A BARNES & NOBLE DISCOVER SELECTION
A BOOKSENSE 76 SELECTION
After several decades of staring up into
trees looking for birds, English teacher Peter Cashwell found himself
puzzled one frosty morning and asked himself a hard question: Is
there a word for what I'm doing? As it turns out, there was, and
learning the complete conjugation of that word eventually led him to
write a book about it. Part memoir, part natural history, part
apology, and part rant, The Verb 'To Bird' will enlighten and
entertain anyone who's ever wondered why so many people find standing
under a dripping pine in the pre-dawn fog so appealing. Cashwell
lovingly but irreverently explores the practice of birding, from
choosing a field guide to luring vultures out of shrubbery, and gives
his own eclectic travelogue of some of the nation's finest bird
habitats, from the halls of North Carolina's high schools to the
shores of Delaware. Birders may find many of their questions
answered--Where did the cardinal get its name? How can I tell one
heron from another? How the heck did all those starlings get here,
anyway?-- but you don't have to know the field marks of an indigo
bunting to appreciate Cashwell's experiences with non-lending
libraries, venomous insects, sports marketing, and animated Christmas
An Excerpt from The Verb To Bird by Peter Cashwell
(From Paul Dry Books)
©2002 by Peter Cashwell
To order: PaulDryBooks.com | Amazon.com | BookSense.com
The New World birds we call warblers are technically named "wood warblers," as opposed to the true warblers of the Old World, but our warblers (the family Parulidae) also differ from the drab Sylviidae of Eurasia and Africa in that American warblers tend to be quite colorful, at least in breeding plumage. Warblers are therefore the passion of many birders. Because most warblers are small and inclined to stay in the treetops if possible, and because some are among America's rarest birds, they can provide a real challenge for the veteran. On the other hand, some species are common enough that, given a good pair of field glasses, the right time of year, and a little luck, you can easily turn at least a few of them up.
Warblers are also sort of a dividing line among birders. Think about drivers: you can certainly be a good driver without knowing how to use a stick-shift, but the best drivers want to know how to work one. As the stick is the dividing line between drivers, the warbler stands between what I call the passive birder and the active birder. A passive birder is happy to sit and watch the birds of home, garden and feeder, but since warblers are mainly insectivores, few ever visit a feeder. If you want to see one, you almost have to become an active birder: you must go and seek the little buggers out. And when you do, you've got to be lucky.
Only once have I gone looking for a specific warbler and been rewarded. While we'd been driving around on the morning of my first spring count, Mary and I had been playing a favorite birder's game, "What Haven't You Seen Yet?" This one makes everyone feel better because there's almost always some familiar bird on your life list that, astonishingly, isn't on your partner's. Mary, for example, confessed to never having seen a Black Skimmer, a coastal bird I'd first seen almost twenty years before. As for myself, I tried to be vague, confessing that the big gap in my list was the warblers; I'd seen "only a few."
"Any examples?" Mary replied. I'd momentarily forgotten I was talking to another teacher, and our profession's motto, after all, is Be More Specific! Minus Five Points.
"Uh--let's see, Redstart, Black-and-White, Yellow-rumped...uh, and Louisiana Waterthrush," I allowed. To appreciate the paucity of this list, consider that there are over forty species of warbler in the eastern U.S. alone. I was pretty much letting her measure my manhood. Luckily, Mary passed up the chance to humiliate me forever and simply asked "You don't have a Pythagorean Warbler?"
This brought me up short for a second, until I realized she must mean a Prothonotary Warbler. I'd at least heard of that one.
"No, I don't," I said cautiously.
"Then we've got to go this lake I know. There's a cypress swamp and Pythagoreans all over the place." She hit the gas and left me back at square one.
During the drive, I considered breaking down and asking Mary what she meant, but instead, I surreptitiously looked at the index in my Peterson guide and found no entry for "Pythagorean" Warbler. Scoping out the entry for the Prothonotary, however, I discovered that it is, in fact, a swamp dweller; circumstantial evidence, to be sure, but evidence nonetheless.
We drew to a stop where the road ended. Ahead of us lay a good-sized lake, with a fair number of cypress trees poking out of it and a small wooden hut beside it, with a sign listing the prices for fishing privileges, boat rentals and bait. Mary poked her head inside the hut and waved her official clipboard at the counterman, who nodded silently and gestured that we should walk around the lake counterclockwise. I climbed down stiffly from the cab of Mary's truck, a vehicle larger than some of the count areas I'd seen on the map, and fell in behind her.
The path led around the bait shop and down to the shore, where a most remarkable landscape caught my eye. On the left was the lake: big, round, wet, with a small island or two toward the middle. While it was entirely pleasant to the eye, it was unsurprising, utterly lake-like. It was also man-made; I can say this with some certainty because the path on which we walked lay atop the earthen dam forming it. The spillway was just ahead of us, spanned by a large plank and pouring down maybe ten or twelve feet into a dark green pool. Picturesque, sure, but again, not unexpected.
On the right, though, below the dam and surrounding the pool, was cypress swamp. Pure, unadulterated swampland, the kind which, no doubt, had covered the basin of the lake before the dam was built. (A cypress swamp isn't hard to describe: take some ground. Cover it with black mud. Cover that with around eight inches of black water. Insert cypresses. Ta daaaa.) The pale gray of the tree trunks and the green of the cypress needles offset the dark waters, which were highly reflective and almost entirely opaque. The trees' shade added even more darkness, as well as a welcome coolness, though like most coolness in the South, it was relative. The water probably should have disgusted me, but instead it filled me with a sense of purity, as if clean, clear water had been poured over leaves to brew; I might have been gazing on a gigantic pitcher of black iced tea.
And sailing from branch to branch over this flooded forest were Prothonotary Warblers.
Nothing else is that yellow. Even the Yellow Warbler isn't that yellow. The head, neck and breast of the male Prothonotary are a yellow so intense it could only be produced by the controlled fission of a goldenrod atom: a rich, searing yellow, too deep for lemons and too bright for butterscotch. Contrasted with his olive back and blue-grey wings, the yellow is even more vivid; you wonder how the bird's jet-black eye can function surrounded by all that glare.
There weren't many birds, three or four at most, but I was quite happy to stand and stare idiotically for many long minutes. I have seen both birds and places that I consider more beautiful, but rarely have I seen one set the other off so perfectly: a pool of deep green stillness, dark and slippery, and above it, the warblers, like dandelions freed from gravity.
"There we go," said Mary with satisfaction. "Pythagorean Warblers."
"Uh-huh," I said, checking off "Prothonotary Warbler" in my Peterson guide. "You, my friend, have spent too much time studying the ancients."