One Photograph: Birds? Why BIRDS?

Birds? Why BIRDS?
Story and Photo by William Burt

One day my younger brother put it to me. “How do you get interested in birds?” he asked. “Just how do you get interested in birds?”

You don’t, of course. A fascination chooses you, not the reverse, and I could tell him only that in my case, yes, it was the birds that did the choosing. Would I have wished for the insistent need to chase down every unaccounted flit or dart or flicker in the trees, and every unfamiliar ditty, trill, or chip note? Would my chasing after birds have been a boy’s best way to gain the admiration of his baseball pals, or need I say the twinkle-eyed attention of the girls? Not likely; but it might have been as good a way as any to get picked on, ridiculed, or kicked around by bullies, and I would have done myself far better socially to focus on my baseball game.

But I was curious, that’s all. Those flits and flickers fired my curiosity.

Least Bittern, Old Lyme, Connecticut, August 1994 ©William Burt.

“What a new interest the woods have,” wrote the bird-loving sage John Burroughs back in 1897. “Secrets lurk on all sides. There is news in every bush.” The man knew all about a youngster’s heady new awareness when he has discovered birds.

I tried to tell my brother. It’s like knowing that there are these secrets out there, I explained, and when you go out looking it’s like treasure hunting, except these treasures have the wits and means to keep their distance, or elude you otherwise; but I don’t think I quite got through to him. You either have it or you don’t, I guess, just as you do (or don’t) for poetry or ping pong, J. S. Bach or Mendelssohn, or blacksmithing, or British sports cars. Maybe it’s even heritable, for all one knows: like auburn hair, or a propensity for math, or music? In this boy’s case I only know that it was always there, awaiting only the igniting stimulus—“the spark,” as Roger Tory Peterson had called it—and it first struck when I was eight or nine, at the sight of a Bald Eagle.
On his vacations, it was Dad’s great joy to take us out on afternoon excursions on the riverin a rented sailboat. His great joy I say, because to me those hours impounded in a floating tub with no chance of escape were largely an excruciating bore, made none the better by the rocking of one’s stomach or the smart of salt spray. But there was one bracing compensation: the close company of Ospreys, sailing over on their huge kinked wings like would-be eagles. It was a thrill to hear them shriek; and then to see one fold and fall and crash head-first into the water, disappear, then burst out through the surface with a wild-eyed fish locked in its talons, and with a great flapping labor gain the air again. Off then it would go, with its sleek cargo clasped below, like a torpedo plane with its lone shining payload.

Whenever I showed Dad one of these fish hawks he insisted that it was an eagle—a Bald Eagle—and I cried out, “No, that’s not an eagle!” I’d seen pictures, and I knew what a Bald Eagle was supposed to look like; but he wouldn’t hear it. And the more of them we saw, the more he would insist that they were eagles; and the more I’d long to prove him wrong. But most of all, I simply longed to see a real Bald Eagle. It would be like seeing a live Indian.

It happened late one golden afternoon, as we sailed on for home through the calm lapping waters north of Hamburg Cove, in Lyme. I looked to the near shore and up the mounting hemlocks to the ridge line, and there it was, in all its vindicating glory: unmistakable, and even more majestic than I had imagined it. Perched high above the river on a snag was an enormous chocolate-brown-backed eagle with a massive yellow bill, and a white head and tail as snappy-clean as a starched shirt. The great bird sat impassive, regal, looking down upon a river as wild still, I liked to think, as when the camps of Indians lay strewn along its banks. A plate by John James Audubon could not have placed it better.

I could hardly stand it. “There! There! There!” I cried out in a muffled shriek, while fearing I might scare the bird away down river, and my triumph with it. “It’s a Bald Eagle! See? A real Bald Eagle!” I wanted to jump up and down and hoot and flail my arms in exultation: I’d been right.

All eyes took in the eagle, and nobody ventured to dispute it: no one could. But nor did anyone exclaim out loud, or light up in delight at the magnificence they saw; not even Dad. I looked at him, and kept on looking, and at last he looked back to acknowledge with a feeble smile. The eagle turned its head, spread out its great brown-shingled wings and flew off slowly to the north, as if to seek a more admiring audience up river. Imagine: a Bald Eagle. I was thrilled, if thrilled alone.
For a time then I was more thrilled by the stone-hard treasures I could dig out of the earth and get my hands on, ogle, jam into my pockets and take home to keep. First it was arrowheads, which I found here and there along the river in Old Lyme; then briefly it was fossils: sleek horn corals and assorted mollusks, mostly, which abounded in the calving layers of a stream bed near grandmother’s place out in Ohio. They were laid out on their limestone slabs like candies on a plate.

