Tag Archives: Roger Tory Peterson

In memory of Peter Vickery

Beloved Birders,

Four years ago this September, I had the pleasure of traveling to Hog Island, on the coast of Maine, to attend the storied bird camp, whose original instructors included Roger Tory Peterson and Alan Cruickshank. I attended a fall migration session, which included two days on Monhegan Island. I was a new birder at the time, entirely out of my element, couldn’t really distinguish a Yellow warbler from a Common Yellowthroat and had barely figured out how to point my binoculars.

But once we got to Monhegan, I birded with Peter Vickery, Maine birder extraordinaire. He quickly ascertained that I needed help identifying most species, including the very basic ones, but he refused to accept my whiny complaint that fall warblers were “so hard.” Instead, Peter spent a good hour pointing out all the warblers that looked virtually identical in spring and fall — Black-and-white, Parula, Black-throated green, Black-throated blue, Canada, Ovenbird, etc — making sure I got great looks at every one of them. In his opinion, Roger Tory Peterson had done birding a great disservice by famously referring to those “confusing fall warblers.” “Pay attention to the birds you already know and learn them well — you’ll quickly see that you already know more than you think. Build your base from what you know. Master all the common birds” — those were Peter Vickery’s wise suggestions, and I took them to heart.

I started paying attention to the nuthatches on my morning walks, stopped confusing them with chickadees; I learned to appreciate the House finch for what it was rather than constantly assume it was a Purple finch or a rare species; I learned to identify a Brown creeper by behavior alone.

Peter was encouraging, but also no-nonsense when it came to birding. We walked for four hours straight, stopping only for water. To him, birding was the best thing in the world, but it was also work, because if you’re not out there paying close attention, there is no possible way you can identify birds well and eventually grow to perceive nuance.

Last summer I returned to Maine to volunteer with Project Puffin, and I meant to send Peter an email, but then got busy. Yesterday, I thought of Peter again, and wanted to convey how his fierce attention to detail is starting to rub off on me, because you see, I managed to correctly ID both a Tennessee warbler and a female Black-throated blue at the banding station. Upon googling Peter Vickery, I learned that he had passed away two months ago, from cancer, at the age of 67. What a gift it was to spend those two days in his company.

This morning I birded in my local park and did it Peter Vickery-style: I marvelled at the common birds around me, and was stunned to see that I recognized the resident Belted Kingfisher and Hairy woodpecker, paused to take in the unmistakable song of the Red-eyed vireo and the two-part rhythm of the Yellow warbler, and watched the fiery orange of the Baltimore Orioles illuminate the trees like Christmas lights.

Thank you, Peter Vickery. You shaped my way of seeing.

Warbler Party Etiquette

Beloved Birders!

Every so often, the stars align and you find yourself smack in the middle of the world’s best Warbler Party:

Photo by Charlotte England. Magnolia, Nashville, Parula, Black-throated Blue warblers.

Photo by Charlotte England. Magnolia, Nashville, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue warblers. I’ll let you figure out which warbler I’m holding.

Last Wednesday at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (TTPBRS) in Toronto felt like a slow uneventful day until there was a rush of exquisite warblers, exquisite even in their fall plumage! So what’s the etiquette for a Warbler Party?

  1. Study your flashcards (or warbler app or field guide or whatever suits your learning style best). Peterson famously coined the phrase “confusing fall warblers” but have faith: not ALL fall warblers are confusing!
  2. Give yourself permission to get some of the IDs wrong. It’s ok — everyone has made mistakes IDing fall warblers. But do look closely at the bird’s plumage (and their feet!) when you have it in the hand — or if you’re scribing, look closely at what the bander is holding in her hand.
  3. Don’t dress up like a warbler. They’re flashy enough as it is. Wear whatever you’d usually wear in the woods. Yes, your pants will likely be tucked into your socks. Trust me, the warblers won’t mind. They’ll applaud your sensible fashion choice.
  4. Don’t try to talk like a warbler. It’s annoying to those around you. Including the birds.
  5. Always have a decent camera on hand. You won’t want to miss this photo opportunity.
  6. It’s ok to kiss the birds. They’re that cute.
  7. Enjoy every minute it; these parties don’t happen every day. Commit the moment to memory. Come home and tell your partner and your friends. You can bet they’ll be jealous.
  8. Tell people about the party, show them your photos, explain where the birds are flying to and how perilous their journey actually is. Remind yourself (and everyone around you) how privileged we are to have these birds in our midst, and how the work we have to do to ensure that they remain in our midst.
  9. Don’t forget to buy bird friendly coffee — it helps maintain the habitat that these birds desperately need.
  10. If you have cats, keep them indoors. Or walk them on a leash. Leashes are sexy!
  11. Support organizations like FLAP that spread awareness about the dangers migratory birds face in an urban environment — namely window collisions — and also help rescue and rehabilitate injured birds. The birds you see in the photo are the ones we’re losing.
  12. Holding a tiny 8-gram bird in your hand and feeling its heart beat is an emotional experience. You might find yourself speechless when faced with their fragility. Remember: these birds need us to protect them and fight on their behalf just as much as we need them.
  13. The cute photo of the warbler party is a reminder that things we hold dear are in fact imperiled. Visit a local migratory monitoring station, go on a bird walk, watch a youtube video, develop a crush on David Attenborough, do whatever it takes to learn more about birds or if bird-nerdy info isn’t your thing, consider donating to a conservation group.
  14. Squeal with joy! I dare you not to.

A Chicken, a Flicker, Roger Tory Peterson & Me

Beloved Birders,

I must left you all hanging yesterday when I told you that I bought a painting of a chicken, and forgot to share it with you. Hope you didn’t lose sleep over it. In any event, here is the Chicken, painted by the lovely Dawn Stofer of Denman Island. You’ll be happy to know that when I purchased said bantam chicken, I was very appropriately clad in my chicken T-shirt purchased at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. Serendipity? Or maybe the chicken stars were aligned that day. In any event, here is the masterpiece which makes me very very happy:

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer

Bantam series 18, by Dawn Stofer. Embarrassingly terrible photography by yours truly. 

Chickens aside, I just learned that today is the birthday of Roger Tory Peterson, bird god extraordinaire. He would have been 108 today. I think of the great RTP every time I see a Northern Flicker because I know that was his favorite bird, and it happens to be mine too (or one of my 20 favorites). I’m enamored of the way the flicker wears his cacophonous polka-dotted & striped plumage with confidence; would that I had such assurance in my choice of dress. Seriously — a woodpecker trapped in a fashionista’s body.

But what I marvel at most is that Peterson — the man who had traveled the world and seen the most exotic species imaginable — still loved the common, ubiquitous flicker best. It’s the loveliest way of reminding me that the greatest, most exciting natural world is the one right outside our window and that there’s never an excuse not to pay attention. Thanks for the reminder, RTP, and happiest of birthdays. You enriched the world of birds (and, by extension, my world, too) immeasurably.