IF YOU ARE interested in becoming a bird-watcher in the Hamptons, you will need all sorts of good tips, and I can give you one right now: Do your very best to avoid the local bird sanctuaries.
These refuges give impressive testimony to mankind's fierce love of nature. However, they are usually bird-free. Up at Cedar Point there is a bird-watcher's trail, which you must avoid, since all the birds do -- possibly because they are unable to read the sign. The Morton Wildlife Refuge has a serious national reputation, but I must tell you that I have combed the place for years and never seen an interesting species there. I inform any friends who will listen that they have more chance of seeing vital bird life at Chernobyl.
Once I clambered over a rugged mountain in southeast Arizona, saw almost nothing, then came back down to the camp parking lot, full of people eating, screaming and tossing frisbees, and there I saw all the birds I was looking for. I sat down wearily on the bank of a stream and one of the fancy species of the area, the red-faced warbler, flew down to take a bath right in front of me.
The reason for this deflating set of affairs is that a great many birds do not like wilderness any more than you do. They prefer nibbling at the edge of human settlements -- or it may just seem that way because a lot of wildlife appears where two habitats meet.
This brings me to my back yard in Sag Harbor, N.Y., the edge of my own little human settlement. The yard is rich in bird life, since it is heavily wooded, has people nearby and has not yet been declared a bird sanctuary. It also has the understated advantage that you can put your feet up on the deck railing, linger over a martini and wait for the avian world to come right at you. If you want to be purist about all this, the martini should be straight up, since most advanced birding is done by ear, and no one wants to lose a great species because of noisy ice cubes.
Early morning is the best timefor birding, but I love the late afternoon and early evening. On almost any Friday or Saturday, my fellow birding fanatics Rudy and Billy come over an hour or so before sunset. We break out the Beefeater, scan for birds and talk about our great good luck at not being in the Morton Wildlife Refuge.
In the wild, birders are supposed to be as quiet as cloistered monks, and we more or less live by that stern rule. But on the deck, with a drink in hand, feet up, we are apt to swap tales of birding triumphs and blunders. Early in my birding career, I correctly identified a sulphur-bellied flycatcher, 50 feet up, directly overhead, with only a glimpse of a headless underbelly through the canopy. In birding this is the equivalent of a half-court jump-shot that catches only net. On the other hand, I once smartly identified a Clorox bottle as a common egret.
When Billy speaks, he is apt to imply heavily that Rudy and I are obsessives, whereas he leads a balanced birding life, prudently setting some time aside for career and family. The conventional stories about Rudy, as ritualized as the Latin mass, concern his amazing luck as a birder and how staggering rarities routinely pop out of the bush on cue whenever he ambles by.
Since birding is not a little old lady's avocation, as everybody tells you, but a macho sport of true blustering swagger, it is absolutely fitting that my deck looks something like a command post. It is nine feet off the ground, perfect for birding, and 33 feet wide, which allows a good deal of admiral-like scurrying along the poopdeck when a fast-moving species is spotted. Before we sit down, all unnecessary deck furniture is moved out the way. No one wants to do the high hurdles if Rudy decides to summon a passenger pigeon or a great auk out of the woods.
In my five years as a birder, I have seen more than 200 species on the East End, from Shinnecock to Montauk, and half of them have appeared in or over my back yard. The reason is that the property, though small, has a great variety of habitat: tall trees for warblers and orioles, bare treetops for flycatchers, a lawn for juncos and grackles, a mini-forest floor for towhees and ovenbirds, thickets for catbirds and sparrows, a fruit tree for waxwings and other berry-eaters, dead trees for nesting woodpeckers and a small bog for ducks and wading birds. In the back is a tree with a bare branch where a ruby-throated hummingbird likes to go into torpor, a kind of stupefied rest period. And this year we have new voices at martini time: For the first time, great-crested flycatchers and Carolina wrens are nesting in the yard.
The surprise guest of the spring was a mourning warbler, a skulking ground bird I had looked for all over Texas and then found on Memorial weekend in a lilac bush 20 feet from my deck.
The migration is over now, but even summer, the dullest birding season, provides a good backdrop for happy hour on the deck. Chimney swifts twitter by in their peculiar off-balance flight and maybe a common nighthawk or a scarlet tanager will show up. If there is still some water in the bog, a solitary sandpiper flies in around Aug. 10, some years with a friend, sometimes solitary. A week or so later a northern waterthrush arrives, and in some years, a green-backed heron as well. Two years ago, a yellow-crowned night-heron and a glossy ibis decided to spend Labor Day there, and I set up a telescope so friends could take a look, whether they wanted to or not.
Part of the allure of birding is the mix of predictability and surprise. Frankly, it would ruin my summer if the solitary sandpiper decided to take a year off and not show up in the bog. And the knowledge that new species are always coming through keeps me on my toes. Late last summer I scanned a flock of robins and spotted one with a tell-tale V-shaped sash across the breast. It was a varied thrush, a bird of the Pacific Coast rain forest, and the first sighting from the deck rare enough to be mentioned in American Birds magazine.
Now, I don't want to become too puffed up about this. I realize that in all probability the thrush was attempting a landing at Morton, overshot its authorized mark and landed in my tree by mistake. Someday they will doubtlessly have a varied thrush at the refuge, and they should. But, alas, so far they haven't. I checked.
John Leo is an editor at Time magazine. This article initially ran in the Easthampton Star.