And yet the birds continued to put in a show, one bright new being at a time, until there was no longer any contest. One spring day at recess after Mrs. Tinker’s third grade class in handwriting, I stood transfixed as an enormous woodpecker swooped low over the playground with a sweeping blood-red crest: a Pileated, I learned later. And one early morning two or three springs later I stood at the window before school, half-dressed and yawning, and was snapped awake by the orange flashes of a Redstart, darting from one new-green oak sprig to another: my first warbler.

So my treasures were no longer the stone relics but frail living things with wings, wills of their own, and the wit to elude me. And they lurked about me everywhere, in every hiding place conceivable: in neighborhood backyards and woods and fields, in marshes by the river, and for all I knew in marshes by the sea. They came in such delirious variety—in every size and color and configuration I could think of, and could not—and I could find them all in the green-bound book Mom shelved above the book room telephone: A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson.
It wasn’t long before I had a Field Guide of my own; and when a fellow has his own, I found, he soon has a self-tending “wish list” of those species he most dearly longs to see—and likely won’t see for some time. But good things can happen, and I well remember the spring day when on a single hour-long jaunt I met not one of these new wished-for birds but two, and both in the same boggy spot. And that’s one of the fun things about these living wits with wings, I learned: you never know when the next new one might jump out at you, or where.

The family was visiting at Grand Dad’s in Old Lyme, and I had slipped out early for a stroll along the riverbank, to see what I could see. It was a pretty morning. The late-April woods were tinged with mist and still, and greening in the low wet places: it seemed anything might happen. The trail descended, narrowed, and edged past an open alder swale; the spathes of skunk cabbage were nudging up out of the mud, and a thin stream cut through. I stepped up to the boggy edge, and water seeped into my sneakers—cold!—and as I yanked a foot back out, two brownish birds burst off and drummed the air with long slim wings, zig-zagged their way upstream among the alders, and were gone. I’d had only a glimpse, but I knew what I’d seen: my first two Wilson’s Snipe.

Roused by the ruckus, a bird broke out instantly with loud, show-stopping whistles, and there perched among the alders was the reddest bird I’d ever seen, bright as a sunlit tulip: my first Cardinal.* I walked on in a daze, elated that I’d seen these classics of the bird books—both in this one little alder bog, and only twenty feet apart.
If the Bald Eagle was my boyhood “spark” bird, it was quite another that ignited my desire to chase birds with a camera; and it did so long before I’d seen the living thing itself.

For my ninth grade year I was packed off to a boarding school in southern Maine, where birds were scant enough at any time—and in the winter, next to nil. And being disinclined to the translated works of Homer and Herodotus (not to say the narcotizing textbooks on Geometry and Algebra), I poked about for other books; and by some miracle, I found one: a fat photo-illustrated volume so right-on, so made-to-order for this problem schoolboy that it might have been illicit. It was called Stalking Birds with Color Camera, and the author was one Dr. Arthur A. Allen; and the mystery to me was how it could have been there in the open stacks, for all to see. A book of female nudies hardly would have seemed more out of place, yet here it was, in the school’s own Science Building library, free for the take-out; so I took it, and I lost myself within that book for many an hour (and hours that might have been devoted to more proper reading).

In the school’s long history, no pages could have found themselves in more adoring hands. Ignoring the unfortunate captions, which were usually too cute by half (the book was a National Geographic production), I sponged up every column inch of text, took notes on certain photographs, and I even gave myself a stiff assignment: to prepare a sort of “guide book” for my own photography someday.

But what intrigued me most were Dr. Allen’s photographs of the two bitterns, and especially one of a Least Bittern on its eggs, up-stretched to mimic the surrounding cattail blades. Its bill was pointed like a needle to due north, and there was no escaping the pale yellow glare of its ball turret eyes.

That photo got me thinking. Might I too someday find a Least Bittern nesting; and where better than among the billion cattails of Goose Island, a long stretch of tidal marsh out in the river, not far from grandfather’s dock? And might I too not photograph the bird?

I might indeed; but it would happen no time soon.
It would be nearly twenty years before I’d set eyes on my first Least Bittern nests, and photograph the birds: not at Goose Island after all, but on the prairies of first Iowa, and then Missouri. And the next year after that excursion, on returning from a scrimmage with American Bitterns out in North Dakota, where should I find Least Bitterns nesting but among the cattails fringing a small pond here in Old Lyme, Connecticut: 200 yards from my back door.

There’s a life lesson somewhere in that irony, no doubt. But I’m not sure I want to know it.

William Burt is a naturalist, photographer, and writer with a passion for wild places—especially marshes—and the elusive birds few people see. His photographs and stories are seen in Smithsonian, Audubon, National Wildlife, and other magazines, and he is the author of four books.

Subscribe Today