The weekly report from the world’s birdwatching capital… by Seymore Thanu
I JUST happened (happened, mind you) to be at the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center last Saturday, weaving my way around a mob of people buying everything that has to do with Monarch butterflies and trying not to jostle the people testing out binoculars, when this woman caught my eye.
She would have garnered attention just about anywhere. In fact I’m sure that the attractive, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, poised, personable, and obviously athletic visitor was used to being noticed.
But it wasn’t her physical appearance that attracted my attention. It was her manner and movements. You see, everyone else in the shop was behaving in a practiced fashion. They were studying the field guide selection with honed selection skills. They were standing three deep at the television screen waiting for the local weather report. They were pawing through the used books, ogling over optics that were two price points too high for their budget, and discussing the glut of warblers in front of the observatory with people who, until minutes before, were strangers.
The young woman I am writing about was just wandering around. Looking at posters stuck on the wall. Picking up things (like birding checklists) and studying them like they were some new form of life.
There was a cone of isolation around her. There was something about her that said: “I’m a fish out of water.”
“Hi,” I said, “can I answer any questions for you?”
“No,” she said reflexively; almost evasively. Then, “Maybe you can. I’ve never gone bird watching before and I don’t know the first thing about it. What should I do?”
“Never?” I said, not believing it.
“Never,” she confirmed.
“You don’t know anything about it?”
“No,” she said, shrugging.
“How did you manage to get here?”
“I was going to go hiking this weekend, but changed my mind because of the weather. I decided to go birding because I’ve never done it before. So I went online and found out about Cape May.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’ve spent 36 years in Cape May, and I’ve never met a person who just decides, at the drop of a hat – or should I say feather, to try bird watching and then travels (from the Bronx, I learned later) to try the avocation on for size.
There had to be a back story, and two days later I learned it. It seems that the young woman had just finished her third triathlon and she was done with them. Too much time and training. Too many other facets of life to explore and engage.
She said flippantly to friends that instead of beating her body into exhaustion, she was going to “take up bird watching.”
One flippant remark. One step down a new path of discovery and wonder.
“Okay,” I said, “do you have binoculars?”
She did. And they were worthless.
So I got her a pair of loaner instruments that would facilitate (not frustrate) her efforts to see and enjoy birds. Handed her a CMBO schedule of events. Highlighted several organized walks, led by regional experts. Convinced her to buy a field guide to the birds so she could identify the birds she encountered.
Two days later I saw her again. She was returning the binoculars.
“Did you have fun?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. “And I’m even recognizing some of the birds I see now.”
We were back in the Cape May Bird Observatory. And she didn’t look a bit out of place.
If you are looking for something different to do, even if you aren’t a tri-athlete, stop by the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) – THE place for anything to do with nature. Located at 701 East Lake Drive overlooking lovely Lake Lily in Cape May Point, the center is open 9:30-4:30pm every day. We are always eager to help new (and soon-to-be) birders! Check out the schedule of daily walks, pick up a free birding map and checklist, and don’t forget the newest books (including Pete Dunne’s Bayshore Summer – and Birds of Cape May – a beautiful array of photos just released by Kevin Karlson), bird feeders, and some great new and fun merchandise – including our exclusive CMBO logo jewelry, clothing, totes, and more. Take a look at the sightings log to check what’s being seen, pick up a bargain from the used and vintage books section, look at some of the wonderful Charley Harper merchandise, or just browse around. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be in the area, visit us online at www.BirdCapeMay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away.
Seymore Thanu is none other than New Jersey’s own Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. Author of several books on and about nature (available at the CMBO) He has written for virtually every birding publication and for The New York Times.