They were feathered jewels moving through the trees, gifts from the Southern Hemisphere and our Southern states, most on their way north, here on the Cape for a few days or a few weeks. Mostly, they are gone now.
There were vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, thrushes, gnatcatchers — but the stars of the show were the warblers.
The largest of these will fit comfortably in the palm of your hand; the smallest are roughly the size of your thumb. Their colors are glorious and varied: olive, yellow, blue, orange, red, black and white. But they do not present themselves to you willingly: they flit about in the canopy or understory, incredibly fast and erratic, often obscured by leaves and branches. It takes good hand-eye coordination and a reasonably good pair of binoculars or camera to capture them. It takes work. It takes a creative mind, and a prepared one.
Sometimes you get just a fragment of a bird, a white wing bar, a yellow throat. It can be like a jigsaw puzzle to assemble the bird out of glimpsed parts. Sometimes you fail; sometimes you are unsure. Sometimes, on the third day, what was partially revealed before will come to you.
There are moments, too, without birds. These can be special, like the pauses between notes in a musical piece. The woods are quiet, or there is the noise of a faraway crow or jay or the croak of a nearby gray tree frog or a peeper, or the wind in the trees. There is the anticipation of the next sighting, a delicious tension.
It is the feeling of the hunter, called up from our genetic heritage, when such things were necessary for survival. An hour or so of this kind of hunting can be exhausting.
This drama occurs in the spring in wooded areas all over the Cape, but a particular stage on which it plays out is Beech Forest, in the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown. And so, it is a mecca for birders — those enthusiasts who pursue these birds, all birds, for the simple joy of seeing and perhaps photographing them.
If there is beauty in the world, why not seek it out?
A camaraderie exists among birders, a pervasive fellowship. We know that the general population has no idea of what we are about, so we appreciate each other. While there is the occasional loner who eschews company, most relish the sharing of a discovery: “It’s over there, left of the fallen log, halfway up in the highbush blueberries — look! It just moved again — a Magnolia Warbler!”
There are all levels of expertise, and mostly a generosity of those with more experience. Some incredible experts are in our midst, truly gifted people, birding by ear as well as by sight, and almost by instinct.
To see a bird you have never seen before, to see it well: what does it mean? One more facet of the world has been revealed. One more detail in the face of creation. To identify it, to put a name on it, to associate it with a given time and a given place, to share it with others. That is part of the magic.