There are errors in the notes I kept in my first birding field guide, but no surprises.
I recently browsed my early birding history, noted in Roger Tory Peterson’s “A Field Guide to the Birds, Giving Field Marks of All Species Found East of the Rockies.” It was the book’s 28th printing, January 1961.
In that book I wrote the dates and locations of my sightings as I got into this game. They included a worm-eating warbler supposedly seen in Bemidji in 1963. Well, that was an error by several hundred miles.
Eventually, I crossed out sightings of the worm-eater, the yellow-throated warbler, and Eurasian tree sparrow, among others. I learned they are elsewhere species.
Many of my first sightings came in Massachusetts, while in the Army. I didn’t have binoculars then. The identifications I recorded, almost all of them plausible, tend to be of large or distinctly marked species.
American bittern, for instance, or great black-backed gull, barn swallow, black-and-white warbler and chimney swift. I also recorded sharp-tailed grouse in Massachusetts — not plausible.
I checked off three species of warbler, all seen while tiptoeing around brush piles in Ayer, Mass., where we were stationed. My records show a fall-plumaged blackpoll warbler. I doubt it.
I apparently did not see a yellow warbler, though. How didn’t I do that?
There are entries from my Army basic training days at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. I heard bobwhite calling from roadside brush the mornings we marched to the firing range. I watched red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures circling above the range once we arrived.
My notes show that I saw my lifer pine grosbeaks in Massachusetts. I was standing in two feet of fresh snow. It was 20 degrees below zero. I was chewing an all-day piece of corned beef. It was a weeklong training exercise with my Army friends.
The birds, certainly memorable, were not the most memorable part of that experience.
When I came home from Army service I appropriated the binoculars my parents kept around the house. They didn’t miss them, probably because those bins were awful. The lenses were seriously out of whack. My eyes had to focus individually for each lens.
When I put the binoculars down I would watch the world shape-shift as my eyes readjusted. I think I used those clunkers for years. Was it money or did I seriously need help? Probably both.
In 1974, a decade after I took those binoculars as my own, my life list was a puny 168. It’s no wonder.
Eventually, I got mixed up with some Minnesota birders, got smart, and bought decent glass.
The book is interesting aside from my history. Peterson has no entry for trumpeter swan. Mute and whistling swans, no trumpeter. I had to look twice before realizing that Peterson wouldn’t have included birds that weren’t there.
That swan species had been extirpated from the eastern half of the country for decades.
Minnesota has several thousands of those swans now. Years ago, well after Peterson wrote his book, our DNR sent representatives to Alaska to borrow trumpeter swan eggs. Hatched here, those birds became seed stock for a very successful reintroduction project.
Thanks to Minnesota, those swans are in all of the books now.
The swan wasn’t in that early edition, but the ivory-billed woodpecker was.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.