Sixty years ago I saw my first scarlet tanager. I was ten.
I was sitting outside “in the country,” and I don’t know what made me look up, but there was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen. I called it a “real bird” because it was different than the plain brown birds I was accustomed to seeing. A “real bird” was the kind of bird I only saw in the Golden Guides my parents bought for me.
The scarlet tanager was in a tulip tree. The tulip tree was a “real tree” which I had also recently identified from my tree books. The days of pouring over those books were finally paying off.
I don’t know how long the gorgeous red bird graced me with his presence, but I do know that at the age of ten, it was one of the most joyous experiences of my life. It was the day my hobby was born. After that day, and for the next sixty years I searched for another scarlet tanager and another tulip tree. The tulip trees were easy. I saw many of them.
But the scarlet tanager quest was unfulfilled.
The sad part of the story is I admit, “I am the worst birder in the entire world.” On Audubon outings when I am on my best game, and I can see color, I can identify birds that are close up. On outings when I am on my regular game, I can confuse pigeons with bald eagles. I have learned to laugh at myself and have tried to educate myself. Even though I am “the worst birder,” I love being outdoors, being silent, and absorbing the sights and sounds of nature into my soul.
No scarlet tanager. How can that be? The bird books says he (the bright red male with black wings) is up there, but hard to find. Hard to find! I wonder how many other scarlet tanager searchers have been seeking the red phantom for sixty years? I am supposed to listen for him. Well, I mix up all my bird vocalizations, much as I try to work on improving my sightings.
I’m sure if I asked for help, from the many wonderful birding guides I’ve known over the years, I might have seen my tanager decades ago. But I didn’t. Mine was a private desire, lingering in my psyche for so many years—my tanager was becoming my holy grail.
(Of course, between my cataracts, retina surgery, touch of macular degeneration, hearing problems, perhaps I should be given a bird watching handicap…I don’t know what that is, but I know golfers get one) Oh well, I digress.
So the other morning I’m just sitting at my kitchen table and looking out to my deck where I have a bird bath (a plant saucer with two rocks in it for balance) and guess what! There, sitting on the edge of the plant saucer and leaning in to sip the water, is my scarlet tanager—the bird I have not seen in sixty years!
The last time I saw him, I was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and red or blue Keds sneaks. I probably went into the house and ate a tuna fish sandwich on white Wonder Bread, cut in squares by my mother. Maybe I cooed to my brother sleeping in his crib. If it was a Sunday, maybe my father was there reading the travel section of the paper and eating bread and butter, or maybe borscht.
That’s why, the other day, when I saw the scarlet tanager, I cried, hard.
It took me a long time to recover, and I was glad I was alone. I thought “No one will understand.”
But I do hope you will.
And, my scarlet tanager? I don’t know where he is now. But I am hoping he will drop in again.