The Catbird Seat: The Things I Would Have Done Differently

By Pete Dunne
illustration by Jeff Sipple

Looking back upon what even the most miserly of panels would judge to have been a rich and eventful life, I find very few matters to gainsay (meaning that given a do-over, I wouldn’t change very much).

OK and for the record, if given the chance again, I would kiss Lynn Hundley. I would not throw the rock that cost my parents a new picture window. I would buy gold when it was down around $240 an ounce.

When it comes to birds and birding, I find that I have even fewer regrets—which is not the same as saying that the scroll is blank. There are indeed things that I would now do differently. Here, for your edification and my catharsis, are a few.

1. As a kid, I would have joined a local bird club. Being by nature a private person, I pretty much birded on my own until I was in my twenties. As a result, I never tapped into the institutional memory of the birding community . . . never discovered that there were such things as field guides; didn’t know how to tell Wood Thrush from Hermit Thrush; had no idea that every year, on my birthday, 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks were passing over my head en route to Central America.

If I’d been associated with a club I would have had a 20-year jump on developing my birding skills. And I would have been a better birder today.

2. I wouldn’t have purchased that Telemaster spotting scope. The guy behind the counter of the sporting goods store clearly didn’t know what he was talking about (but I knew even less). The choice was between a Bushnell Spacemaster and the Telemaster—the one that had the advantage of being able to “zoom right in on your quarry.”

He really did say “quarry.” And I bought the Telemaster less on the strength of his conviction than on the zoom’s higher price tag. The happiest day of my life was when that overweight and underperforming instrument got stolen, and I went right out and bought the Spacemaster I should have gotten in the first place.

3. Back in 1975, I would have gone for the Newburyport Ross’s Gull. My knowledge of the bird came from a homeowner in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, who was down on our work sheet for a living room, dining room, hall, and stairs. As one of a two-person carpet installation team, he had just one question for us: “How fast can you get the carpet down?” The overnight bag and spotting scope parked next to the door underscored the guy’s urgency.

“You a bird watcher?” I asked.

“Why yes!” he said. “Do you know about the Ross’s Gull? I’m driving to Newburyport as soon as you guys finish. Everyone’ll be there.”

I knew what a Ross’s Gull was. I had no idea where Newburyport was. And being a lone birder, “everybody” didn’t include me. We got the carpet down in record time. But I still missed the “bird of the century.”

4. I would not have been talked out of publishing my uncomplimentary (but accurate) review of the “Insta-focus” spotting scope—the one with the teeter-totter focus mechanism that was impossible to get sharp. The designer swore they were going to fix the problems. Then they dumped the whole sorry lot on the market at a bargain-basement price. The scopes have mostly been relegated to the junk heap. But every time I see someone with one of those shoe-box shaped instruments I go over, give the person a consoling hug, and say: “I’m so sorry.”

5. After David Sibley moved out of Cape May Bird Observatory, I would have gone up to his room and salvaged the strata of pen-and-ink sketches, discarded watercolors, and half-finished illustrations that carpeted the floor. Instead, the room was sanitized by some unknown, and unknowing, Samaritan. The scrap paper was put on the curb. And a lot of priceless archival work is now sitting under a few million tons of kitchen scraps, Styrofoam nodules, Wal-Mart plastic—and the odd discarded spotting scope or two.

Sorry, David. But at the time, who knew?

The Cornell Lab

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