My biggest week

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Trumpeter Swans at sunrise, Maumee Bay State Park

The Biggest Week in American Birding takes place each year in the flat, marshy expanses of northwest Ohio. That’s where I grew up, where I fell hard for a singing house wren, and where millions of birds and I return each May – the birds as a quick stop on the way to their summer breeding grounds, me for Mother’s Day.

Until very recently, I was unaware that the Biggest Week in American Birding was going on during those May visits. I’d bird from the back deck of my parents’ house, which was gradually falling apart around them, or in nearby parks. Occasionally I’d meet warbler aficionados who’d traveled long distances to look at birds in the Toledo area. That surprised me a little; it surprised my parents even more. “They must have meant Oregon, Ohio,” my mother stated decisively of the Oregon couple I’d met at Sidecut Metropark and was describing to her. “Not the state of Oregon. Why would anyone come here from there?”

I first learned of a big May bird festival focused on Magee Marsh (the “Crane Creek” of my childhood) from a few of my Brooklyn birding friends. Their accounts intrigued me, for sure, but my most powerful motivation to go to Magee was the lost feeling – stronger, even, than the feeling of loss – that enveloped me after the sale of my childhood home and my dad’s rapid decline and death. And so last year I booked a longer-than-usual visit (my mom needed the help, after all) that included a couple of nights at a Comfort Inn on the other side of town (she didn’t really need all that much help), a short drive from Magee Marsh and other Lake Erie hotspots.

It was a fantastic experience, and I wrote about it here (it’s on pp. 12-13 of the publication).

This year, I went all out. I officially registered for the Biggest Week in American Birding. I booked five nights at the lodge at Maumee Bay State Park, so that I could roll out of bed in the morning and hit its trails at first light. I salved my conscience by bracketing my stay there with several nights in my mom’s part of town (putting me that much closer to the grasslands and forest of Oak Openings, so win-win). I scoured eBird frequency charts, made lists of target species, crossed those out and and made new lists of target species, studied field guides and listened to recordings. I further salved my conscience by promising to take my mom for a drive. I edited my packing list to ensure that my scope fit into my checked bag, with its tripod as my carry-on and the rest of my things stuffed into a backpack. I cajoled my daughter into joining me. I obsessively checked and re-checked @BiggestWeek and #BWIAB2019 on Twitter.

I was ready.

A detour down Creosote Road

At least, I thought I was ready. What I hadn’t prepared for were the emotions churned up as I revisited the streets, landscapes and landmarks not just of my own childhood, but of the childhoods fleetingly described, frozen in discolored Polaroids, or simply imagined, of my parents.

Smell is the sense most connected to memory, they say, but what about the absence of a smell? The drive to Maumee Bay State Park from my mother’s senior complex took me past the spot along the Anthony Wayne Trail, close to the Toledo Zoo, where the Jennison-Wright company once turned coal tar into a sealant for asphalt pavement and railroad ties. The smell always made my sister and me scrunch up our faces.

“That’s creosote,” my father, who knew everything then, told us.

Many, many years later, driving somewhere with New York friends, we passed an industrial yard of some sort that made us scrunch up our faces. “Smells like creosote,” I said. The other people in the car looked at me blankly. “You know, creosote,” I elaborated. “It reminds me of being a kid.” Blank turned to puzzled, and I realized for the first time, at the age of 50-something, that the smell of creosote was not a universal childhood memory.

There was no smell of creosote on this trip, as there hasn’t been for some time; Jennison-Wright filed for bankruptcy in 1989 and closed its Toledo operation the following year. I must have driven by the abandoned parcel between the zoo and the Teamsters hall hundreds of times since then, face unscrunched, oblivious. There was something about this trip, though – an almost quivering keenness, a heightened awareness of the differences between then and now – that made me notice what I wasn’t noticing.

To get to Maumee Bay State Park from the Trail (as it’s known), you turn onto South Avenue, then again onto Broadway, past churches and taquerias and murals and the offices of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, over the railroad tracks, toward Toledo’s revitalized downtown. Before you’re quite there, though, you’ll veer onto what I recently learned is officially called the Anthony Wayne Bridge, even though I and everyone I know refer to it as the High Level. There are other bridges in Toledo, but as a child, it was the High Level that I associated with my city, the way Brooklynites associate the Brooklyn Bridge with theirs. Its name soared, and so did it. My sister and I imagined its towers to be gaping jaws that swallowed us each time we crossed into East Toledo, causing us to shriek with glee into my parents’ ears (how did they put up with us?) until we were safely on the other side.

