Sunday, September 9, 2007

"You Saw a Lucy's Warbler? Well, Isn't That Nice!"

I got a lifer this weekend, with the help of Robert McNab—a Lucy's Warbler. (He describes the sighting in detail here.) But this treat was overshadowed by the realization that some people think I'm crazy.

My adventures began on Saturday morning at Laguna Niguel Regional Park. Glenn had decided to sleep in, so it was just me, sans big camera for documentation shots. I camped out as usual by the fenced-off area near the entrance of the park, which was—just as I had hoped—filled with birds.

The catch was most of them were in their aggravatingly neutral fall/immature coloring, and none of them would stop moving—the air was filled with little feathered blurs zooming from tree to tree, three stories overhead, or darting furtively in and out of thick clusters of vegetation. Keeping the birds in my sights was like playing some crazed shoot-em-up video game ratcheted up to the highest level of difficulty—a moment's lapse in concentration, and whatever it was I was looking at would be gone.

After much effort, I managed to ID a Common Yellowthroat and a juvenile Lazuli Bunting, both of which managed to stay perched in one spot for about 3 seconds each. Laguna Niguel during fall migration is definitely a double-black-diamond birding spot—endless potential for thrills combined with endless opportunities to wipe out.

Then it occurred to me that birding spots ought to be coded, like ski runs, so birders of various levels of ambition and expertise will know what they're getting themselves into. Places with lots of big, slow-moving, boldly patterned critters easily viewable with the naked eye (like the front ponds of San Joaquin marsh) would get green circles. Places with a slightly more challenging array of birds and environments would get blue squares. And so on.

As I contemplated this, I ran into Robert, who told me about his recent sightings of the possible Lucy's Warbler. As he started describing it to me, we saw a tiny gray bird zoom into a nearby tree. I noticed it was grayish with no streaking, and had no eye ring, but I had no clue what it was.

"That's it!" Robert exclaimed, and the chase was on. The bird hopped around in the tree and in a few nearby trees for the next several minutes, as we tried to take in as many of its details as we could. It was definitely a warbler, and definitely smaller than the Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers in the same trees.

It stayed high off the ground, making it impossible to see its rump or the top of its head, but we managed to put together a pretty good picture of the rest of it. I was both sorry that Glenn and his big lens weren't there, and relieved: this is precisely the sort of scenario that pisses photographers off to no end.

After the bird took off, I birded alone for another couple of hours. Then I ran into a vaguely-familiar looking pair of birders, who greeted me by name. (I'm terrible with names and faces—something I make a point of warning my students about at the beginning of each term.) The female member of the pair asked me what birds I had seen, and I told her.

"Oh, you saw a Lucy's Warbler? Well, isn't that nice!" she said sweetly. Then—this is weird—she patted me on the head! "Nice seeing you again, dear."


Let's deconstruct this: I'm tall for a woman (almost 5'7); she was a bit shorter than me. Patting me on the head, therefore, was not an ergonomically convenient gesture for her. She had to have made a conscious decision to do this. But why? Did she think that finding a Lucy's Warbler was a total no-brainer at Laguna Niguel? Did she not believe me? Or did she just think I was weird and scary for some other reason?

This bothered me for the rest of the afternoon. Not even a gorgeous sunset and the discovery of three Black Oystercatchers at Crystal Cove could raise me out of my funk. "Am I really that weird?" I lamented to Glenn.

"Well, yes."

"No, really."

"Well, you can be a bit...enthusiastic."

This was ironic. Normally, I'm the most introverted, unexpressive person alive. The only time I knowingly overcompensate for this is when I'm teaching: teaching large lecture classes in an obscure and technical academic field is essentially like doing a long sales pitch, and teaching large groups effectively means throwing yourself headlong into the material with evangelical fervor. And I was throwing myself into the birds of Laguna Niguel the same way I normally throw myself at, say, the relation between c-command and the distribution of negative polarity items.

Then I realized I care as much about birds as the stuff I'm actually paid to think about.

The difference was my current audience didn't have 4 units riding on their weekend bird sightings. So they didn't feel obliged to even pretend to be polite to me. And I couldn't get my revenge by flunking them out.

But as they walked away, I noticed that between the two of them, both apparently serious birders, they had only one pair of binoculars. NOW who's crazy?


cogresha said...

Hah! That's hilarious! Who pats an adult on the head? I think I'll start doing that just to drive people insane. "Oh, you saw a (insert bird name). Well, good for you (pat, pat). Don't get too far from the path now."

John said...

I don't know what would lead someone to pat another adult on the head. It's definitely condescending at best.

Great lifer, though.

Felicia said...

Belated thanks to both of you for your sympathy! Cogresha, I love your idea—even better, have someone follow you with a hidden video camera and turn your birding trips into YouTube-ready performance art pieces!