Roger Tory Peterson's Most Exciting Birding Experience

I have another article from the Jan/Feb 1988 issue of BirdWatcher's Digest (BWD) that I thought would be interesting to share. It involves the "Father of Modern Birding" Roger Tory Peterson. As a kid I learned his "field marks" system and still use it to this day. He basically brought birding (then called birdwatching) to the masses. He was asked to describe his most exciting birding experience. Can you guess what that might be?

Before I tell you about the most exciting experience, I would like to mention some of the runner-ups that he discusses in the article as they are amazing in their own right:
  • The sighting on New Years day 1948 of the last Whooping Crane in Louisiana. He was taken to see the bird in a small two-seater plane and was able to see the bird at a distance of 200 feet.
  • He discusses seeing a lone curlew at the mouth of the Merrimac river in Massachusetts that he describes a bird that "showed its sickle-shaped bill to be very stubby - shorter than any immature Whimbrel I had ever seen" Could it be an Eskimo Curlew he wonders? He never felt like he made a positive identification but I get the sense that that was what he thought it was. Interestingly enough he mentions the discovery this past summer (which would be the summer of 1987) of three Eskimo Curlew nests in Northeastern Canada. This is a revelation to me because, according the the National Geographic field guide, the last confirmed sighting was in Barbados in 1963. Most interesting....
  • He writes about seeing "dozens of Dusky Seaside Sparrows" on early trips to Florida. He said he had not even targeted this species on the trip - he was more interested in the Black Rails that had been seen in the area (Merritt Island).
  • In 1952, he took his friend James Fisher around the perimeter of the continent and saw three California Condors in the Sespe ridges around Ventura. Quite a sight I imagine!
So what was his most exciting birding experience. It came in May of 1942 in a place called the Singer Tract. He pens the following words to describe the moment:

"Breathlessly we stalked the insistent toots, stepping carefully, stealthily, so that no twig would crack. With our hearts pounding we tried to keep cool, hardly daring to believe this was it - the bird we had come 1,500 miles to see. We were dead certain this was no squirrel or lesser woodpecker, for an occasional blow would land - whop! - like the sound of an axe. Straining our eyes, we discovered the first bird half hidden by the leafage, and in a moment it leaped into the full sunlight."

The bird he had found was the Ivory billed Woodpecker. They were later to find a second bird, both of which were females. These were probably the last two woodpeckers left in the Singer Tract as the last sighting came in December 1946. There is now hope that this species is not extinct but nonetheless one can see why Peterson would choose this sighting as his most exciting birding experience. It is a rare, beautiful, and spectacular bird and that adds up to excitement to a birding enthusiast to be sure!


Naturalist Roger Tory Peterson Taking Notes on Osprey Unruffled by Close Presence of Birder

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