Today, were this another bridge in another city, I’d probably treat its name ironically. The High Level is not particularly tall, it’s not particularly long, and the neighborhoods it connects are decidedly working class, with an improvised feeling – plywood over broken windows, hand-lettered signs, repairs that may or may not be in progress – that speaks not of a few hard years, but a few hard decades. With this bridge, in this city, I resist irony. I feel instead a tender defensiveness, not all that different from my feelings toward my father as he became frail and forgetful.

Working-class East Toledo is where my dad was born and grew up, and where we went to visit his parents through most of my childhood, sometimes as a stop on the way to or from what was then called Crane Creek. They lived in a small, neat, aluminum-sided house with rose bushes, johnny-jump-ups, and a lawn mowed and edged to submission, where my grandmother complained about the roughneck neighbors and my grandfather puttered in the garage out back, tumbling the rocks the two of them collected on trips until they attained a glossy sheen. (As I identify as a birder, they identified as rockhounds.)

The house was demolished this past year, joining the wreckage of my maternal grandparents’ house and my old elementary school. I knew it was gone, but I still took a  detour down Plymouth Street. It was a bumpy detour: the street is paved with uneven bricks for much of its short length, not in the interest of historical preservation, but because the asphalt has worn away (was it properly sealed with one of Jennison-Wright’s poducts?) and not been replaced.

Back on Navarre Avenue, I passed Navarre Park, where my dad and my aunt played as kids. The fuel storage tanks and flame-spitting towers of the Toledo Refining Company abut the park, looming over it. I know the refinery as the place where my father worked summers, when it was part of Sun Oil, and where my sister and I – having survived the jaws of the High Level – imagined that dragons lived. I had forgotten its smell, but had only to drive past and inhale to remember. It smells, not unpleasantly, like someone thrust a freshly-opened container of Vaseline under your nose.

My memories became less potent as I continued east on Navarre, under I-280, past St. Charles Hospital (did I perhaps visit my grandfather there?) and assorted hotels and fast food places. This was the far edge of my childhood universe, associated with occasional trips to Crane Creek, or even more occasionally, to Port Clinton, Catawba or Cedar Point. Farther out, after Navarre Avenue became Jerusalem Road (because this was once the promised land) and the landscape turned agricultural (the way I remembered it),  I recognized the school where my mom, before she was my mom, taught math and, briefly, French (to her terror, being unqualified) to the children of white farmers and Mexican farm workers. Those Jerusalem Elementary kids would be in their 70s now. How many still farm here, I wondered, and how many went to work in one of the refineries – or for that matter, for Jennison-Wright?  How many live in East Toledo, how many made it to one of the city’s fancier neighborhoods, and how many left Toledo the hell behind?

How many ever used the French phrases they learned from my mother?

With Howard Marsh coming up on the left, it’s time to conclude this detour. The week would continue to be steeped in, even soggy with, memory, and I’ll have more things to say about that, but for now, let me say this:

There is in fact a street called “Creosote Road.” It’s in Gulfport, Mississippi, and I stumbled upon it in a list of creditors in a tangentially related bankruptcy filing as I researched the Jennison-Wright site in south Toledo. Other creditors on the list lived in Akron, in Dearborn, in Detroit, even in an apartment on Navarre Avenue in Oregon, Ohio – page after page of names and addresses connected to one another by others’ greed and bad business decisions. Together they formed a web of dollars and debt and unpaid bills, of lost jobs and foreclosed homes and looted pensions, of poisoned soil and lagoons of sludge. Close your eyes, and perhaps you’ll see kids in Gulfport/Toledo playing in the shadow of refineries and scrunching their faces at the smell of creosote as the planet simmers and executives pocket their bonuses.

Meanwhile, birds keep right on winging their way from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Erie and on into Canada, over Gulfport and Toledo alike. Their flyways predate us, reaching back to a time when the Gulf Coast was undrilled and northwest Ohio was covered by the Great Black Swamp. The birds don’t seek power or profit, just survival for themselves and their young. They’re indifferent to us, but still grace us with their beauty. And, maybe, they challenge us to do better. 

No wonder I like birds so goddamn much.

