My late mother in-law, Margaret, was an avid birdwatcher. She was president of the Audubon Society. She is the only reason I have spent time around birdwatchers. They are an interesting bunch.
Margaret held an annual bird count at the family house at Gwynn’s Island on the Chesapeake Bay. She invited her Audubon Society friends to the bird count. I think it has to do with tracking migratory patterns.
I don’t understand how that works. You spot an eagle, and you write down “one eagle”. Then, a little while later you spot another eagle. How do you know it’s not the same eagle?
If I had participated in the bird count, my bird count log might read, “A Flock of Seagulls, who, for the record, were not a great band.”
The next birding experience was at my in-laws mountain house in Highland County, Virginia, otherwise known as Little Switzerland. The mountain views are spectacular.
My husband and I are sitting on the porch. I reckon there might be around thirty hummingbirds hovering around the multiple feeders a few feet away from us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The buzzing of the hummingbirds sound like someone inserted Energizer batteries into their wings, and they are going and going, and going, at one-hundred and ninety miles per hour.
I am startled out of the hummingbird trance by the sound of around twenty cars pulling into the driveway. My husband and I missed the memo about their impending arrival.
It’s a large crowd of birdwatchers. They are carrying high-falutin’ binoculars, cameras and tripods. They greet us, grinning ear to ear. They look as happy as I was when I saw the Rolling Stones in concert, however this is the opposite of a Rolling Stones concert.
They march up the mountain and stand there very quietly for at least an hour, waiting to see a golden-winged warbler. They get an A+ for patience. They come down the mountain. An enthusiastic guy says, “Wow! Now I can cross golden-winged warbler off the list!”
If a bird provides that much satisfaction to someone, they are gold for life.
I strike up a conversation with Ralph. He is the organizer of the birding tour. Ralph tells me this group of birdwatchers are from all over the country. The tour covers the best birdwatching spots in Highland County. Ralph tells me someone came from California just to see a golden-winged warbler.
I say, “How much does the tour cost?”
Ralph says, “Two thousand. It includes a boxed lunch – choice of a ham or turkey sandwich, chips, an apple and a chocolate chip cookie.”
I say, “For two thousand bucks there should be a chef cooking filet mignon on the mountain while you guys are waiting to see a golden-winged warbler.”
Ralph is making out big time watching birds in Little Switzerland. Clearly, I picked the wrong career.
I talk to Mary from Pittsburg, a retired geology professor. She says, “I thought I met everyone on the tour. What’s your name?”
I say, “Kathy. I’m not on the tour. The sandwiches don’t work out for me, so…I’d be out of luck for lunch, hahaha.”
Mary tells me she got into birdwatching when she met her boyfriend, Jim two years ago. Mary says, “Jim’s over there. He’s wearing a colorful flower shirt. Jim wears that shirt whenever he goes birdwatching because he thinks it attracts birds.”
Mary tells me that she and Jim traveled to Costa Rica and stayed in a treehouse. They saw a quetzal, a rare bird. I tell Mary I’ve never heard of a quetzal.
Mary says, “They have irredescent green wings and a red belly. Stunning birds. You have to go during the dry season, and wake up very early in the morning to see them. Jim and I were so exited to see a quetzal that we popped open a bottle of prosecco at 10 a.m. 10 a.m! Can you imagine drinking at 10 a.m?
I say, “I’ve done that, maybe two or ten times. No big deal. Although, it did not involve seeing a rare bird. It involved nothing. Just a hankering for a drink in the morning.”
I enjoy birds very much, but I don’t know enough about them to write down the species I see, except for cardinals, blue jays, crows, seagulls and bald eagles. That’s the extent of my list. And, maybe, “It was big and several shades of brown – who knows?”
