Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.
If you are a Talkin’ Birds listener who hates bird walks, you are not alone. Until recently, I did too. But then I went on a bird walk that I loved—at last. Here’s what happened.
I have been on nature walks since childhood, and I’ve even led a few. But I went on my first genuine bird walk only four years ago, at the 2016 L.L.Bean & Maine Audubon Birding Festival over Memorial Day Weekend. Ray, Mark Duffield, and I went to Freeport a day before the broadcast so we could straighten out any technical glitches. When we were done, Ray asked Mark and me whether we’d like to join him on a guided walk at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. The guide would be some dude named Doug Hitchcox. Neither the place nor the name sounded familiar to me, but Mark agreed to go, so I did too. “Why not?” I thought, “A walk outside on a lovely day? How could I not enjoy it?”
But it would not be a nice walk outside on a lovely day. It would be staring at every tree and bush and fencepost and bit of rocky shoreline and waiting for forty people to take their turn at a spotting scope while Doug explained everything anyone has ever known about every species we were looking at. But I didn’t know that when we set out.
We arrived late. Wolfe’s Neck Farm is a lovely recreational area that includes fields, forest, and some shoreline. It does not include much parking. Ray parked where he hoped he wouldn’t block traffic, and we scrambled out. He grabbed his binoculars from the trunk; Mark and I had none. We also had no sunglasses, no sunscreen, no outerwear, no water, and no snacks. Worst of all, we had no idea how long this bird walk would last.
We found the group easily enough: about forty people had arrayed themselves in a long line looking at a field. A young guy with dark hair and large binoculars was standing by a spotting scope and talking about Bobolinks. This was Doug Hitchcox—not “some dude” but Staff Naturalist at Maine Audubon. As in, “some dude who really knows his stuff and can make it interesting to anyone.” Ray and Mark, being taller than I, could see what he was pointing at, but I couldn’t. We were too far away to hear him. Ray offered to share his binoculars, but they didn’t help because all the tall people seemed to be in front of me. Eventually I pushed through the crowd and peered through the spotting scope. I saw a bird. Sitting still. In a field. What was so interesting about that? I watched for a few seconds and then let Mark have a turn.
The afternoon wore on like this. Doug would see a bird, and we’d stand in one spot for a long time while he said things I couldn’t hear and everyone tried to see the bird. I could never see it. I got thirsty. I got cold because I didn’t have a jacket; Mark got cold even though he did. The sun burned my nose and the back of my neck. Ray stayed nearby and kept offering his binoculars, but I didn’t want to hog them, so I said no. Mark quietly walked away and sat down on a rock. My feet started to hurt. After Ray enjoyed the walk for a while, Mark and I let him know that we were ready to leave.
This year, at the 2019 L.L.Bean & Maine Audubon Birding Festival, I hadn’t planned to attend Doug Hitchcox’s walk at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, but I had come up to Freeport on Saturday afternoon on my own for the technical check and I needed something to do afterwards. I had binoculars, a jacket, sturdy shoes, sunblock, and water. I had some idea of the terrain. I even had the Merlin Bird ID app on my phone in case I couldn’t hear or see what Doug was talking about. So I decided to go.
I arrived at Wolfe’s Neck Farm early and parked out of the way. I grabbed my gear, adjusted my new binocular harness, and followed some other folks wearing binoculars who looked like they knew where they were going. We coalesced around three L.L.Bean employees who had us sign waivers. And then we were ready.
Once again, there were about forty people. Once again, Doug Hitchcox saw birds high and low and set up his scope so we all could look. Once again, he engagingly explained everything about the birds, their lives, and their larger role in the ecosystem. But this time I stayed near the front of the group so I could hear him. If I couldn’t see the birds he pointed out, I asked for help, and then I turned around and helped others. When Doug softly demonstrated bird sounds over his phone, I went to the back of the crowd and played the same sounds softly with Merlin so that we all could learn them. I didn’t get sunburned. I drank when I got thirsty. My layers kept me warm. My feet didn’t hurt. I had a great time and saw my first Yellow Warblers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. And now I want to go on more bird walks.
So here are the lessons I learned.
A bird walk with even the very best guide can be boring if you’re not prepared.
Even though birding isn’t a vigorous activity, treat it as if it were. Dress for the weather and bring the right gear and plenty of water.
Help others. Everyone on a bird walk wants to learn. You don’t have to be knowledgeable—just kind.