It has always been my intention, since I began writing this column for Rare Book Review, to alternate chatty and anecdotal essays on bookish topics, with magisterial, carefully researched articles replete with detailed and incisive commentary on topics of immediate and vital interest to the rare book world. Thus after my self-indulgent and rambling article on poetry in the last issue, I was scheduled to reveal several exciting discoveries that would significantly forward the art and science of bibliography. And with that intention did I gather my copious research materials, as Heidi and I left for the weekend to our tiny cottage retreat by the shore in Cape May Point.
But then I got distracted by the World Series of Birding.
Allow me to explain. Cape May Point is at the extreme southern tip of New Jersey where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay. The Point advertises itself as the Raptor Capitol of North America, and is the final jumping off spot for the various hawks and eagles before they cross the fourteen-mile wide Bay on the Mid-Atlantic migratory flyway. It is something of a Mecca for bird-lovers, and one is seldom surprised when a covey of binoculared overseas visitors wanders through one's back yard, something that would normally induce a case of the vapors and a jittery "Code Orange" declaration from the myopic knuckleheads at America's recently created Department of Homeland Security.
I had heard of the World Series of Birding a few years ago, inadvertently earning the gratitude of a bird-watching bookseller when I allowed him to use the house over the Series weekend. My busy book fair schedule and only nominal interest in the subject was such that I myself had never previously been in town for the event, and indeed I was unaware that this year we would even be present for the event until I read an article in the local advertising-fueled giveaway tabloid, by one "Seymour Thanu" (get it?), revealed at the conclusion to be the pseudonym of Peter Dunne, an author and acknowledged superstar of the birding world, who is also the Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. I've never much understood the convention of the "revealed pseudonym." Why bother to disguise your identity at all if you only intend to reveal it anyway, even if it is an excuse for a silly pun or a colorful moniker?
At any rate, the article laid out the rules for the competition, sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society, "timed to coincide with the period of peak diversity," whether of birds or birdwatchers, it did not specify. Over one hundred, three-person teams from around the world would trample through gardens around town attempting to identify as many species of birds as possible in a twenty-four hour period. The birders themselves could be identified by their ruddy complexions, binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras, and floppy hats. Many of the teams had fancy corporate sponsors like Zeiss, Nikon, Leica, and other optical equipment companies.
There were several different categories in the event. Mr. Dunne, whose local knowledge would presumably give him an unfair advantage – after all, he knew where all the birds were buried, so to speak - was not competing in the main event, choosing rather to participate in something called a "Big Day Stay", wherein one identified as many species as possible on the "big day" whilst "staying" within a 17-foot diameter circle, in his case, on the second story deck of a house a few blocks away from mine.
Our cottage may be tiny, but it does have a second story deck, and this sounded like the event for me. Although I had apparently missed out on most of the big sponsorship money, I immediately determined that Between the Covers Rare Books, Inc. would generously sponsor an unofficial team, and as befitting my efforts in taking the initiative, it was only fitting that I should be named its unofficial captain!
First, I needed to fill out the roster of my team. Most of the more qualified and experienced birders had already been snapped up by other teams, so I had to settle first on my wife Heidi, who was skeptical at best, and finally, in an appointment fueled by forgivable desperation, impressed into service my indolent house cat, Ralph.
The record total of species identified for a past World Series' was 233. I was optimistic.
There were other barriers to success as well. First, the starting time of Midnight Saturday seemed a bit unreasonable. It might be giving my competitors something of a head start, but an energetic finish might make up the difference, so I decided to start in mid-afternoon of the big day, an intention that was pushed further back when I realized that I didn't have a field guide with which to carefully identify my prey. This necessitated a walk to the Bird Observatory, where for $24.95 (no dealer discount provided) I picked up A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Fifth edition, fourth printing, identified by the number line on the copyright page).
I was further, if only briefly distracted when I noticed a new feature since I had last been at the Observatory – two bookcases labeled "Rare Books", consisting mostly of dog-eared and well-thumbed decades-old field guides.
I suffered yet another set back when I was waylaid by several television news crews eager to interview an authentic birder, all of whom had apparently completed rampaging through the town's gardens, and had now disappeared out of interview range, mired knee-deep in bog water at the local marsh. Following them was a prospect that the blown-dry TV talking heads did not appear to relish, and they were further disappointed when I declined to be interviewed on the grounds of conflict of interest, as I myself was part of the media contingent, covering the event for Rare.
