon Society to count species, announced those he heard. He heard a pine siskin. Argh! Where? What was the sound? The man had no time for my questions. It was gone, in any case.

I could see patterns on larger birds like yellow-shafted flickers and blue jays. I could also recognize their distinctive flight patterns and silhouettes. I could identify the smaller birds that did land on trees.

But I did not identify a single one of the warblers in flight, even though these are all birds I know and have seen many times, and I could not make out a single identifying detail, and so I must confess, again, that, at this kind of birdwatching, anyway, I suck.

Don't get me wrong. Discovering how much I suck as a birdwatcher, and how much better Marc and everyone else was, was not a downer experience for me. I enjoyed witnessing their prowess, and I also enjoyed looking at the birds I could see. A bald eagle flew over, and I can still count the number of times I've seen a bald eagle on one hand (although that will change soon, I hope).

I especially enjoyed watching the light from the rising sun proceed up and over the dike, spill in almost audible, discrete droplets onto the tops of the trees, gild leaves, pour down tree trunks, glint off the crests of the waves in the distant water, brighten the white sides of boats, and wake up the world.

I didn't count but I'd guestimate that there were about two dozen people atop Higbee's Dike, but I could be wrong.

Most of the people up there were men, and most had some or all gray hair. Many had English or Scottish accents.

Recently National Geographic ran an article focusing on Clemson University Professor J. Drew Lanham's allegation that birding is racist. You can read the article at the link, below. A year ago, Brooke McDonald, in June, 2013, published an article alleging misogyny in birding, again, link below.

I thought about these articles as I stood on Higbee's Dike, surrounded, not just by men, not just by white men, not just by white men with British accents, but by men who were so very much better than I at a hobby, birdwatching, that I love and cherish more than I can describe here. I consider "birdwatcher" not just something I do, but what I am. And I was discovering how bad I am at this activity, and how much better a bunch of guys are.

Here's the deal: I was in the minority as a woman, I performed pathetically – I was almost certainly the worst birdwatcher there – and I had a great time. Further – people were nice and respectful and nobody gave me a hard time for being a total loser. And I'd want to go back up atop Higbee's Dike and do it all over again.

We spent something over an hour on Higbee's Dike; maybe two hours. We came down in the full light of day.

Then came the moment that I love, the moment when a birder must make a big decision based on wind speeds and direction, date, time of day, carefully studied up-to-the-minute reports – Marc had his phone with him and he checked updated reports from other birders throughout the day – and blind, gut feelings and intuition. Where do we go next? What birds do we pursue?

Marc really wanted to see a marbled godwit and a sandwich tern. But Marc, being a decent human being and a gentleman, kept asking me what I wanted to do. Here's what I, as a woman birdwatcher, wanted to do – I wanted to do what Marc wanted to do. He was obviously much better at this than I, and I wanted to follow him. And that doesn't make me an oppressed female; it makes me someone who made a wise decision, and who doesn't always have to feel that she is the first or the best to have a good time.

Marc decided to go to the Cape May hawk watch. Marc made this decision based on rational processes and hard data, but here's the thing: chance. Chance! I don't gamble, but I do watch birds, and chance plays a huge role in birdwatching, and that's part of why I love it. For all his preparation, Marc had no idea that his decision to opt for the Cape May hawk watch would be the best decision of the day, resulting in our seeing a state record bird.

The hawk watch is a large wooden platform overlooking a pond at Cape May Point State Park. The hawk watch was crowded yesterday, Saturday, September 27. Again, there were more men than women, and more people with some or all gray hair than not. There were also women young and old, Asian-Americans, and some African Americans. No one treated anyone any differently, as far as I could see, and, given these recent articles, I did observe carefully, if, I hope, subtly. Pretty much everyone was doing the same thing. Standing, or sitting, poised, with at least one hand on a pair of binoculars, waiting and hoping for the day's big find. The day's big find was not long in coming.

There were many hawks and vultures overhead, but quite high. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks predominated. There were mute swans, American widgeon, a pied-billed grebe, little blue heron and a great egret in the pond.

Marc tutored me in differentiating between sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks. There were plenty of both up in the sky to use as examples. Marc did this because I confessed to him that after adding both to my life list years ago, I no longer bothered to differentiate the accipters I saw. I enjoyed Marc's tutelage and was grateful for it.

What I'm saying is that when a birder takes time to instruct someone else, he isn't necessarily being rude or superior. I mention this because of the recent articles. I think those at the receiving end are best served by adopting an attitude of gratitude rather than one of "Oh, I'm a woman so he's assuming I don't know." I had told Marc that I don't bother with this question, and he was being kind and helpful, not superior.

