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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Hot Wings : When the Bird Herd Heard the Word, the Rush to the Thrush Was On

March 04, 1990|JACK SMITH

I HAVE ONLY A CASUAL interest in bird-watching and no expertise whatever--although I have made a couple of remarkable sightings on Mt. Washington in my day--but I am awed by the fervor of the dedicated amateur. I say amateur because the degreed ornithologist, being a scientist, is supposed to be above the emotional responses of the common birder who goes tramping through woods and streams, guidebook in hand, looking for species he has never seen before.

Not that ornithologists can't get emotional about their work. I am reminded of Dr. Henry Childs, the birdman of Upland, and the late Dr. Ralph Schreiber, bird curator of the Natural History Museum. Dr. Childs can become quite excited over an avian controversy, as Dr. Schreiber could. (To this day Dr. Childs can go into a rage over my insistence that our back-yard scrub jay is actually a blue jay.)

Also I remember the frenzy occasioned in our neighborhood a few years ago when a neighbor of mine, a Mrs. Trimmer, looked out her window and saw a bird she had never seen before. With rare presence of mind, she fetched her Peterson's field guide and found in it a colored picture of the bird, a broad-billed hummingbird, a species never before seen as far north as Los Angeles. Mrs. Trimmer called the Audubon Society hot line to report her sighting. The society was galvanized. During the next three days, every prominent birder in Los Angeles--including a number of documented ornithologists--found the way to Mrs. Trimmer's house.

However, I do believe that the British are even more enthusiastic than we are when they sight a stranger. Britons are known to rush en masse from one side of their island kingdom to the other at the report of a rare visitor.

Jim and Suzan Moore, now residents of Cambridge, England, have sent me a clipping (apparently from the Guardian) of a report from Mark Cocker, a correspondent in Holkham, Norfolk, describing such a pilgrimage. What caused the mass migration of British birders to the neighborhood of Holkham was the appearance of a red-breasted nuthatch, a North American bird that is said to be of little interest on this continent.

"However," Cocker wrote, "when one turns up in this country (Britain) it is a different story. News that the first red-breasted nuthatch ever in Britain had been seen at Holkham caused wild excitement amongst the bird-watching community." In Britain, he notes, birders obsessed with adding sightings of the latest of rare birds to their lifetime lists are called twitchers--a name that I'd like to see adopted in this country.

"Apparently," he writes, "play was halted at a football match when half the side, all twitchers, abandoned one sport for another and raced to Norfolk." One can hardly imagine a rare bird drawing off the crowd, much less the participants, of an American football game.

Cocker reports that at one time the number of twitchers present in the Norfolk wood numbered 2,000. But the bird was elusive. It kept darting off with flocks of native tits and goldcrests. Cocker observed that twitchers crowding into the narrow path for a look caused the scene to resemble a football field more than a natural reserve. Many who had traveled hundreds of miles to the scene went hours without a glimpse of the nuthatch.

"Twitching is a largely harmless and often enjoyable pursuit," Cocker observed, "but the presence of so many people can damage the habitat, sometimes antagonizing landowners and earning twitching a bad name." He recalled a famous incident at Reading in which "bird-mad intruders" were held at bay by an irate farmer with a weapon that fired an enormous jet of liquid manure.

Yet another clipping, also from a British newspaper, reports an incident in which twitchers were frustrated by what might be called an act of nature. In this case 200 birders from all over England had converged on the Scilly Isles to see an extremely rare gray-cheeked thrush.

This bird, a native of North Africa, is much admired for its exquisite coloring and unusually melodious call. Hundreds of twitchers peered through binoculars, uttering exclamations of appreciation for its beauty as the bird flew into a campsite at St. Mary's Garrison. When the bird landed there, a cat named Muffin, which belonged to a woman identified only as Mrs. S. Barrows, leaped across a clearing, snatched the bird in its mouth and scampered back into the bush out of sight. This event, the article concluded, "brought the bird-watching session to a close."

One wonders if there was any bad blood between bird lovers and cat lovers over this incident and whether Mrs. S. Barrows was properly repentant.

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