However, all was not lost. I did identify my first bird of the day, a Mallard Duck. While technically, this was outside of my 17-foot circle (about a kilometer outside of it), I decided to allow it. When I returned home, Heidi, who was painting a screen door (and who was also technically outside of the circle) had identified a Northern Cardinal and an American Robin, and I happily added them to our team's growing list. Ralph, who alone had managed to stay within the circle, lolling about in the sun on the deck, had alternated between staring intently at a vocal and highly indignant American Crow (in retrospect, this was to be his single contribution to the team effort), and licking himself.
What does any of this have to do with rare books? Not much. When we had first bought the house, I did quixotically manage to secure all of the then available copies of the desirable but fairly common two-volume set Bird Studies at Old Cape May by Witmer Stone (Philadelphia: Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, 1937, 1400 numbered sets), but had failed to keep up the effort, despite having had the satisfaction of reporting my impressive holdings when one of the original publishers conducted a census of surviving copies.
I had also invested a couple of thousand dollars in an original plate of a Cape May Warbler from Aububon's double elephant folio of The Birds of America. It can be argued whether or not this was a good investment, but I can definitively declare that it was not a great decorating choice – hanging a framed plate the size of a small automobile which features as its central element a bird the size of a tea muffin. Perhaps I should trim the margins to make it more decorative? Only kidding.
Beyond that my experience of bird books is scant. Certainly the nabobs of the color-plate book world, such as London's Bernard Shapero and New York's Donald Heald have, one presumes from necessity, priced entry into their specialty market well beyond the usual bounds of the casual or non-specialist dealer.
I have only little more than a passing acquaintance with Donald Heald, who was treasurer of the ABAA when I was president. He was originally referred to in the trade as "Four-Figure Don" as befitting the value of the merchandise he dealt in, but has successively become known as "Five-Figure Don" and "Six-Figure Don", and I don't know that he is not currently known as "Seven-Figure Don". I am sure that eventually, inclination and inflation willing, he will be eventually known as "Eight-Figure Don".
Don has shown little interest in my own field, modern first editions, until recently, when the prices of nice copies of a few of the more obvious high spots have been known to climb above $100,000, and where I have occasionally found him in my book fair booth, vainly searching for the colorplates in The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises.
But I digress. Finally I settled in to business, just outside the 17-foot circle, in the kitchen adjoining the deck, which had a comfortable chair and easy access to the refrigerator, and where I could enjoy a refreshing libation of Champagne in a Can (with attached sipping straw!), which had been distributed at the gala benefit opening the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, several cans of which had inexplicably found their way into my supply box. It is regrettable that even to my debased palate this proved to be practically undrinkable, and might most usefully be distributed by Alcoholics Anonymous, as it came as near to putting me off alcoholic beverages as anything that has yet been tried.
However, I was not to be distracted and industriously began to identify birds, quickly compiling a list solidly in the two digits. The day was otherwise uneventful, although the older lady next door seemed ostentatiously suspicious that I was searching for birds in too close a proximity to her bedroom window, the implications being particularly unfortunate when applied to one whose first name is "Tom".
Heidi, who had refused to acknowledge that she was even on the team, and whose integrity could thus not be impugned, despite my best efforts, took upon herself the role of unofficial judge for my unofficial team, and we suffered a serious setback when she disallowed my identification of a previously-thought-to-be-extinct Passenger Pigeon as "ludicrous."
Further stumbling blocks were encountered when she reclassified my exciting and rare out-of-habitat sighting of a California Condor as "a pinecone – not really a bird at all, is it?"And while I was prepared to appeal the ruling vigorously, I will guardedly admit that after trampling through the garden in my neighbor's backyard and poking at the object in question with a pointed stick, it did exhibit certain pinecone-like tendencies.
Finally disaster struck as our total was finally and irrevocably reduced to a single digit when it was ruled that the crow that Ralph had discovered, as well as the Common Raven, and the Boat-tailed Grackle that I had added to the list had all been a single bird that had persisted in swanning about throughout the day like Paris Hilton at a college fraternity party.
I'm sure it's a mistake that any experienced birder would have made.
I admit our total was disappointing, and my suspicion is that if ever I should gather the courage to make another appearance at the Bird Observatory I will be referred to behind my back as "One-figure Tom."
But just wait until next year.
Magnus Broadsnort is the pseudonym of Tom Congalton.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2007 issue of Rare Book Review.