A Fading Serenade
Aging and adjusting as a field biologist
An Essay for The Boston Globe
From his perch high in a red spruce, a Blackburnian warbler reminds me of my age. This has nothing to do with the fact that every June for 30 years — nearly half of my life — I have bushwhacked the same route through woods in northern Vermont, stopping at the same five trees for exactly 10 minutes apiece to count every bird I see or hear. Nor does it have anything to do with my diminishing ability to see a Blackburnian warbler, whose face, throat, and upper breast glow like fire.
This is instead about a fading serenade. Despite his orange blaze, the easiest way to find a Blackburnian warbler up there in the spruce is to listen for the male’s song. In each rendition, he rubs together a couple of high, raspy notes, ending with an even higher, thin “szeeeee.” In summer, when leaves and needles block our view, recognizing songs is the best way to identify birds in the forest. Yet now that I am 63 years old, the dawn chorus is fading, one note at a time. No longer can my ears detect the Blackburnian warbler’s final note.
Birdwatchers joke that these high notes are the first things to go. Not for me. That was my ability to read my compass dial in the woods without eyeglasses. Next, arthritis and a torn meniscus brought pain to my right knee with every step along my forest bird route. And I now fall down more often on these birdwatching bushwhacks, not because of my failing eyesight or bad knee, and not even because a heart attack put me down in the woods four years ago. I fall because my mind propels me onward at a pace the rest of my body can no longer keep.
I am an aging field biologist; the songbirds’ fading chorus is among the inevitable casualties.
I know that aging is about acceptance, slowing down and recognizing new limitations. I am an aging field biologist; the songbirds’ fading chorus is among the inevitable casualties.
So is the ongoing decline of birds in the natural world. Each is a kind of approaching silent spring — one borne entirely of my advancing age, the other of humanity’s relentless assault on wildlife and wild places. My annual trek through the woods — at a place called Bear Swamp — is one among 32 routes in a long-term forest bird population study run by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. We count birds to witness what we’re losing — and to inspire ideas of what we might do about it.
During my 30 years of walking through Bear Swamp, two bird species — black-backed woodpecker and yellow-bellied flycatcher — vanished from my forest route, and not because I could no longer hear them. In its first 25 years, the Vermont study documented a 14 percent overall population decline among 125 forest bird species. By now the threats to birds everywhere are well known: invasive species, domestic cats, the climate crisis, industrial agriculture, habitat destruction, to name but a few.
Forests, like people, are about growth and change and death. Yet even as I recognize that aging is about gaining perspective and wisdom, I’m having a tough time accepting my decline in proximity to nature’s. Walking in forests and hearing their birds very much defines who I am. I do not like growing old while watching nature grow scarcer.
I reluctantly abandoned the Blackburnian warblers and other songbirds at Bear Swamp this year. Not because there was nothing left for me in the forest — far from it. Instead, I quit precisely owing to my diminishing skills. Even with my new hearing aids, I had concluded that my data — my ability to detect warblers and other songbirds — would no longer be reliable for the study.
So what will become of that serenade playing out each June at Bear Swamp? I turned over the route to one of my former graduate students, Sean Beckett, a skilled field naturalist who is half my age. Even as I leave for him an imperfect world, Sean leaves me with hope: He has the temerity to care enough about what’s next for all of us, and the skills, hearing, and legs to do something about it.
My work is done at Bear Swamp. Even so, with unsettled acceptance, on my bum knee I’ll walk onward to keep the horizons — my own and nature’s — from fading. Along the way I’ll miss those high notes just as surely as I will stumble and fall. No matter.
Although we are both damaged goods, nature now offers me slower rewards, quieter harmonies: the whispering butterflies of summer meadows, the furtive orchids of northern bogs, the silent ways of winter woods.
They need saving as well.