This is what happens when you travel for business or family and bird on the side: you research locales and the Internet to target your limited time, you lug a duffel bag full of maps and birding guides so you don’t spend that time getting lost, you find great birds (sometimes), and you meet a lot of local birders (most times). You discover that birding conversations follow the same pattern, whether you’re in Las Vegas, Chicago, or the Everglades: where the bird is, what the bird is doing, where the bird was. Sometimes, there is a digression: who photographed the bird, who chased the bird away. And, no one introduces themselves. This has been my experience for the past eight years. The only names articulated are those of the bird. Until I birded Georgia.
I discovered the uniqueness of birding Georgia a couple of months ago, when I had the pleasure of once again visiting Victoria Collett, who resides on Skidaway Island, outside Savannah. This trip, I decided to fly into Jacksonville, FL and bird my way up the Georgia coast. Plane fare cheaper, and there was a Buff-bellied Hummingbird on Jekyll Island. I also discovered, once I landed and checked Georgia Birding, the online Rare Bird Alert, that a Harris’s Sparrow had been found that very day at a place called Altamaha WMA. Harris’s Sparrow! I needed that bird! A quick check of my Delorme map showed Altamaha WMA was north of Jekyll Island, on the way to Savannah.
I got to Altamaha shortly after noon, having spent the morning photographing the Buff-bellied Hummer in the backyard of two lovely women (who were surprised that a New Yorker did not talk like a character out of Law and Order). And then I ran into a problem. The directions on the Internet seemed specific enough, but when I reached the coordinates that were supposed be Altamaha I found nothing, no sparrow, no birders. I realized Altamaha is one of those places where directions only make sense if you have spent ten years birding it. I tried driving around slowly. There must be birders looking for this sparrow, right? No birders, no sparrow.
I tried parking the car and walking a trail. Nothing. Till I heard a car slowly driving up the tiny narrow dirt road. Two nicely dressed women with binoculars around their necks greeted me cheerfully. “Hello! We found a Harris’s Sparrow yesterday; do you want to see it?” And, then they did something even more astounding. They introduced themselves. Full names. Towns. They looked at me. I stared back, dumbfounded, and then realized that I was expected to introduce myself too. Name. City. Date I arrived in Georgia.
I thought the exchange might be an aberration. Maybe these were two Southern belles who had taken up birding between socials and who just happened to stumble across a Harris’s Sparrow.
I got to the area where the Harris’s Sparrow was found (a half-mile from where I originally arrived, but down another narrow dirt trail that didn’t look like it could accommodate a car, around a pond full of egrets and cormorants, and through a field), and found two more elegantly dressed women birders, who told me the Harris’s Sparrow had been seen around the bend. And who introduced themselves and asked where I was from. Really! This was getting ridiculous. I had a Life Bird to find.
Next field down, I spotted a clutch of birders holding binoculars. And, putting them down. Yes, I had missed the bird. The Georgian birders extolled me with the basics, where the bird was, how the bird was photographed, what the bird looked like. And, they introduced themselves. Full names. Towns. The Southern belle theory went out the window, ‘cause these were all birding guys. Except for the woman who brought me over to her station wagon and introduced her children.
No Harris’s Sparrow, but there were four hundred and twenty blackbirds in a tree.
It turns out that not only do Georgian birders introduce themselves, they print everyone’s names in their Internet reports. So, I had the honor of being mentioned in Georgia Birding two times that weekend, the first day I missed the bird, and the second day I missed the bird. Because, of course I had to try again on the drive back to Jacksonville, the only day in January that the bird was not seen. But, there is my name in print, documentation that I tried: “Donna from New York”. Yes, only Donna. No last name. Because, as much as I tried, tribal customs die hard. It will take more than an extended weekend in Georgia to change my birder’s etiquette.
[Note: I finally got my Life Harris’s Sparrow the next week, at a research conference in Colorado. Where, by the way, the birders are friendly but do not do introductions.]