Warblers, woodcocks and water birds

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The spirit of the week

Howard Marsh is a new addition to the Toledo area’s Metropark system – it opened shortly before last year’s Biggest Week – but it’s already racked up 228 bird species. I was hoping for Black-necked Stilts and a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and I got both: the stilts as I drove in, their ridiculously long, red legs trailing behind them in flight (I’d have plenty of longer, better looks later), and the blackbird when I employed my advanced birding skills to spot a small crowd of people with binoculars and scopes looking at a particular patch of marsh grasses.

Seeing your target birds right off the bat is liberating. I was free to amble the perimeter of the marsh, binoculars around my neck, scope on my shoulder, open to seeing whatever I might see. That turned out to include a swimming Common Gallinule, loafing Bonaparte’s Gulls and Caspian Terns, an astonishing number of Great Egrets, and an even more astonishing number of Red-winged Blackbirds. From the far end of the marsh, I could see the marina where Eric’s Uncle Warren kept his boat, and which he and his brothers visited more than once as kids on trips down from Detroit. Just beyond the marina is Metzger Marsh, where my maternal grandfather used to fish for lake perch.

I’d planned to make a quick stop at Metzger Marsh – it would have been in keeping with the mood of the afternoon, balancing the paternal nostalgia with some from my mother’s side, while also offering an opportunity to contemplate the crossed paths and near misses Eric and I may or may not have shared decades before we finally found one another. But it was getting late, my luggage was baking in the trunk of the rental car, and having signed up as an official Biggest Week in American Birding participant, I was eager to collect my name badge and swag and generally soak up the Biggest Week atmosphere.

Besides, I had the luxury of another five days.

. . . 

The next few days are a birdy blur. There were Cliff Swallows nesting below the overhang of the entrance to the lodge; Soras and Virginia Rails and Marsh Wrens and Trumpeter Swans and an impossibly fluffy red morph Screech Owl in the marsh behind it; singing Henslow’s Sparrows in a patch of field on the edge of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge . . . and that was all before 10 am on my first full day, when I finally arrived at the famous Magee Marsh boardwalk. I’d made it through the parking area (nesting Bald Eagles! Baltimore Orioles galore!) and gone perhaps 100 yards on the boardwalk when a man wearing the insignia of one of the big bird tour companies approached me.

“Do you want to see a Kirtland’s Warbler?” he asked, in a low tone.

Was that a rhetorical question? Was it a trick? If I answered “yes,” would he lead me to a desolate, dead-end road, strangle me, and toss my lifeless body in a drainage ditch?

“Of course I do,” I answered.

A small knot of people had gathered (contrary to my initial impression, the man was not speaking to me alone). On our phones – because who carries pen and paper? – we tapped out a residential address. A birder lived there, we were told, and other birders were welcome to come by.

How delightful, I thought, as I drove along Route 2. And how typical of birders to open their home to other birders! I imagined chatting a bit with the birder/homeowner as they showed me where the bird was and helped me get on it. I’d admire it, of course, but would also remember to admire their garden, because everyone likes that, and perhaps ask to use their bathroom (being careful to wipe my feet extra well, or even taking off my shoes if that’s their preference), since I’d neglected that in my hurry to leave Magee Marsh. Afterwards, I’d thank them profusely and offer to show them the birdiest spots in Prospect Park should they ever find themselves in NYC.

The Kirtland’s house was in a residential area just north of Howard Marsh, pleasant homes tucked into a compact triangle hugging the shore of Lake Erie. It wasn’t hard to find the street – it was the one parked solid – or the house – it was the one with the crowd of perhaps 75 people out front. Those Biggest Week guides had certainly done a good job spreading the word.

I should probably pause here to explain to the uninitiated the commotion over this particular bird. Kirtland’s Warblers are exceedingly rare. They’ve come back from the brink of extinction, but there are still only about 2,300 breeding pairs that annually wing their way from the Bahamas to northern Michigan. I’m not sure if they’re the rarest warbler in the U.S. – there are a few Mexican and Central American species whose  ranges barely cross the border, or that show up from time to time when they go wandering and lose their way – but they’re definitely the rarest warbler that regularly visits the shores of Lake Erie, and for many of the birders at the Biggest Week, they’re the holy grail. I had never seen one.

This one wasn’t hard to spot. I looked where everyone else was looking – not in a yard, as I’d imagined, but in the low scrubby growth along the lakefront breakwall. It was large, for a warbler, and instead of flitting about, it sat and showed off its good looks: bluish gray head and back, the latter with bold black streaks; bright yellow below; and oh, that rakish broken eye ring.

I was smitten. And though I never got the opportunity to thank the homeowner for passing along the sighting (much less to use their bathroom), if by some chance they’re reading this, that offer of a birding tour of Prospect Park still stands.

