...I sit here growing old by inches
Watching the clock instead of the finches
But sometimes I visualize in my gin
The Audubon I audubin
Two summers ago, when I told friends of my desire to attend the Audubon Ecology Workshop in Greenwich, Conn., responses ranged from the incredulous ("Camp? At your age?") to the sarcastic ("Don't forget to sew name tags into your clothes") to the horrified ("Does this mean that you're going to go bird watching?").
I saw no cause for the hoopla. First, the camp was for adults, so my age was irrelevant. Second, my name tags are already sewn into my clothes. Finally, I had no interest in bird watching. Birders, as every city slicker knows, are a breed apart, a strange species with binoculars for eyes. No, my reason for going to camp was simply to get away from a week's worth of summer in New York City and enjoy nature. I had read about the four camps that the Audubon Society runs, and while the sites in Wyoming and Wisconsin sounded great, they were too far away. Maine's sessions lasted two weeks and I wanted to stay only one—which left Greenwich, only 40 minutes from home. It was just as well—Greenwich was the only camp offering introductory sessions, and I could barely tell the difference between a water bug and a ladybug. Not only would I delight in "the tranquility of silent woodlands opening into rolling meadows, the discovery of crayfish in a meandering stream, the surprise of a pileated woodpecker drumming in a tree overhead," but I would also learn about the impact humans have on our environment. Of all the camps, the one in Greenwich had the most modern facilities—a library, two-to-a-room lodging with bath—and cost a reasonable $375 for the week, meals included. I signed up for the very first session of the season.
Several months later, I found myself a member of a group of 23 campers. Included were Randi, a school psychologist from Ohio; Norm, a New York City attorney; Kathleen, a marketing representative from just outside Chicago; and Connie, a storyteller from Pennsylvania. The grandmother-granddaughter combo of Louise (retired farmer) and Deena (a graduate student) had journeyed the farthest, from Milford, Iowa and Omaha, respectively. All told, we ranged in age from about 18 to 75, with two married couples and six students in our ranks.
The Greenwich camp nestles amid 485 acres of land that originally belonged to the Siwanoy Indians. The Audubon Society acquired more than half of its present Greenwich holdings in 1942 and three years later added the 135 acres that make up Fairchild Garden, a wildflower preserve. Today, Audubon's Connecticut sanctuary is home to more than 800 species of plants, 35 species of mammals and 150 species of birds.
On our first full day, we were divided into four groups, and almost immediately we got down to the business of learning about nature. First, from a trail near Mead Lake, we watched a giant turtle, perhaps 60 years old, hastily glide into the water. We were still marveling at its size and agility when our group leader, Ted, shushed us. "Something's nearby," I thought excitedly. "Maybe a deer or a bear or...." I imagined the tales I'd tell back home and listened intently. Birds sang, water lapped against the lake's shore and leaves rustled overhead. Ted approached his target, pointed into a thicket of trees, then cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Twit, twit, sweet, sweet, chew, chew," he called. Presently, a bird responded. That, he explained, was a waterthrush. I thought he must be crazy. While a very real mosquito explored my ear, this guy was calmly conversing with an invisible bird. Ted looked through his binoculars, spotted the thrush and directed the group's gaze toward it. A lousy waterthrush. I was far more interested in finding the turtle again; at least the turtle sparked a poignant childhood memory—the time my brother, Neal, and I accidentally discovered that turtles and scalding water don't mix. The thrush, on the other hand, meant nothing to me.
Ted started talking about the bird: We would always recognize this brown thrush because it frequented thickets near the water and it bopped as it walked along the lower branches of trees. Bopped? "Yes," said Ted. "As if it had a built-in Walkman." Well, any bird that bopped was worth seeing and I had to admit that any bird with a built-in Walkman was my kind of bird. I peered in the general direction of the thrush, but without binoculars I could see only a wall of green and brown.
Midway into the week, we arose early for an excursion to Fairchild Garden. By that time, I had discovered there was an enticing quality about the outdoors—something that made me want to breathe as much fresh air and observe as much natural beauty as I could. And that beauty, surprisingly enough, included birds. Quietly, I cast my big-city cynicism aside, borrowed a pair of binoculars, and turned my sights to the sky.
It was a slow morning, however, and our small group spotted only a red-eyed vireo here, a robin there. Eventually, we wound up at Turtle Pond in hopes of some better sightings, and we weren't disappointed. Almost immediately we saw a bird with a brown back and white breast in full display on a limb hanging over the middle of the pond. Courtney, a summer intern, was beside himself. "This may be the find of the week," he exclaimed, and told us to note the bird's black bill and the red circle around its eyes. It was a black-billed cuckoo, only the second that Courtney had seen. Normally this cuckoo is secretive, with a penchant for hiding in bushes and trees at the first hint of humans. Yet there it perched, proudly, for all to see. After we had gazed our fill, it lifted off and flew away.