My first day of birding is one I will never forget: May 6th, 1972. It came about because I was talking with one of my brother’s friends at school one day. I remember that we were in the library at Dalton, up on the mezzanine level and I’m not sure how we managed to have this conversation when the librarian was such a stickler for rules and should have been heckling us to stop talking. Somehow the topic of Hermit Thrushes came up (typical casual high school conversation, right?). I knew the Hermit Thrush song because my mother loved this bird and had pointed out its voice to me during summer visits to western Massachusetts, but I had never seen the bird itself. Hugh told me he could show me as many as half a dozen if I wanted to meet him at Central Park the following Saturday and bring a pair of binoculars. I took the bus across town at the appointed time and found Hugh and we spent the morning birding, ending with a list of 30 species including 5 Hermit Thrushes as well as 15 species of warblers (Cerulean Warbler on my first day of birding!!) and a Lincoln’s Sparrow! I was pretty well hooked. I managed another 5 trips to the park that month – a week later I had my first Chuck-will’s Widow – in Central Park of all places (seen by numerous other, experienced birders) – at which point I left town for the summer with my family and apparently I didn’t keep any more lists until September. By then I had joined the Linnean Society of New York and went on a couple of shorebirding trips with them and did a Christmas Bird Count in December (I still remember warming up with some pretty glorious fish chowder at the end-of-day feast and tally). I was somewhat limited because I wasn’t old enough to drive, Hugh had graduated and if I wanted to go birding at the only places I could access on my own like city parks, I was putting myself at some physical risk. So I only went when I could find someone to go with me. The one time I tried to go on my own to Central Park I encountered an unsavory character who flashed me and I was pretty upset about it. It’s sickening to think there are men out there who would do such a thing to a child, and it makes me sad that girls all over the world are unable to do many things they love because they feel, and in fact are, unsafe.Maybe this is why hard core birding is still a pastime dominated by men.
The following year saw an increase in opportunities for birding with the Linnean Society and on other trips with friends I made along the way. I loved attending the monthly meetings of my hometown bird club – we met at the American Museum of Natural History, at night, and I felt so privileged to have access to this magical place during a time when it was closed to the general public. I always detoured left as I walked through the Hall of North American Mammals – rather than walking straight towards the Alaska Brown Bears I made for the diorama featuring two timber wolves running across frozen Gunflint Lake in northern Minnesota, with deer tracks visible in the snow, the aurora borealis on the horizon and a Great Gray Owl surveying the scene in the background. For some reason the museum always smelled like pine trees. After this peaceful walk through the dimly lit, deserted hall I entered the Linder Theater, bustling with the activity of birdwatchers and amateur and professional ornithologists excited about reconnecting with friends and colleagues and eager for the evening’s program. It was 1972.
Two years later I would attend a talk that changed my life. That’s a story for another time.