By Sherry Stratton
It’s a late Sunday morning, early May. Dick and I have made a quick stop at the grocery store after our tramp in the forest preserve. As we’re walking out, I look up and see my bird class instructor, Denis, heading in. Two others with him drift ahead when he stops, and I realize this is the coffee-and-doughnut break after their regular bird-watching excursion nearby.
He has something to tell: they saw a willet! Walked right up to it, took pictures. If you go now, it will probably still be there, he says. I’ve barely heard of this bird. It hasn’t been on the lists of what we might see in our field classes. As Denis talks, I recall the urgent messages I’ve left him, asking for help identifying something new. I’ve given him reason to think I would leap at this chance. Now he is reciting directions for finding the willet, and I think guiltily that I should stop him from taking the trouble.
He couldn’t know that this opportunity is up against the stronger force of homely routine. Its spur-of-the-moment nature—the only reason the opportunity exists—is my reason for rejecting it. This is not something I’m willing to admit out loud. Park at the red barn, he is saying, take the path along the lake, and then something about the berm. At this point I stop taking in the details. I know I’m not going. Besides, berm is one of those words that confuse me.
Driving home, I hardly recognize my rising regret. It’s time for lunch, though, and we are creatures of habit. We talk about what we’ll eat. But still, I think, the birding site is only ten minutes from home, tops. As we unload groceries, Dick says he has something to get done before lunch. It’s one last chance for me to change course. How about if I go back and look for that bird? I ask. Sure, he says—go!
I grab binoculars and a field guide, look up “willet” without bothering to study the description, and mark the page. Arriving at the barn, I park and head toward the path. Then I have no further clue. The trail runs between two bodies of water, with a sharp slope to the shore on the right. To the left, a more gradual incline extends about sixty yards to water’s edge. It’s colder out here than it was on our walk through the woods, and I’m wearing the same thin jacket. Mentally, though, I feel better having gotten this far. I compose an e-mail to Denis in my head: “I didn’t see the willet, but I’m glad I tried. Thanks for telling me about it.” The ridge-like path itself seems to be a berm—is that what he meant? Why didn’t I listen? I don’t know if I need to go off the trail to spot the bird, or even whether to look on the left side or right.
I make a few hopeless forays down to the shoreline on the right, peering into the clumps of tall grass. Then I continue along the trail, gazing around, aimless. He said the willet was by itself; I heard that much. No other birds nearby. Soon I will turn back, I’m freezing. I muse that I’ll never know whether I missed the willet because I didn’t know where to look or because it was already gone. I pass a dense thicket, and for several paces it obscures the water on my left. When the lake comes back into view, it bows inward, bringing the water closer to the path. There on the near side of the sheltered cove stands a lone shore bird. I look for a long time before raising my binoculars. I take in the whole of it, not trying to memorize features. The bird has come to me pre-identified.
Giddy with success, I fly back down the trail, not pausing to consult my field guide when I reach the car. Lunch and a willing listener are waiting at home. Later, I search for willet in the county checklist and find it under “accidental visitors.” I look that up and learn that an accidental, or “vagrant,” is a bird far outside its usual range, sometimes by hundreds of miles. An accidental can show up for many reasons, the first being weather: blown off course by a storm’s cascading currents. I am chastened to read of birders willing to travel great distances for the chance to see a vagrant. I add willet to my life list and thank my lucky stars.
The email I send to Denis is honest. “I wasn’t entirely confident I’d see it, but the willet was waiting for me, as you predicted,” I write. I acknowledge that I’d never have been able to identify it on my own, and mention its appearance as an accidental on the checklist. I wonder, was this a big deal? Denis writes back that willets don’t show up often in our county; this is maybe the second he’s seen here. And the first in breeding plumage, he adds, “so this one was a big deal.” Using birder lingo, he concludes, “I’m glad you got it!”
After a career in technical writing, Sherry Stratton has focused on the subjects closest to her heart. Her work has been published in Portage, Snowy Egret, A Prairie Journal, and Seeding the Snow. Sherry is copy editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. She lives at the edge of a forest preserve in northeastern Illinois.