EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: Renewing a childhood hobby

Did you have a hobby when you were younger that you gave up? Maybe you didn’t stop because you stopped enjoying it. You just got busy with other things. Or there wasn’t an opportunity to keep at it because you went off to college or moved to a place that made continuing the hobby more difficult.

I know a lot of people took up hobbies, old and new, during the pandemic. I completed dozens of puzzles in the last three years but as the world opened up, the boxes of puzzles I’d bought, thinking I’d keep up the habit, have remained closed. And I’ve talked to some friends who dropped their pandemic-borne hobbies because they were a reminder of that hard, stressful period.

I was the serious-minded young kid in my neighborhood who walked around carrying a field guide to birds. In fact, with its glossy cover and colored pictures, the guidebook was one of my prized possessions.

I didn’t wander far with the guidebook – my across-the-street neighbor’s large backyard bordering on an evergreen forest or a meadow at the end of our dead-end street. Yet armed with it, I felt like Steve Irwin must have in the Outback, delighting in the wildlife around me.

Like my interest in crocheting, and later short-lived attempt to take up piano, my hobby of bird watching faded over time. I never went back to it.

I remember visiting my Aunt Ginger who had retired to Maine. I think I was in my mid-20s, busy with the things 20-somethings are busy with, and she pointed to a tree she could see from the kitchen window. “We like to watch the birds in the morning while we’re having our coffee,” she said with great enthusiasm. I smiled and nodded, and thought, “what a strange thing to be enthusiastic about,” not connecting at all to my younger self who once felt the same way.

Lately, though, birds in my yard have begun to recapture my attention. I could pick out the obvious species – cardinals, blue jays, robins – and sometimes a half hour would pass while I watched their movements in the trees. I bought a birdfeeder and filled it with seeds the package said would attract song birds. I found the daily ritual of refilling the feeder not a burden but another meditative activity offered by a suburban backyard.

And I found myself wanting to know more. I’d listen to a distant song bird, and wonder what I was hearing even if I couldn’t see it. I bought a new guidebook and a Sibley’s laminated pamphlet.

Then a few weeks ago, I saw a notice – (pardon the self-promotion!)-  in the Current that MassAudubon was hosting an introductory bird watching walk – “Nature in your neighborhood” – at the sanctuary on Marblehead Neck. The walk was free, funded by the Marblehead Cultural Council.

Thus, last Friday at 8 a.m., I assembled in the small parking lot on Risley Road with about 20 other bird-interested folks and walked for two hours through the 18-acre sanctuary with Scott Santino, a knowledgeable and seasoned MassAudubon staffer. He helped us identify the machine-gun sound of a Tennessee warbler (not to be confused with a Nashville warbler) and the “witchety witchety” of a yellow throat warbler. And he noted there is no point in distinguishing oneself as a birder versus a birdwatcher. If you enjoy birds, you can call yourself either one. Unless you are British in which case you are a twitcher.

There was birding humor from the group. Who needs Taylor Swift when we have chimney swifts? Why do female songbirds migrate a couple weeks after the males? They have to stay behind to clean and pack. Hear that American leaf blower? You won’t after May when they’re banned!

There were interesting facts. Gray catbirds, in fact, meow like cats. Ducks shed all their feathers at once and render themselves flightless for about a month. Some birds can sing two notes at once, including the ubiquitous robin. There’s a difference between a bird’s call and a bird’s song. The first is innate and used for practical communication, like, “Hey bird-buddy, come over here, there are lots of bugs!” A song, it is believed, is learned, to mark territory and attract a mate.

There’s a website and digital tool – Birdcast – developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which tracks the billions of birds which migrate from Central and South America. And if you want to identify a bird by recording its song? They developed an app called Merlin for that!  

Santino noted that the famed naturalist Roger Tory Peterson coined the term “spark bird” –  an “aha moment” when you encounter a bird that turns you in to a birder for life.

My “aha” moment came a few days before the Audubon walk. I was watering the plants on my deck when a yellow flicker caught my eye. There were two black-capped chicadees in the nearby tree. I watched until they flew away a few minutes later. Black-capped chickadees aren’t all that rare. In fact, they are the Massachusetts state bird and adorn all those “Welcome to Massachusetts” signs on the state’s borders. But they are wondrous. Once upon a time, I worked for a new governor who tried to legislatively change the state bird from the chickadee to a wild turkey. There was an uproar and the plan went nowhere. So instead he and his young administration changed all the state signs to feature the new state “gamebird” – a wild turkey. I was 20 something, what did I know?  As for my spark bird moment?  I’ve asked for a pair of birding binoculars for Christmas. I’m hooked, this time, for good.

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

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