“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This is a wry twist on an earlier historical phrase that probably had multiple origins, but it was pounded into the American psyche by Walt Kelly in his classic comic strip, Pogo, on Earth Day in 1971. It inspires me to remember that deep down inside, hardcore birders are crazy.
I had a first-hand encounter with crazy hardcore birders a couple of weeks ago, while exercising my own brand of crazy. It all started when I decided the time had come to retire my 15-passenger van. I bought it secondhand in 2003 and used it for my birding tours until Sept. 9 of this year. On Sept. 10, I ripped the seats out and converted it into a camper. Although it had become too worn for professional use, it still had enough life in it to use for personal adventures. To test it out, my wife and I drove south, intending to visit seven national wildlife refuges in seven days.
Our trip began Oct. 23, and one day later we were in Blackwater NWR on the eastern shore of Maryland. Next we moved on to Prime Hook NWR and Bombay Hook NWR in Delaware. On Oct. 27, we arrived at the Brigantine Division of the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, expecting a quiet day in the refuge.
Unbeknownst to us, an ultra-rare bird had been discovered at this refuge on the outskirts of Atlantic City two days before. The common greenshank is a large shorebird, native to Europe and Asia. It closely resembles our greater yellowlegs and even sounds a bit like it. Unlike the yellowlegs, this Old World bird has greenish legs. It very rarely strays across the ocean. There have been a scant few sightings in Atlantic Canada and one sighting in Florida. This was only the second time it had been identified in the continental United States. And we didn’t even know it was there.
But everybody else did. We arrived to find a huge mob of birders, loaded to the teeth with the best binoculars, scopes, and cameras on the East Coast. We didn’t really look for the bird. We just looked for the crowd and figured they were watching it.
They were. We parked as close as we could and walked the rest of the way, carrying our own binoculars, scopes and cameras. We politely edged our way through the crowd and asked the bird’s whereabouts. I was surrounded by a multitude of experts, and one nationally known birder volunteered to point my spotting scope at the greenshank. I readily agreed, and within seconds I was staring at a distant, blurry image. It was slightly larger and paler than the other sandpipers around it, but otherwise it was totally unrecognizable.
“These people are crazy,” I thought, failing to appreciate the irony that my own behavior was identical to theirs. In truth, the bird was known to move around with the changing tide, and it often ventured much closer to the dike we were standing on. Not all views were this bad.
Brigantine consists of an 8-mile, one-way perimeter road around a series of wetlands and mudflats. The speed limit is 15 mph. But if you happened to be halfway around the loop when word came that the greenshank was sighted behind you, you were forced to drive completely around the loop to reach the new spot. Impatient birders kicked up dust as they sped around. It got so bad that park rangers set up a radar trap just to catch the many people exceeding 15 mph.
Thus, our quiet day at Brigantine turned out to be anything but. I was pleased to see the greenshank, of course, though I had seen it in Italy five years earlier. This one was No. 580 on my list of birds seen in North America during my lifetime — not that I’m counting or anything. I’m not crazy.
There is a moral to this story. National Wildlife Refuges are way-cool places to go birding. As enlightened rangers will tell you: National Parks are for people; Refuges are for critters. Some of the best birding in America takes place in NWRs.
Maine has some great ones. There’s Moosehorn in Baring and Edmunds. There’s Sunkhaze Meadows in Milford. There’s Rachel Carson in York County. And many of our puffins nest within the Maine Coastal Islands NWR. You don’t have to go far from home to go crazy.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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