. . . 

Meanwhile, there was a full roster of activities going on back at the Maumee Bay Lodge & Conference Center: field trips to various destinations, walks guided by luminaries of the birding world, lectures, workshops, vendor displays. I will cop to not taking full advantage of these and other Biggest Week resources during my stay at the lodge. That was partly because I procrastinated and didn’t check the schedule until many of the most appealing options were sold out (who’d have thought that would be an issue?), and partly because I wanted to bird as much as I could, where I wanted and when I wanted.

I did go to a couple of organized events. Tuesday movie night confirmed that, yes, I’m still awkward. The movie was the premier of a local PBS-affiliate production about migratory birds. Since I didn’t know anyone there, I thought it would be appropriate to break the ice with a bit of humor – like, you know, entering the meeting room-cum-cinema and demanding to know where the popcorn was.

The problem was, there was in fact popcorn – towering, overflowing stacks of it, in adorably vintage red-and-white striped popcorn boxes – because these people think of everything. So I was reduced to babbling, to the first friendly-looking person I saw, that “this is so funny, you know, I was going to demand, like, ‘if this is movie night, where’s the popcorn,’ but now I can’t, because (broad gesture) there IS popcorn.”

The first friendly-looking person I saw was a bearded man, a bit older than me, with a kind, vaguely familiar face, chatting amiably with another middle-aged man. He was, of course, birding legend Kenn Kaufman, and the man with him was one of the producers of the film.

At least I didn’t spill beer on Kimberly Kaufman’s dress.

My other group activity was a Wednesday night woodcock walk, which confirmed that, yes, I’m old. I’d never seen or heard woodcocks display before, and so I was looking forward to this immensely. They’re such odd birds, with those pudgy bodies and long beaks and eyes set practically on top of their heads and plumage patterned to look like dead leaves, not to mention their disconcerting habit of remaining stock still and then exploding into flight when you almost step on them. When males seek mates (plural: they’re players), they find a a nice, open spot and proceed to voice their PEEEEEENNNNT call in one direction, turn slightly, PEEEEEENNNNT in another direction, and so on, until they’ve gone full circle. Then, once they have the attention of all the ladies in the neighborhood, they rocket 300 feet into the sky, twist their way down . . . and do it all over again.

The conversation in our small group while this was going on went something like this:

LEADER (one of the many wonderful members of the Ohio Young Birders Club): There he goes, guys! Are you hearing the peent?

YOUNG PERSON: Yeah, so cool!

OLD GUY: Huh? Hear what?

To my great satisfaction – perhaps I’m not that old after all – I heard the peent clearly, once it was pointed out. How I pitied the old guy who couldn’t hear a thing. Until . . .

LEADER: He’s taking off! Look at him! Up in the sky! Does everyone see him?

YOUNG PEOPLE, in unison: Got him!

OLD PEOPLE, disconcerted: Huh? What? Where?

LEADER, trying to be helpful: Right above us, look up.

OLD PEOPLE: Can’t see anything. Where?

LEADER, slowly, still trying to be helpful: OK, there’s one star in the sky. Look at that, and you’ll see him.

ME: What star?

. . . 

North winds during spring migration are never good, and they’re especially not good when you’re birding the south shore of Lake Erie. Not only are they blowing against north-bound migrants, they also push water from the lake into low-lying marshes and channels and the roads that cut through them. By Wednesday, after days of intensifying northerly winds and a bit of rain, the boardwalk behind the Maumee Bay Lodge was submerged, Metzger Marsh was closed, sections of Route 2 were inaccessible, and local parks were a sodden, muddy mess. Magee was open, but: where were the warblers?

I began to hear grumbling on the boardwalk – it was low and mild, but it was grumbling nonetheless. Worse, I began to grumble myself. As churlish as it may seem after seeing a MOTHERFUCKING KIRTLAND’S, I couldn’t help but notice that the variety of warblers along the famous boardwalk was just a bit lacking. Why had I not seen a single Bay-breasted or Prothonotary? Why just a couple of high-up Cape Mays, when I remembered them flitting in front of my nose the previous year, practically having to swat them away? Why did I feel pressure to act excited about American Redstarts and Black-throated Blues?

I sought solace in non-passerines, and more specifically, in the birds my mother dismisses as “water birds,” as in: “Oh, I’ve never been interested in water birds.” The term as she uses it encompasses ducks, geese, gulls, terns, herons, rails, shorebirds . . . pretty much anything that dips its head, bottom or toes in water more than occasionally. Unfortunately, she  is far from alone in her prejudice.

A pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes – wading birds that also paddle delicately in the water and sometimes enjoy sitting and spinning in it, i.e., water birds through and through – had been spotted at Howard Marsh the day before, so that’s where I was headed. But first, I thought I’d make a quick stop at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps get in a run if the winds and soggy conditions permitted. And so it was that while jogging along one of the refuge’s dikes, I heard a raucous clattering call from a clump of marsh grasses. It was loud – oh, so loud, loud enough to stop me in my tracks. And then I saw it, emerging from the reeds and sidling along the edge, uncharacteristically bold.

I got it in my binoculars. It was big. It was orange. It was, had to be, a King Rail.

And then it disappeared back into the dense reeds.

This was my second life bird of the trip, after the Kirtland’s – and all the more satisfying for having been found on my own, using my own senses (those not-so-old-after-all ears, entirely capable of hearing high-decibel calls from 10 feet away) and my own birding skills. Which of course meant that within two minutes, I was doubting my ID. Sure, the bird looked big, but there was nothing around to compare it to, and I’d been looking at tiny warblers all morning. And that fluffy white undertail, why did my Sibley’s field guide (which I’d brought along in my running backpack and was frantically thumbing through) and every online image I was able to find with my crap internet connection show a King Rail’s undertail coverts as dark? Why had I not paid closer attention to the precise pattern of orange and gray on its neck and face? Could I have messed it up? Could it be a plain old Virgina Rail, magnified by an excitable imagination?

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A big, orange water bird (photo credit: Andrea Scheidler)

Birders sometimes talk about GISS, pronounced “jizz” (don’t laugh), meaning “general impression, size and shape.” In my limited experience, the GISS of a Virginia Rail is “well, aren’t YOU tiny and adorable?” while the GISS of this bird was more like, “OMG, what IS that giant orange rail?” But I wasn’t sure this would pass muster with the eBird reviewers (who have their hands full during Biggest Week). And since Virginia Rails are roughly half the size of King Rails, it would be a really, really embarrassing mistake to make.

I needed documentation.

“Pics or it didn’t happen” has taken hold in the birding world, but I don’t bird with a camera. And while I tried my best to get a cell phone recording of the call, I succeeded mainly in capturing the sound of the howling wind. So I put my field guide away, put my pack on, and ran as fast as I could back to the parking area to share news of this great bird with others. Surely someone would have a camera and join me in a photo stake-out.

A small cluster of people was gathered in a woodsy corner of the lot, admiring the Baltimore Orioles feeding on orange halves that someone had set out. “Hey, guys,” I gasped, breathless. “Pretty sure I’ve got a King Rail, it’s not far.”

I considered “King Rail” a kind of ornithological mic drop: they may not be Kirtland’s Warbler rare, but they’re rarely seen. I was consequently taken aback by the reaction, or more precisely, the non-reaction those words produced in my audience. It was clear from their stares (admittedly, I was sweaty and wild-haired and out of breath and only partly coherent) and body language that they’d much rather continue looking at orioles.

I think one or two actually edged away from me.

Another couple drove up and got out of their car. The woman had a camera. “Hey,” I said, trying hard not to seem out of my mind. “Would you be interested in trying to see a King Rail? There’s one pretty close that’s calling and coming out of the grasses. A picture would be amazing.”

“Well,” she responded, “I don’t really know anything about water birds . . . ”

Damn! There it was again, anti-water bird bias.

“. . . but sure.”

Andrea – that was her name – and her husband gamely accompanied me back to the rail spot. Nothing, at first. Then KEK-KEK-KEK-KEK-KEK. And then – could it be? yes! – that big orange rail crept out again and started picking its way along the grassy edge while Andrea snapped away.

I gave her my contact information, thanked her profusely (then thanked her some more), and we went our separate ways . . . Andrea and her husband to look at orioles and yellow warblers, me to Howard Marsh where, yes, I saw the Wilson’s Phalaropes – good, close looks as they sought shelter from the wind by staying close to the bank.

They were freaking gorgeous.

Consider this, then, a brief for the excellence and interest of “water birds,” and an appeal against unjust anti-water bird prejudice.

Mother. Daughter. Birds. Pie.

