Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Teachers Influence How We See the World
May 26, 2012
By Steve Grinley

     Those of you who read my column know that birds are my passion, but I also have other interests. Well, one or two maybe. Interests that are, perhaps, less passionate. In learning the alphabet when I was very young, I must have gotten stuck on the “B”. Besides birds, I certainly enjoy the beach, as I moved to Plum Island for a while to be near it, (and maybe that is why I enjoy sandpipers as well.) I also grew up as a Beach Boys fan. It wasn’t cool to like the Beach Boys in the 60’s when Rock was coming of age. Even my best friends would kid me about Brian Wilson’s simple songs and lyrics. Still, today I remain a Beach Boys fan as I went to see their reunion 50th Anniversary Concert a couple of weeks ago. I had “fun, fun, fun” just as I did back in the 1960’s.

     There is another 50 year Anniversary that I am celebrating this year – this month, in fact. It was 50 years ago that my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Beach (another “B!”), took me to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge on a Saturday morning in May, at the peak of warbler migration. It was a turning point in my life for sure.

     I never knew why Mr. Beach asked me, out of all the other students in his class, to join him that Saturday. I remember doing a class lesson on birds prior to that, where each of the students had to observe a bird in their yard and come in and describe it. I chose Starling, one of the few birds in my Newton yard, and I can remember that my description was so bad, that even Mr. Beach didn’t know what I had seen! Despite my seemingly obvious lack of propensity for birding, he still asked me to accompany him to Boston on a Saturday for a brief stop at B.U. and then to go on to Mt. Auburn in Cambridge to look at birds.

     As we entered the gates at Mount Auburn Cemetery on that sunny, crisp morning, I remember the instant beauty of the grounds. Trees, shrubs, and flowers were all in bloom. A sweet, unforgettable aroma filled the air. It was more like a giant garden than a cemetery. Folks with binoculars around their necks walked the roads and paths. Birds and birders were everywhere!

     We stopped at a couple of ponds where both people and birds were concentrated. Birds of every color of the rainbow danced through the binoculars that Mr. Beach had loaned me. He pointed out each one in his Peterson Field so I could match the bird to the drawing. Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks all dazzled me.

     Then there were the warblers – “the butterflies of the bird world”- as Peterson described them in his field guide. Seeing the variety of bold patterns of colors on such small birds was mesmerizing. And it was a bit of a game to match each one to the drawings in the book. I can remember total strangers pointing out birds, showing me the bird’s picture in the book, and telling me what to look for to make it redstart or a yellowthroat.

     It was a Saturday like no other, and the start of something bigger than I realized. Time flew, as I was so absorbed in the newly discovered world around me. I can remember the disappointment when Mr. Beach said it was time to leave. When I got home, I wrote out the list of birds that I saw and told my mother that I wanted a pair of binoculars. She thought it would be a passing phase, but not long after she bought me a pair of 7×50 binoculars from Kay Jewelers, because that is where she had a charge account. Mr. Beach gave me my own Peterson Field Guide, which I still have. Inscribed on the title page is “I hope this helps to not only identify birds, but also to know them. Mr. Beach.” It was some time before I really knew what he meant by that.

     Birding wasn’t popular back then either. I was a “closet birder,” in Junior High, afraid to let but my closest friends know about my newly found hobby. I would get up at 3:30 am the following May and walk to Watertown Square to catch the first 5 am trolley to Mount Auburn. I would crawl under the gate and bird for a couple of hours, and then force myself back on a trolley to head for school. Yes, I was hooked.

     So this month, I celebrate 50 years of catching waves of warblers in May. I do that a lot at Plum Island now, but I try to go back to Mount Auburn every spring, as it is always a wonderful place to visit and the birds still find that magical oasis in the middle of a metropolis. The warblers may be fewer these days, but the aroma of Sweet Auburn brings back the fond memories of that first spring fifty years ago when my sixth grade teacher had such an influence on my life. He helped me learn to “catch a wave” well before the Beach Boys did

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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