Connections: Rare Birds

Most of what I know about birds I learned as a camp counselor in northwestern New Jersey

An inveterate but rank amateur birder, I nevertheless enjoy seeing birds at the feeder or suet cake through the sun porch windows so much that it is often a high point of my day.

Most of what I know about birds I learned as a camp counselor in northwestern New Jersey, where endless stretches of woodland were filled with many bird species, among them some that are not often seen here, like the scarlet tanager, and others, like the slate-colored junco, that do show up on the East End more regularly.

I got to thinking about bird-watching this week when an Audubon magazine arrived that had a story about Richard Koeppel, who had been one of the world’s top birders. Mr. Koeppel, who once lived in Springs, had a world bird list numbering more than 7,000. Inspired, I dug out a list I started perhaps 25 years ago about birds seen in East Hampton, and counted 21. 

Sigh. Well, maybe the list would be longer if I had kept it up-to-date. I can remember when the sight of an osprey, endangered for decades, would have thrilled us to the core; now, of course, the ospreys — which do seem to fly into town on the first day of spring (a.k.a. fish-hawk day, as the old-timers called it) — have returned with a vengeance. Similarly, a great blue heron used to stir up some excitement around here, but one is now a neighborhood habitué of Town Pond, barely meriting a raised eyebrow. On the other hand, the whippoorwill, sadly, no longer can be heard singing in the gloaming, as it did every night in the 1960s and 1970s, when we lived in Promised Land.

  In Audubon, Dan Koeppel, whose 2005 book, “To See Every Bird on Earth,” is about his relationship with his father, tells a touching story about his father’s failure to see a mountain quail before his death in 2012.

I am sorry that I haven’t kept more than random notes on the birds I’ve seen on vacation in faraway places. But on a fairly recent trip to Costa Rica I filled a notebook with observations, in particular about the birds. Taking a small boat around the edges of a pond near our hotel when we first arrived and later, when we joined others touring a river, I recorded many bird sightings, including a small green kingfisher, which I unsurprisingly noted was beautiful, and others with exotic names, like Montezuma oropendula. The most exciting bird-watching, though, occurred on our last day in Costa Rica, when we parked our car at the edge of a cove at Potrero Beach and saw a flock of brown pelicans perform a riveting aerial dance as they dove for fish.

While musing on birds this morning, I couldn’t help thinking about a rare bird and a rare moment of national bird interest. The year was 1948, and Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss, a State Department official, of being a Communist. In testimony by both men and a series of convoluted hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Chambers told the committee many details about Hiss’s personal life, trying to convince the committee of their friendship. Much of what Chambers said was false, but one statement was true: Hiss had seen a prothonotary warbler. 

When Hiss innocently testified that, yes, he had seen the bird, the committee decided Chambers was telling the truth about more important matters, too. Hiss was convicted of perjury two years later, and the warbler took its place in American history.

Can you imagine one of today’s congressional hearings pivoting on a prothonotary warbler? I can’t. Public figures who know the esoteric names of birds — or who are willing to demonstrate any sort of intellectual or academic acheivement — have all but vanished from the political scene, it seems to me, in these anti-intellectual times. Maybe, like the osprey (but not, I hope, like un-Americanism trials), they will make an unforeseen comeback.