Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Another Remembrance of Doug Chickering
September 29, 2023
By Steve Grinley
Last week I shared some remembrances from the local birding community of Doug Chickering, who passed away suddenly on Sunday, September 17. This week, I would like to share one more remembrance from Robert Ross of Byfield. Robert captures the essence of Doug’s character of helping new birders to see birds and to enjoy the world of birding the way that he did:
“I had not been a serious birder for very long when I shifted my focus on the Parker River Wildlife Refuge from striped bass to warblers. One early spring morning, as I walked along the s-curves, I came across an older gentleman. He was staring upward.
“As I approached, he turned to look at me, and said, “Good morning.” The friendly tone of his voice was muffled by his determination to not scare away whatever it was he had found in one of the larger oak trees. I really did not know my warblers very well. I had pinned down a small handful. I could tell immediately, here was someone who knew far more. As he cocked his head, he said, “Blue-winged” and pointed upward.
“Blue-winged?” Blue-winged what? A Bluebird? A Blue Jay? Without me saying anything in reply, he looked at me and said, “Blue-winged Warbler.” It occurred to me I had not shown enough enthusiasm in my initial response.
“He picked up on it. With the patience of an experienced hobbyist, he assumed I needed a bit more. He was right.
“We both stared up into the branches. I could hear the bird and took his word for it, what I was listening to was a Blue-winged Warbler. Then, suddenly, he turned his head, pointed in the opposite direction and said “Blackburnian.”
“Anyone who has been birding with a more experienced birder knows what happened next. I froze. Was I to keep looking for the Blue-winged or avert my eyes towards the Blackburnian? Then, he quickly raises his binoculars, looks in a third direction and says, “Just a Black and White.” He says this without disappointment. It’s factual. It’s over there, if you want to look for it.
“Then back to the tree above us. “Where do you think the Blackburnian is?” I ask. “If we stand here, it will likely fly into this tree. They love the oaks. The moth larvae have hatched.” Moth larvae? So it’s not sufficient to know the birds, I’m expected to know caterpillars as well?
Then, there’s a tiny bouncing bird high above us. “There he is,” he says, “our Blue-winged.” The bird was moving fast, like they do, and I caught glimpses of yellow. I was thrilled.
At my excitement, he says, “Here’s our Blackburnian,” as he points to a branch just above us. There, a bright orange and black little bird is attacking the hanging seed clusters. Perfect view!
“Thank you so much,” I offer.
“It’s that time of year–a wonderful time!” He is thrilled just to be here. He’s clearly happy, though in a quiet sort of way that suggests, ‘Just relax. It’s all merely fun.’ I introduce myself and he says, “I’m Doug.”
“Doug Chickering.” What a great name for a birder! Over many more years, I ran into Doug often on Plum Island. He is one of a handful of birders I like to refer to as “permanent residents” of the Refuge. As my knowledge of birding grew, I often approached Doug first if I saw him with a large group of birders, expecting he would know and share what was being seen–or not.
“A last example of the genius of Doug: there’s a huge group of birders searching a clump of trees along the Refuge road. Many cars are parked along the road. Most of the crowd stood in it. All are chattering away with excitement. Driving by, I see Doug and so decide to stop. I get out, approach him, and ask what we’re all looking at. Doug says, “Supposedly a Townsend’s Warbler.”
“So, you haven’t seen it?” I ask.
“Do you think it’s there?
“Others are claiming it.”
“I stand there with Doug for a while, then see everyone, nearly in sync, raise their glass, while others [with cameras] shoot away frantically at high speed. I see the bird clearly, but only for a moment.
“Are we sure that’s not a female Blackburnian?” I ask Doug.
“Ssshhhhh,” he says almost under his breath, “You’ll spoil all the fun.”
“Doug has given up his permanent resident status. But for those of us who knew him, from his “bird a day” approach to birding the Island, to seeing him walking along the Refuge Road on any given early morning, he will be missed. Some will fondly remember his writings, many posted here, and his wonderful, underrated, and inspiring work, *Reflections on a Golden Winged-Warbler*. I am sure more than a few will join me in remembering him as not only a devoted birder and author but also as a very nice man.”
A celebration of Doug’s life will be held on Sunday, October 29,2023, 2:00pm at the Mass Audubon Joppa Flats Education Center, 1 Plum Island Turnpike in Newburyport. Come and share memories and light refreshments with our great birding community! All are welcome.