Memories of Long-Ago Birds

For Audubon’s field editor, these recollections enrich his birdwatching and his being

In his 1947 classic of nature writing, Spring in Washington, Louis J. Halle described a moment of intense personal experience while watching birds early one March. Halle had arrived at Dyke Marsh, across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital, when he heard a thin, insect-like sound. After groping briefly for a name, he recognized the song as that of the season’s first yellow-throated warbler. Though this State Department official and part-time writer knew the importance of birds in conservation, ecology, commerce, and agriculture, he was witness now to their role in the seasons unfolding, to their place in his own life.

“The appreciation of birds, indeed the appreciation of all the phenomena of spring, cannot be dissociated from the accumulations of memory,” he wrote later. “The appearance of a familiar bird immediately awakens a train of forgotten associations, and this makes each spring transcend its predecessor. The interest accumulates and is compounded. The first yellow-throated warbler next year will be the more meaningful to me as it brings back that moment in the woods opposite Dyke.”

Halle’s response is, for me, the resonance a bird sets off between time and place. Again and again, the sight of a certain species triggers associations in my mind. When I watch a black-and-white warbler, I am immediately taken back nearly half a century to the day I bought my first truly functional binoculars.

Before that, the small birds I watched through a pair of hand-me-down “opera glasses” appeared blurry, dingy, remote. When I raised to my eyes my new Japanese-made binoculars for the first time, in New York’s Central Park, there appeared a black-and-white warbler as I had never before seen one: resplendent in its fresh nuptial plumage, every detail clear and sharp. It was a revelation. The memory of that long-ago bird has never left me; it amplifies my pleasure every time I see one of its descendants.

That same kind of pleasure recurs for me each spring, with a veery, an Arctic tern, a blue-gray gnatcatcher. I return to individuals of the same species, to beautiful places I have seen them, to memories of good friends who shared this pleasure, even to past readings of memorable texts or viewings of evocative pictures. 

A poem or a painting may spring to mind, renewing the image of a bird now part of my memories and cultural heritage, redoubling a sighting’s pleasure. I recall that Thoreau marveled at the scarlet tanager, flying “through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.” Longfellow sang of the bluebird, “balanced on some topmost spray, flooding with melody the neighborhood.” From her Massachusetts home, Emily Dickinson watched a hummingbird and bobolink and noted to a friend that “the wind blows gay today and the jays bark like blue terriers.”

Of these associations, Louis Halle wrote, “When I go into the woods with someone who does not share them, and listen to the song of a bird, I am sometimes struck by the fact that he hears something altogether different from what I hear. His ear is differently attuned. One must share common memories in order to share common experiences.”

For many of us, those begin in childhood. When I was six or seven, a relative gave me a picture book of backyard birds. With the volume in hand, I looked out a window and saw in a bush a black bird with red wing patches. As I looked through my book, I spotted a picture of a species called a “red-winged blackbird.” I had identified a bird on my own and accumulated the first of untold memories concerning the “otherness” of living things around me.

I had become a birdwatcher.