Bird watching has been described (by Ornithologist Joseph Hickey) as "a mild paralysis of the central nervous system which can be cured only by rising at dawn and sitting in a bog." Nowhere is this pleasant addiction cultivated by so many nature lovers as in Boston. Whenever Roger Tory Peterson, author of A Field Guide to the Birds, the bird watcher's bible, leads a field trip out of that city it is definitely the ornithological event of the year—for reasons set forth in the following letter from a proper Bostonian to a bird-loving friend.
R.H. Phipps Piper, Esq.
New York City
You and I have been bird watching since our school days at St. Paul's and through the years each of us has had his moments of triumph. Your greatest moment, I suppose, came when you added the marbled godwit to your Life List. I can confess to you now, Phipps, that until today I have never quite found it in my heart to forgive you that. Mind you, I have never actually doubted your godwit (although the bird is extremely rare and almost unheard of at the time of year you said you saw it), but if ever I had the slightest mental reservation about it, I could not be anything but generous in this—my great moment. For I have had the greatest adventure of my career, and nothing that the future holds for me can be anything but anticlimactic. This day, my dear Phipps, I have been bird watching with
I know you will agree with me, Phipps, when I say that Roger Tory Peterson is the finest all-round bird man since John James Audubon. I grant you Audubon may surpass him in sheer artistry, but—to me—Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds is far and away the finest handbook ever published. I've said that for years and now—knowing Peterson
—I believe it more firmly than ever.
RENDEZVOUS AT NINE
Do I hear gnashing of teeth? Very well, old man, I shall come directly to the point. Through some mischance, the notice that Peterson had come to Boston to lead a bird walk did not come to my attention until late yesterday afternoon. Naturally I was quite excited by the news and immediately called Audubon headquarters. I was told to be on hand in the lobby of Hotel Bradford at 9 o'clock next morning. Let me hasten to say, Phipps, that I did think of calling you in New York, but decided against it, feeling that the trip to Boston and the excitement of meeting Peterson face to face might be too much for you.
There were, I should say, about 75 bird lovers milling about the hotel when I arrived. Peterson himself was not in evidence—although I had never seen him in person, I felt sure I would recognize him instantly from his photographs. I took advantage of the wait to study the people who would be my companions on this historic (for me, at any rate) field trip. Outwardly they seemed to have little in common. They were of all ages from the teens to the 70s, a pleasant-looking, clear-eyed group whose spirit of happy anticipation gave me a warm glow. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with a glorious feeling that strikes all true bird lovers from time to time, namely that we share the finest (perhaps the only worth-while) hobby in life. Impulsively I leaned over and exclaimed to a matronly lady next to me, "Good morning! I'm Bayard Ashcroft, Harvard '14!"
She smiled, but before she could reply (as I'm sure she intended to), there was a stir in the crowd and cries went up: "There he is! There's Peterson! etc., etc." All heads went swiveling toward the main entrance and now I could see, advancing through the crowd, Roger Tory Peterson himself, striding purposefully, head held high, waving and nodding as he moved easily among us. I hurried forward for a better look.
Let me give you my first impression. Roger Tory Peterson looks every inch what he is—the world's foremost authority on birds. He is a big man, splendidly proportioned, square-shouldered and erect. He has a fine large head, strong jaw and chin and at the corner of his eyes, deep-set and blue, are those permanent wrinkles that have come with his years of patient scanning of the sky. His artist's hands are slender and fine-boned. He exuded an air of quiet satisfaction, the air of a man completely happy in his work, at peace with the world and himself. It was easy to see that field trips were an everyday affair with him, for he wore no hat, no heavy boots and only a light topcoat over his sports jacket. Now he smiled briefly in acknowledgment of the applause and, his face sobering, he held up a hand for silence. I cupped a hand to my ear, fearful of missing a word.
"There are two buses," said Peterson clearly and firmly. "I shall act as leader for one bus at the start and then—midway in the trip—I shall move over to the other bus. In this way I shall have an opportunity to meet and chat with each one of you."