Thursday, May 9, dawned gray and cool, as had pretty much every other day of the trip. But the wind had changed, and so had the birds. I realized that straightaway when I got to Magee Marsh and, in a short walk along the scrubby, beachy strip that fronts the lake, saw at least five Swainson’s Thrushes and four Magnolia Warblers – not uncommon birds, but my first for the trip. It had clearly been a busy night for migrants. The birds we’d been missing earlier in the week – the Cape Mays and Bay-breasteds, the Chestnut-sideds and Nashvilles – had arrived en masse.

It was also my birthday, which isn’t really material other than to mention that Black-billed Cuckoos and roosting Common Nighthawks make excellent birthday presents, albeit a bit hard to wrap (hat tip to a Bird Twitter friend for that one). And do you know what else makes an excellent birthday present? Your daughter’s arrival at the Toledo bus/train station for a long weekend of mother-daughter birding.

Our birding started dark and early the next morning (a dinner date with my mom occupied us Thursday night, forcing us to miss the Biggest Week’s bird tattoo contest, which I would have dearly loved to see). We rolled out of bed, filled a thermos with coffee, and hit the lodge’s newly un-submerged boardwalk.

In stark contrast to the boardwalk at Magee, the one that winds its way behind the Maumee Bay Lodge is mostly deserted in the early morning – all the more so as you venture farther into the marsh, where the warblers dwindle to Yellows and Common Yellowthroats, and water birds and “little brown jobs” (a similarly maligned group) rule.

Katie, I’m pleased to say, fell in love with Soras as soon as she heard one whinny, and we were lucky enough to see several of them: some in low, brief, clumsy flight, others scampering about in shallow, muddy areas. She appreciated the majesty of Trumpeter Swans as we sat and sipped our coffee and watched the sun rise, and was better than I at spotting Marsh Wrens in the reeds. In fact, she was better than I at spotting just about everything. While she doesn’t identify as a birder (yet), she somehow knew that the slightly dumpy-looking bird in the tree above us on the Magee boardwalk was worth a closer look (it was a Philadelphia Vireo, a species that eluded me all last year), and I learned to pay attention whenever she said, “Mom, what is that . . . ?”  On the Magee boardwalk, “that” was a Blackburnian Warbler that soon attracted a small crowd of admirers, and at Ottawa it was a stunning Prothonotary Warbler that had people abandoning their trolley tour to run to see it.

In a marathon day of birding, we hit the above-mentioned spots, plus Howard and Metzger marshes, for upwards of 80 species. Notwithstanding the uncanny yolk-orange of the Prothonotary (and the thrill of starting her very first birding flash mob), Katie’s favorites, I am surprised and proud to note, were all water birds. Soras topped the list, followed by Bonaparte’s Gulls and terns (any kind, really), for their aerial acrobatics.

IMG_6980Midway through the day, cold and hungry, we took a break at Blackberry Corners Tavern. A Brooklyn birder had told me about this little local place, located a short distance west of Ottawa and Magee, where everyone – or so he said – goes to get their ‘lifer pie.’ He was surprised I didn’t know about it.

Earlier in the week, when I’d picked up my mother to go for a drive through Ottawa, she filled the silence in the car by reminiscing about the little restaurant that Uncle Rich and Aunt Peg liked so much, she and my dad used to go to there too, with Peg and Rich or by themselves when they went to Ottawa or Crane Creek, to get there you make a turn at the Bono curve instead of continuing on Route 2, why can’t she remember the name? It was nothing fancy but the food was really good, burgers and such. Uncle Rich would get a beer, she and dad always had iced tea. It was called something tavern.

It was, of course, one and the same place. (I figured that out as Katie and I drove there, and later confirmed it with my mom.) It was full of birders, just as my Brooklyn friend had said, and the food was excellent, just as my mom had said (get the lake perch sandwich).  Katie and I both had slices of pie to mark our lifers; she’d earned hers many times over that morning, and I was retroactively celebrating the Kirtland’s Warbler and King Rail. Despite multiple lifers, we limited ourselves to one slice each.

Katie and I continued to bird through the weekend from a base on the west side of town, closer to my mom’s, but not with the same exhausting dedication as our day along the lake.

Over the course of eight days, I saw 149 bird species. I’m pretty sure that does in fact make this, without hyperbole, my biggest week ever. The fact that it was in my home town – the place I left when I was 18, the place I’ve been coming back to, time and again, for 40 years, while all my grandparents and my dad were alive, and am still coming back to now that they aren’t, the place that once bored and embarrassed me but now haunts me, the place I feel lucky to share with my own daughter – made it that much bigger.

 

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