Bird watching. for the ornithologically inept
THERE are those among us for whom nature is simplicity itself. For this clear-thinking flock, the biological world, with its baffling complexities, its countless genera, its incredible variety, holds no puzzles and is as obvious and uncomplicated as a sunny day.
My neighbor, Mrs. Schwartz, was one such person. As a nature expert, she specialized in birds. With stunning originality, she reduced all of ornithological taxonomy to just two categories.
In Mrs. Schwartz's condensed field guide, there were Robin Redbreasts and Jenny Wrens. All species of birds fitted conveniently into one class or another, and Mrs. Schwartz was never in doubt as to which was which.
Seeing a cardinal in one of her live oaks, she would point it out. ``A Robin Redbreast,'' she would declare happily. All sparrows, on the other hand, were Jenny Wrens, along with the finches, warblers, and even budgerigars in pet shops. She would occasionally take note of an anomaly. Spying a blue jay, she would report having seen a blue Robin Redbreast. A canary she identified without hesitation as a yellow Jenny Wren. Efforts to suggest the correct nomenclature were met with blank incomprehension. Why would anyone wish to call a Robin Redbreast a blue jay?
Enviably, Mrs. Schwartz was able to complete her entire life list in one morning's observation from her veranda. She spotted eight Jenny Wrens and five Robin Redbreasts. ``Bird watching is really very simple,'' she told me.
Mrs. Schwartz is not the only bird watcher to reduce the hobby to its lowest common denominator. There are others.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, I spent the day in the 45,000-acre Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, said by knowledgeable birders to be one of the best sites in the country for seeing rare birds. Its eastern boundary incorporates mile upon mile of tidal flats and salt marshes where incredible numbers of waterfowl disport themselves.
More than 20 miles of blacktop roads allow visitors to see Laguna Atascosa's wildlife from the comfort of their automobiles. At a stretch of road overlooking the shallow bay, I parked my car on the shoulder. I got out, leaned against the left front fender, and focused my binoculars on feeding ducks, herons, and egrets.
A little blue heron caught my attention. His modus operandi was to take one step, freeze, look with the right eye, look with the left eye, freeze, then step again. About every third step, his beak would stab into the water, and he would hoist aloft a mullet fingerling or a juvenile blue crab.
As I watched, I was distracted by the sound of a car stopping directly behind me. In a station wagon the size of a boxcar was a large middle-aged man, a large middle-aged woman, and four large middle-aged children. They watched me with amazed eyes as if they expected a divine revelation, or at the very least, a burning bush.
Father, the spokesperson, cleared his throat and spoke.
``Is that a brown pelican?'' he asked.
``Where?'' I said.
``Right next to that little bluish bird. Brown pelican, isn't it?''
I put the binoculars on the spot. The object was a mesquite stump washed onto the mud flats by a high spring tide.
``No,'' I said, ``I'm afraid that's not a brown pelican. You see, brown pelicans are deepwater feeders. They stay over near the Gulf or the deeper bay waters. The water in here is only a few inches deep. Brown pelicans can't feed here, so they don't come here.''
A long silence followed.
``What is it then?'' he asked.
``A mesquite stump,'' I replied.
He put the car into gear and began to drive away.
``Well,'' he called back, still unconvinced, ``it sure looks like a brown pelican.''
Perhaps, I thought, he's related to Mrs. Schwartz.
The following day found me south of Brownsville in the Sabal Palm Grove Sanctuary. This 172-acre thicket of tropical vegetation contains all that remains of a 40,000-acre stand of sabal palms that grew here in the 19th century.
Unlike Laguna Atascosa, the Sabal Palm Sanctuary is too small to permit roads for cars. A footpath about six-tenths of a mile long meanders from the headquarters office down to the river and back.
As I arrived, several carloads of tourists were entering to discover that their transportation would be their feet.
``Walk!'' spluttered one woman. ``We've got to walk?''
``Oh, come on, sugar,'' her husband cajoled. ``It isn't far, and you can see the chachalacas and green jays.''
``More'n half a mile!'' she squawked. ``I'll be worn out.''
``Pretend it's a shopping center,'' her husband said. ``You can walk three miles in a mall and never even breathe hard.''
``Maybe so,'' she huffed, as they set off on the grand tour, ``but I don't want to buy any of these birds.''