That evening, my husband and I and our five and seven year old children are sitting with my in-laws in the living room of the mountain house. It’s nearing bedtime for the kids. My mother in-law says, “I remember the time we were driving up here, and we saw a man standing on the deck. We pulled into the driveway, walked around the property, and he was nowhere to be seen. Another time, I was washing dishes, and a man ran across the porch. He was wearing a plaid shirt. I ran outside, and he was gone. I am convinced this house is haunted.”
I turn to my husband with a look of oh my god, did she just say that?
Then, my mother in-law says, “Do you smell the bear? I can smell it. It must be very close to the house.”
I say, “Okay. Bedtime for the kids is cancelled. Super.”
The next day the family crew visits Conley, an eighty-some year old native of Highland County that’s a neighbor and good friend of my in-laws.
Conley has a dialect like nothing I’ve ever heard before. It sounds like a cross between a cajun from the bayou and a hillbilly mountaineer.
We arrive at Conley’s modest ranch house. There are salt and pepper shakers everywhere. On open shelves that I believe Conley built to display his impressive collection, on end tables, on the wide ledge of the den window.
Conley tells us his collection has reached the five thousand mark.
I use the bathroom, and there are several rattan wall shelves that are filled with salt and pepper shakers. I am obsessed with all of the dusting they must require.
We go out to the yard.This is what my husband and I think Conley says, “The yotes got my shep.”
We nod and smile, wondering what the heck Conley is saying.
Conley is pointing to the field. “Yotes got my shep, yes they did, yes they did.”
Margaret, who understands Conley much better than us says, “The coyotes got your sheep? Oh, no!”
Margaret often invited her birding friends to the mountain house. During one of gatherings the birders say, “Margaret, come here and check out this snake.”
Margaret says, “All I see is that log over there.” They say, “That’s the snake.” It was a timber rattlesnake. After that incident, in addition to the ghost stories, I decide I don’t like the mountain house.
The birdwatchers attend Margaret’s memorial service at the mountain house after she passed away. We spread Margaret’s ashes in the flower garden. The ashes are in a heavy duty ziplock bag marked “Margaret” in bold letters with a sharpie, which may have not have been my choice for a memorial service.
During the reception, I have an in-depth conversation with Shirley, a pleasant middle-aged woman who is wearing a t-shirt that says, “Tufted Titmouse” with an illustration of the bird, near her, um…
Shirley tells me she finally saved enough money to buy the eight-thousand dollar binoculars hanging around her neck. I nearly spit out my punch. I say, “Shirley, you’re kidding me. No pun intended.”
Shirley goes on to tell me about all of the birds she has seen. I win points for my dutiful attention during the thirty-some minute conversation.
Meanwhile, the other guests are roaming the deck, and, every so often someone says something like, “Pileated woodpecker! Eleven o’clock.” Then, the binoculars all go up in harmony.
A guy pulls out a mini notepad from the pocket of his shirt, and writes something down. Maybe,
“Pileated woodpecker.”Or, maybe “Missed the Pileated woodpecker, but Shirley probably spotted it with her fancy binoculars.”
After the memorial service, Margaret’s husband put the mountain house on Airbnb. The first review said, “Very nice house. Great views. Great birdwatching. However, the negative is that there was a large ziplock baggie on the kitchen counter that appeared to have someone’s ashes inside.
The Airbnb did not take off after that review.
My family is vacationing at the site of the bird count on the Chesapeake Bay. I am not counting birds, however, I gaze at a pair of osprey that perch on the same limb of a sprawling pine tree every day. They perch there for hours, appearing regal and peaceful.
I do not have high-falutin’ binocolars, only my naked eyes.
A flock of crows surround the osprey, cawing to chase them away. The osprey stand steadfast and upright, not bothered by the crows. Eventually, the crows fly away. The scene gives me hope. It reminds me that nature mimics life.
I miss seeing the birdwatchers. They are a nice group of folks who love our feathered friends.
The nice birdwatchers are always welcome to the mountain house to look for a golden-winged warbler. I’ll sit on the porch with the hummingbirds. Binoculars are not required.