The weekend of May 15-17, my family and I took part in the annual Massachusetts Audubon Society Bird-a-thon, covering our corner of western Mass for team Moose Hill. The event is presented as part fundraiser and part competition, but is really just an excuse to devote 24 hours to birding—and, apart from occasionally sleeping and eating, nothing else. From 6:00 PM Friday to 6:00 PM Saturday, teams representing all 57 Mass Audubon sanctuaries spread out across the state searching for birds, each one hoping to end the day having seen, heard, or otherwise encountered the greatest number of species—ideally without running off the road or collapsing in the field from sheer exhaustion—thereby ensuring victory and securing possession of the coveted Brewster Cup.
Our search began at home—under the feeders, to be precise—where we spotted one of the target species for the count: a beautiful White-crowned Sparrow, pale gray with bold white and black stripes down the length of its head. This species is only found in the northeast during migration, and never in large numbers—and when it does show up, it can be difficult to see. However, a few visit our yard for a week or so each spring and fall, so we were reasonably confident. This one showed up at the beginning of May and stuck around just long enough to take part in the bird-a-thon before moving on. We spent a few minutes in the company of the sparrow, then set off on a walk around the neighborhood. I had a particular destination in mind where I hoped to catch up with another, more elusive, target bird: I was looking for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and I had a good idea where we’d find one.
Sure enough, the bird was right where I expected. After a brief search, we heard its nasally call coming from deep within a stand of conifers—an unmistakable sound. The nuthatch called several times, and though we never put our eyes on it, we did spend some time with a beautiful and inquisitive Catbird who allowed us some very nice looks and a few photos before heading into the woods. A short walk farther on brought us to a brush-lined field where we found, among others, a beautiful male Indigo Bunting, a very vocal Field Sparrow, and a surprise flyover by a trio of Common Nighthawks, sounding off as they went.
Finished with our loop through the field, we headed off to our second stop: Winsor Dam, part of the Quabbin Reservoir’s great accidental wilderness, and a spot that’s been graced by some truly remarkable species—among them Golden Eagle, Pine Grosbeak, Parasitic Jaeger, Sooty Tern, and White-tailed Tropicbird. Though we didn’t find anything quite that rare, we were able to pick out a pair of Bald Eagles and a lone Spotted Sandpiper along the shore. As the last light began to fade, we heard a Woodcock’s sharp peenting, and the soft, distant call of a Whipporwill. With the day drawing to a close, we headed home to prepare for the next morning and what promised to be a spectacular birding adventure.
Saturday broke cool and early. After a quick check of the feeders (and a fortuitous Pine Siskin flyby) we returned to the Quabbin for a walk down through an area known simply as Gate 5—a designation that, though accurate, belies the avian bounty lying within. We’ve been coming here for years, and it always produces something wonderful, but during spring migration, it can be truly astounding. Today was no exception: a stunning pair of Blackburnian Warblers greeted us just beyond the gate, while farther along we encountered several of their cousins, including Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, and Blue-winged Warblers. We were also treated to great looks at a couple of usually secretive Wood Thrushes, and a single Veery—another local thrush that’s also typically shy and retiring. But there was one bird we were really looking for here, a bird that, outside our area, would be nearly impossible to find—and even within, it wouldn’t be easy. It’s far more often heard than seen, and if you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss it. We were looking for a Ruffed Grouse, and Gate 5 was our best chance.
Again, Gate 5 delivered. While we were searching for a Black-throated Green Warbler calling somewhere around us, we heard it: a low, nearly infrasonic thump-thump-thump, accelerating in tempo like a classic Harley starting up. It rattled our bones for a moment, paused as if for breath, and then resumed. After three repetitions, the grouse went silent, having said all he needed to for the time being. We listened for a bit longer, in case he had anything to add. Hearing no further comment and considering the matter closed, we continued on our way.
Reaching the water’s edge, we scoped a few surprise birds: five Common Mergansers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a small group of White-winged Scoters floating lazily on the lake—an uncommon sight this time of year and so far from the coast, and a very nice addition to our team’s tally. Once again, Gate 5 held to its reputation. We were thrilled: every bird we encountered was a delight, and we could easily have spent most our time here. This was a competition, though, and we had several more places to visit before the day was out. So bidding the scoters farewell, we headed back to the car and on into the day.
Over the next three stops, we saw some incredible birds: Great-crested and Willow Flycatchers; Orchard Oriole; Canada, Worm-eating, and Blackpoll Warblers; Louisiana Waterthrush; Warbling, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated Vireos; and many others. It was a spectacular day all around, but in Skinner State Park, near the summit of Mount Holyoke, we came upon something truly extraordinary.
We’d set out for Skinner looking for a ghost. Every year, a bird breeds on the mountain that’s so scarce and revered among birders its status approaches the mythic, to be spoken of in hushed tones and with great solemnity. Somewhere within Skinner’s 400 acres, Cerulean Warblers were nesting. And come hell or high water, we were going to find one.
Of course, we knew it was a long shot. Cerulean Warblers are small, few in number, and in steep decline. Searching one out in such an expanse of forest recalls a familiar scenario involving needles and hay. A singing bird would be a little easier to locate, but we were approaching the summit, and though we’d heard many birds on our way up—several warblers included—Ceruleans were conspicuously absent. Though we tried to stay positive, it wasn’t looking good: Without a sound to betray them, our already slim chance was evaporating.
We’d just turned around and started down the mountain when we spotted movement to our right—two birds flying together, small and flitting through the oaks. One disappeared deep into the woods, but the trailing bird landed nearby and began hopping around in the branches. Could it be? We dared to hope. Still, none of us said a word as we raised our binoculars and each put our eyes on the bird.
And there she was. Decked in aquamarine and white, we’d stumbled upon a beautiful female Cerulean Warbler, active, visible—and in the middle of constructing a nest. At first, we didn’t speak, just took long looks to confirm in our minds what our eyes were reporting. There was no doubt, though, and we watched her in awe, entranced by the story of life unfolding before us.
At that moment, nothing else mattered—not just the bird-a-thon, or the fact of our collective exhaustion and hunger, but nothing beyond the scope of this little warbler busy with her nest. Amidst all of the grim news, despite the encroaching press of humanity and our repeated assaults on the environment—thoughtless habitat consumption, oil spills that have become routine, gluttonous devouring of resources, our blatant disregard of the impending climate crisis and our frightening actions hastening its arrival—she carried on preparing a safe haven for her eggs and the chicks that would, in time, emerge and, with luck, give rise to yet another generation. Watching her pulled us out of the world of narrow human concerns and desires, and placed us, however briefly, in a larger reality in which we and the bird shared a connection—to each other, and indeed to all life inhabiting this blue marble we call home. On this great mothership of life spinning in the vastness of space, none of us is alone.
Building her nest was a hopeful act, in a time when hope is in short supply, and it made me feel that, though our situation is dire, all is not yet lost. There is light, however faint, in the darkness, and if we care enough to pay attention, it may illuminate a path out of oblivion.
Our way forward is cast in the shadows of the unknown, but it does not lead inevitably to destruction. In crises past, we as a people have joined together and overcome terrible challenges. We have shown resilience, resourcefulness, strength, and compassion, and in so doing have given testimony to the expanse of the human spirit and our capacity for true greatness. Now, we must do so again, for the need is strong and the challenge supreme. At stake is the survival of life as we know it—not just for the birds, but for the great panorama of all life, ours included. Whitman was right, the powerful play does go on, and we each may contribute a verse. It may tell a story of despair and destruction, or one of hope and renewal. But whatever verse we choose, and how the play goes on, is up to us.