Knowing

photographs and text by Brian Willson

Jack and I crossed paths with a friendly, older birding couple on our Beech Hill hike this morning. I could tell they were birders by their binoculars. We met them just as I’d heard the blackpoll warbler singing again from across Beech Hill Road—whose voice I pointed out to the older birding couple. I also mentioned they’d likely see alder flycatchers, eastern towhees, and perhaps a savannah sparrow. They said they were especially hoping for towhees. We met them again as we returned up the hill and they were coming down, and they’d sure enough seen a flycatcher and a towhee. Clearly they were from away, so I asked if they visited often, and they told me it was only their third time at Beech Hill but that they loved the place.

After we bade farewell, I got to wondering just how far the friendly couple had traveled in pursuit of birds. Had they visited Point Pelee, Ontario? Cape May? The Rio Grande Valley? Costa Rica and/or other exotic locations? And this got me thinking about something I’ve been ruminating on a lot lately—the different kinds of knowing.

Many rabid birders range far and wide to experience new landscapes and find the birds they hold. A lot of people generally love to travel, to explore new places, sights, people. Others are content to stay home, to study their familiar surroundings in intimate detail. Although I’m not sure it’s completely true, I suppose some might consider that I fall into the latter category. I do, after all, hike the same hill every day. I walk the same trails, pass the same vegetation, see and hear the same birds. What strikes me is that, in doing this, I get to know my surroundings deeply. I’ll stand with patient Jack and listen to distant voices and immediately know their sources. Black-throated green warbler. Veery. Broad-winged hawk. And I’ve gotten to know variations in these voices: the late-season calls of parulas, chestnut-sided warblers, black-and-white warblers. I’ve come to know almost exactly what day which birds will go silent. When each species nests. When to begin to keep an eye out for ruffed grouse hatchlings.

I know, for instance, that this year we have more American redstarts than usual. Some fluke of spring migration.

Those who travel far and wide get to know many more places and vistas, colors and sounds, smells and sea breezes than I. But I suspect their knowledge is shallower, more static, like a collection of photographs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And in fact I’m not entirely convinced I don’t have that urge in me. I recall with excruciating wonder exotic landscapes I’ve seen only fleetingly: Big Bend National Park, Glacier Bay, Stonehenge. I have a hankering to visit places like Iceland, New Zealand, Antarctica. I would love to bird Point Pelee someday. But I’m not unhappy to know what I know—to be able to tell the difference between the chip-note of an ovenbird, yellowthroat, white-throated sparrow, chestnut-sided warbler. I love that subtle little two-note murmur of a ruby-throated hummingbird. On the other hand, it’s the only “native” hummingbird around here (not counting the rufous hummer I saw in Rockport a couple years ago), whereas my old home state of Texas has a dozen species or more. Trouble is, I wasn’t yet a birder back then.

Then again, what do I know, really? Well, I suppose I know I’ll hike Beech Hill again tomorrow with my dog.

Beech Hill List
Beginning at 8:45 a.m., I hiked all trails.

1. Ovenbird*
2. Chestnut-sided warbler
3. Red-eyed vireo*
4. American goldfinch*
5. American robin*
6. American crow*
7. Herring gull*
8. Mourning dove*
9. Chipping sparrow* (v)
10. Alder flycatcher
11. Veery (v)
12. Common yellowthroat*
13. Black-capped chickadee
14. American redstart*
15. Eastern towhee
16. Tufted titmouse* (v)
17. Black-throated green warbler* (v)
18. Eastern wood-pewee (v)
19. Canada warbler (v)
20. Gray catbird (v)
21. Blue jay (v)
22. Song sparrow*
23. Tree swallow
24. Yellow warbler*
25. Eastern phoebe*
26. Savannah sparrow
27. Field sparrow (v)
28. Cedar waxwing*
29. Great crested flycatcher (v)
30. Chipping sparrow* (v)
31. Black-and-white warbler
32. Blackpoll warbler (v)
33. Hermit thrush* (v)
34. Common raven (v)

Elsewhere

34. House finch (v)
35. Northern cardinal (v)
36. European starling
37. House sparrow
38. Osprey
39. Northern parula (v)
40. Canada goose