Grosbeaks and Godwits

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When kids see adults possessed by a reverence and fascination with nature, it makes an impression on them for life, and gives the child a gift that will enrich and brighten their entire experience. I have several people to thank for kindling in me a lifelong interest in birds and in nature.

My Mom and Dad both loved the outdoors, and found a way on their meager income to invest – I choose that word carefully – invest in a used pop-up camper which we used so much we pretty much wore it out. What an wonderful investment it was and how many treasured memories we all have of days and nights in the great outdoors thanks to that nifty little camper.

My Dad had a knack for identifying the birds just based on hearing their song. I also appreciate that he chose to allow his accident prone son to have access to what were probably two of his more treasured possessions: His binoculars, and his vintage Audubon bird guide that his Dad gave him on his twelfth birthday.

Armed with these two things, I made many joyful discoveries both at home and in the field. Later when I was in my twenties, my Dad and my Grandpa got me an updated version of the same Audubon bird guide. Both of them signed it in the same manner Grandpa had signed the bird guide he gave my Dad when he was twelve.

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Vintage Bird Guides from Left to Right: 1946 Audubon Bird Guide given to my Father on his 12th birthday from his Father; 1963 Birds Golden Nature Guide owned by my Grandmother; and 1947 Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, a gift from my Mom to my Grandmother.

But my grandmother, my Mom’s Mom – we called her Grammie Howe – also deserves special mention as one of those who kindled in me a love for birds and nature in general. She lived in Maine, but traveled down to South Carolina where we lived to stay with us. I remember as a five or six year old sitting with her in one of our big easy chairs as she read me a book about how bird’s eggs develop. I remember being fascinated with the pictures, and learning terms like “embryo”.

My parents made it a point to drive up to Maine once or twice a year to see Grammie. I always looked forward to the chance to study her bird guides, which were part of a small collection of nature guides she kept between bookends on top of a dresser.

In the margins of one of her bird guides she had written an account of seeing a Hudsonian Godwit – a rarity in her time. Though this large elegant shorebird’s numbers have increased in recent decades, it is still an unusual sight today.

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One day when we were up visiting her in Maine, she told us – with some excitement – that she had seen a Grosbeak land in one of the shrubs in her front yard. I believe that she said it was an Evening Grosbeak. I never forgot that, and always noticed the Grosbeak family of birds in the bird guides. But in all my travels in the years since, I’d never seen any Grosbeaks of any sort.

Then one day a strange bird with a beak that looked too large for its head showed up at our feeder. I didn’t know what it was but I knew it was different from the other birds that typically visit. I grabbed the camera and took a few pictures, including the one at the beginning of this post. I consulted my bird guides and concluded this must be a female Rose Breasted Grosbeak.

I was mistaken though! Turns out the bird I saw (in the photo at the top of this post) is a female Purple Finch. Also a bird I hadn’t seen before. Thanks to Nick from the ABA for kindly pointing out my mistake. I’m learning to consult with others when identifying birds I’m not as familiar with.

So I’ll definitely keep watching for Evening Grosbeaks, and Hudsonian Godwits for that matter. They don’t really live around here, but I’d be thrilled to cross paths with them someday.

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