My original copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds lies a-moldering in the marsh, where I flung it years ago after yet another weekend of being unable to tell one little brown bird from another.
"The Peterson" was the birder's bible, but I defected to Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins et. al., which I thought had better illustrations and more logical organization. Some of my birder friends were scandalized. "You must take the time to learn the Peterson if you want to be a birder," one said. Well, maybe so, but the only time I could ever find anything in Peterson was when I was out with a group of birders and could look over someone's shoulder to get the page number, and the picture the experts pointed to often did not seem persuasive. When I was out on my own, which I usually am, the bird in question would seldom wait around long enough for me to look it up.
Now there is the New Peterson, totally revised and reorganized, with all new illustrations. Reviewers have been praising it to the, er, skies. I bought one and went out the other day to see if I could learn to drive it.
It was to be a first-light-to-last-light day, covering an area of the Virginia Piedmont with an ideal mix of habitats: ponds, streams, marsh, meadows, grainfields, brush, scrub and mature hardwood forest. It would be a fine day, the weatherman said.
Wakened at 5:30 by the squabbling of two pairs of Canada geese over the nestling rights to a pond, I rolled out the sleeping bag and began to fill out the local checklist of the Audubon Naturalist Society.
After the geese came the haunting song of mourning doves, the wakeup calls of cardinals and the ringing whistle of redwing blackbirds. A gaudy male wood duck went peeping past, followed by two guttural drake mallards. Several coveys of bobwhites began to sound out their territories. All familiar, but I looked them up for the practice.
Several crows circled well out of shotgun range until they saw I was unarmed, and then passed near to scold. A few minutes later came a raven.
A raven? The size and cruising flight, flat angle of the wings, heavy, shaggy head and wedge-shaped tail all testified to it, but I had never seen one so far (30 miles) east of the Blue Ridge. Just as it drifted out of sight the bird let out a croak not even a crow with a cold could match. I checked it off.
A hawk cruised the edge of the treeline, giving me an uncertain moment until he dipped a wing and showed his red tail. A great horned owl, Peterson said.
But the test of a field guide is the little brown birds, which were twittering away in the woods and fields to call me to my duty. Much as I love birds I have become ambiguous about the little brown ones ever since I started semiserious birding. No longer are upknown birds just uplifting little swirls of life; they must be studied, investigated, perceived in subtle details of shape and shading, flight or posture, proved. And finally Listed.
Walking along the edge of the pond toward the woods I saw a funny-looking bird that made my heart sink. It was shorebird-shaped but not a killdeer, and shore birds give me such a headache that I just call all the little ones sanderlings and the big ones willets, unless they take off and prove me wrong. If there are real birders around I shut up.
Being in the uplands, I tried "upland plover" in the index, which corrected me to "upland sandpiper," which wasn't it because it was killdeer-size and not brown. On the previous page, however, was a picture of a solitary sandpiper that was a good fit, especially the heavy black tail bars. When the bird let me get closer I became certain, as it obligingly flipped its tail at me and then flew away with the "darting, almost swallowlike wing stroke" Peterson promised.
Just as I reached the edge of the woods it began to rain, hard. The little brown birds suddenly stopped flitting and fell silent, and I ran for the van in a crouch to protect book and binoculars.
Staring gloomily at the lake I saw a big circles appearing among the rain splashes, but not until fish started jumping did I realize what was going on. I never catch fish, hardly, but since I was already wet, I pulled out a rod and a dozen leftover 7-Eleven worms and baited up to have something to do.
The first cast barely hit the water before the bobber disappeared, and on the bank there soon lay a bluegill bigger than any I have ever caught north of Florida. The half-worm I was using was still intact, and the line dropped in the water when I set down the rod to deal with the fish. A big large-mouth bass snatched it and had the rod halfway into the pond before I could grab it.
My fishing permission exluded bass, so I turned him loose and cast again with the same battered fragment of worm. Nothing happened for a minute, but when I started to reel in and check the bait, it snagged -- on a five-pound catfish. The landowner hadn't said anything about them, so I kept him. And the worm still was usuable. It got me another big bluegill before I had to use the other half.
It went on like that for time out of mind. At some point the rain stopped and birds came sporting in the sun, but I was in a fishing frenzy. I caught and released a dozen bragger bass and the twin brother of the first catfish. That dozen worms, dealt in thirds and then in quarters as they dwindled, yielded more than five dozen fish, and the bluegills were mostly keepers. I began to wonder what The Guinness Book of Records would think of an average of more than five fish landed per worm, and to mourn the lack of witnesses.
When the worms finally wore out I used newly emerged dragonflies that were clinging to the grass all round. They were so soft they had to be cast gently, but they caught fish.So did bread balls and cheese from my lunch, and rusty spinnerbaits from my son's tackle box and, almost, a dogwood petal.
For a fellow who has spent many a summer day watching a small boy catch fish right out from under his own unmoving bobber, it was heaven. There were fish for dinner, fish for the neighbors up the street, fish for freezing.
There were also little brown birds all round, dancing above the meadow, flirting through the woods, chirping and twittering on every hand. Some days soon I'll get back to them, probably. But I'll certainly never go fishing without my Peterson.