Another aspect of Marc's presence that I valued greatly. There is a question I often want to ask people, but I often don't ask, because I fear that it sounds as if I am trying to insult the person, or question his or her intelligence. That question is, "How do you know that?" or "What makes you so sure?" or even "You just said X. How does X apply in this situation?"

I asked Marc that question over and over, all day, and he was never once put off by it. I especially asked that when Marc identified a royal tern or a Capsian tern in flight. "How do you know that that is a royal tern or a Caspian tern? You just said X, but X doesn't seem to apply to this bird."

Marc answered my every query with complete courtesy, authority, and humility.

A lot of the human interaction in birding is, at its essence, teaching and learning. Teaching and learning is a challenging human endeavor; I know; I'm a teacher. One must have authority, but also humility. One must step forward, but also step back, and intuit when to do each.

In short, anyone lucky enough to bird with Marc is a lucky person, indeed.

I was seated at the hawk watch when a man in his twenties or thirties, standing behind me, said loudly, but without any hysteria, "Zone-tailed hawk."

My very first thought was "Not possible. What's wrong with this picture?"

I've never seen a zone-tailed hawk, but I've seen their pictures in books. I know they are southwestern birds.

The crowd on the hawk watch platform grew excited. They all pointed their binoculars in the same direction. I saw nothing but blue sky, but looked skyward with everyone else. I saw a turkey vulture, that looked a bit different from a turkey vulture – different size, and the colors were a bit off – but surely that was a turkey vulture. I didn't see the distinctive horizontally striped tail that gives a zone-tailed hawk its name. Then Mike, a man with a spotting scope, showed me an image he had captured. Damn, there was the zone-tail, which I had not been able to see with my binoculars.

The Mike who showed me this image may be the same Mike who posted a blog post about the zone-tailed hawk's appearance at the Cape May hawk watch. You can read Mike's blog post at the link, below.

Something else quite moving to me happened at the hawk watch. I noticed that a blondish-grayish haired man was wearing a t-shirt with the Arabic letter nun on it. This letter has become an international symbol of support for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, and against the violence of jihad. In Iraq, ISIS jihadis have been marking Christian homes with this letter. This is a sign that the Christians inside are to be robbed, exiled, violated, and killed.

I said to the man wearing this t-shirt, "I like your t-shirt."

The man turned to me. He looked deep into my eyes. He said, "I am from Denmark. I am here to watch birds. I want you to know that as a Dane I appreciate what Americans have done fighting for freedom around the world. There are many dead American boys and girls who fought for the freedom of people who are not American. I want you to know that I am a Dane, and I appreciate that."

I was deeply moved but this testimony.

Marc and I continued birding throughout the entire day. Marc brought enough chicken salad for two. We ate it on paper plates and with plastic forks as we sat in his car, scanning a mud flat for marbled godwits, who, alas, remained elusive, as did the sandwich tern.

We drove home through the reverse of the process we had watched hours earlier: the day surrendering to night. Marc pointed out the new, crescent moon out the driver's side window. At that point I was drifting in and out. Marc kept himself awake by describing the plots of dystopic Margaret Atwood novels.

I asked Marc, "What is your favorite bird?"

Marc gave this much thought. Finally, he replied.

He went back to the 1970s, when he was a little boy. He was walking down a street in his town. He looked into a tree and right there, without binoculars, he saw a very beautiful bird. It was black and white and the orange of a fire's glow. It was a Blackburnian warbler. Little kid Marc was amazed that something that beautiful, that special, could be part of his everyday world.

I loved listening to Marc describe this blessed encounter with the magic of God's creation, and I'm glad I asked.

As sleepy as I was, once I got home, of course I could not let myself surrender to the Sandman till I had dragged some of my bird books into bed with me and reread their sections on zone-tailed hawks. This is a little ritual I perform whenever I see a new species.

You can view video of birding at Higbee's Dike here

You can read Mike Crewe's blog post about the appearance of the zone-tailed hawk here.

You can read the National Geographic article alleging that birding is racist here

You can read Brooke McDonald's piece alleging misogyny in birding here.


  1. I thought I commented on this a bit ago but guess I hit the wrong buttons as I often do. Great read and what a wonderful group of people to spend some time with. Love experts in whatever field they exist. Birds are fascinating and hope you spend more time with Mark and friends. How do people assign terms such as sexist to hobbies such as birding? Sometimes my head could explode from all the nonsense out there outside my door. Keep writing .... you are great

    1. gcarroll thank you so much for the positive feedback. Much appreciated.