The reward of intelligent looking

January 07, 1996|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE De GRACE -- Because I was busy on the farm the other morning I missed the boat, and with it my chance to see a golden eagle.

The boat I missed was Rip Poole's. He launched it here under the Conrail bridge early in the morning on the last Friday of 1995, and I was supposed to be in it, along with a few other Harford County people who find it interesting and useful to keep track of the birds with whom we share the neighborhood.

For years, the National Audubon Society and various local groups have participated in an all-day avian census, the famous ''Christmas Count.'' It used to take place on Christmas day, but now it's scheduled at various times throughout the holiday season. Harford's count was that Friday.

Because of various little emergencies at home I didn't get to the river until the sun had been up for almost an hour, and Rip's boat was long gone. His car and trailer were in the parking lot, and there were tire tracks in the snow of the launching ramp. My heart sank; I'd hoped there might have been a delay.

But maybe all wasn't lost. The river wasn't frozen, and in the bright winter sun it looked very inviting. I stared at it a minute or two and then went to get my own boat.

By the time I got it launched I was an hour and half behind, and had no idea if I'd be able to catch up with the early birders. Had they gone up river or down? Up, I guessed -- wrongly, as it turned out later. I went upstream almost to Port Deposit, but saw no people not in automobiles, and only a few birds, mostly gulls (two kinds).

Then I turned around and ran downriver, out across the Susquehanna Flats below Havre de Grace. More gulls, plenty of coots and a few ducks, mostly mallards. A cold-looking great blue heron on a piling. It was wonderful to be out on the water, but the bird-watching part was a lot tougher than I'd expected; it was hard to run the boat and at the same time keep scanning with the binoculars. I gave up trying to take notes.

By mid-morning I was beginning to feel both cold and stupid, and the wind was starting to blow, so I went in. As I pulled the boat back up to the launch ramp a passing Department of Natural Resources officer stopped and asked me if I'd seen any duck hunters. No, I said, and not that many ducks, either.

Lateness penalized

But later, when I checked with Dennis Kirkwood, who had organized the local count and had been in Rip's boat, I found out how much I'd missed by being late.

During a long day on the river, Dennis' sharp-eyed team saw more than 50 species, accounting for more than half of the almost 100 species that were noted in all of Harford County. They'd seen many more ducks than in past years, including some 40 canvasbacks and a rare pintail drake. They'd seen gadwalls, lots of buffleheads, black ducks and mergansers.

They'd seen six bald eagles, which would have given local ornithologists sweats and palpitations a few years ago but which we along the lower Susquehanna now blithely take for granted. And yes, they'd seen a golden eagle, which I never have.

They'd been lucky, but they'd looked intelligently, which requires patience and perseverance. And they'd seen things which are all around us, but seldom noticed. That's one of the rewards of intelligent looking, an activity which seems to be on the wane.

John Stilgoe, a professor in Harvard's department of Visual and Environmental Studies, has made a career of teaching students how to look -- not necessarily at birds, but at all aspects of the world around them. And he finds many of them astonishingly blind.

Why? Television may have something to do with it; it provides ''such a surfeit of visual images that people no longer pay attention to their surroundings,'' he told an interviewer recently, and even outlandish things escape their notice. He'd like us to learn to look at the world with the fresh and curious eyes of a Sherlock Holmes, because everywhere in it there are clues.

Bird watchers understand this. They know that if we see bald eagles in abundance over the Susquehanna, it tells us among other things that the fish they eat are no longer loaded with DDT. If we see the canvasbacks returning, it must mean that the wild celery and other underwater grasses they eat are returning too.

On the other hand, this year the Susquehanna census-takers found no Bonaparte's gulls, which in previous winters were abundant here. Where are they? It's still an enigma. But when we figure it out we'll probably learn something important.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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