Whenever I visit Kenyon College, I’m in my element, but one fall weekend I spent there was extra-special. While I was there, I spotted a flock of sculpted crows perched atop Kenyon’s Ransom Hall, a clever commentary on the middle name of poet John Crowe Ransom, for whom the building is named. Little did I know how that sighting would be a harbinger of how I would eventually start to see birds in a different light.
On October 24 and 25, 2003, I represented Sweet Briar College as its delegate to the inauguration of S. Georgia Nugent as Kenyon’s eighteenth president. Inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s 1842 poem, Ulysses, and her love of the classics, Dr. Nugent chose “To Seek a Newer World” as the theme of her inauguration. The weekend’s activities focused on exploration and engagement across academic divisions, between ancient and modern learning, and between Kenyon and its surroundings.
During an afternoon of activities titled “Hands On!: Discover Kenyon and Knox County,” I had my picture taken with President Nugent, put it on a specially made mural of Kenyon, and returned later to play “Where’s Georgia?,” where I looked for an image of the president posing with herself. I joined one of Kenyon’s history professors for a tour of the interior of the Quarry Chapel, built by college stone masons in 1862, and heard about its restoration. I took a campus walking tour led by an English professor at the college, who told ghost stories from Kenyon’s history.
The next morning, I returned to Kenyon for a historical tour of campus, panel discussions on topics related to the inaugural theme, and a reading from a translation of The Odyssey. After lunch with Kenyon trustees and fellow delegates in Peirce Great Hall, I put on my academic gown and pink-and-green hood for the delegates’ procession to the installation ceremony on the lawn of Samuel Mather Hall.
As the delegates lined up according to the year in which our institution was founded, I fell in line next to a friendly mustachioed man representing Ursinus College who struck up a conversation with me. After we discovered that we lived not too far away from each other in Worthington, he told me about how his home was the perfect place to indulge in his favorite pastime — bird-watching — and some of his unique experiences while pursuing his hobby. We parted company after a reception on Cromwell Cottage Lawn, a buffet dinner, and an inaugural ball featuring Afro-Cuban salsa band Yumbambè. As I drove home, I mentally thanked Sweet Briar for the opportunity not only to have participated in such a special occasion, but also to have met Dr. Bernard Master.
Master’s fondness for our feathered friends was so infectious that I started thinking about changing my ways. You see, I’ve always been a little reluctant to get to know them better. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and you’ll know how that got started. But at last, the perennial Late Bloomer has been inspired to dust off her binoculars and start learning more about what’s flying around outside. After all, what better pursuit for a librarian than one involving Latin names and a classification system?
Here’s how this change of heart happened.
When I read that Dr. Master was giving a special talk about the birds of Worthington last Wednesday evening at the McConnell Arts Center, I made plans to hear him. Hundreds of other people did too. Standing in the back corner of the room, squeezed in between a cabaret table and a wall, I marveled at the crowd that Master drew. Oh, to have such a following!
Master has been watching birds since he was five years old. He liked to spend time with his father, Dr. Gilbert Master, so the two would spot birds together on weekends. He stayed with his hobby as he grew up, taking walks in the woods as a break from his medical studies. Since then, Master has spotted over 7,400 species of birds. He is one of only three Americans to have identified each of the 227 families of birds that exist in the world today.
Master has traveled to almost 100 countries — such as Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina — in search of rare-species birds. No wonder he is one of only 20 American members of the International Rare Bird Club. However, his home patch, as he calls it, provides abundant bird-watching opportunities.
In 1974, Master purchased Boulder Lodge, a home perched atop the highest point of the Medick Estates neighborhood of Worthington that reminded him of the homes on the Main Line in his native Philadelphia. The home was built from limestone quarried in Marble Cliff in 1928 by Frank Medick, a local businessman who developed the neighborhood. Since moving to Medick Estates, Master has acquired two more properties on Tucker Drive, creating a 5.1-acre compound. Its mixed woods, cultivated gardens, lawn, brushy tangles, and a stream that flows into the Olentangy River make it irresistible to birds. (It’s also irresistible to me; I stop to admire it every time I ride my bicycle up Tucker Drive from the Olentangy bike trail.)
As Master watched the stream of birds during spring and fall migrations and summer nesting periods, he wondered why his patch was so attractive. After further study, he realized that its rich soil, plant life, food sources and cover for nesting – together with its location on the Mississippi migration flyway — was the perfect blend.
Using an abundance of photographs he has taken over the years, Master introduced us to some of the 182 species of birds he has spotted at his home. These include the downy woodpecker, the Carolina chickadee, the white-breasted nuthatch, the tufted titmouse, the northern cardinal, the gray catbird, the dark-eyed junco, the fox sparrow, the brown creeper, the white-throated sparrow, the pine siskin, the green heron, the brown-headed cowbird, the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the golden-shafted flicker, the Acadian flycatcher, the ruby-crowned kinglet, the hermit thrush, the yellow-throated warbler, the magnolia warbler, the indigo bunting, and the pileated woodpecker, among plenty of others. The audience followed along using a checklist that Master created from the fastidious records he has kept on the birds that have stopped by Boulder Lodge on their travels. It wasn’t long before one of my favorite pieces of music, Respighi’s The Birds, started playing in my mind.
As he shared his photos, Master demonstrated bird calls, explained what a bird’s primary feathers are and how important they are to flight, told us how one favorite bird has “a song like a harp,” and described other “little beauties” and “little jaunty birds” in an enthusiastic, well-informed way. He also shared many interesting facts, nesting records, and stories about some of these birds. For example, he described how elated he was to be able to take a photo of a yellow-crowned night heron through his spotting scope, and how the bird returned to the patch for the next two years. On another occasion, a pine warbler arrived in his patch on February 3, 1988 and stayed until March 31. The Master family was happy to see “Pete” when he returned for visits of about the same duration the next February, and again in January 1990.
Often, fellow bird-watching aficionados exclaimed with appreciative “oohs” and “aahs” as they recognized favorite birds and realized how special some of Master’s sightings were. Watching this attentive crowd, I didn’t need binoculars to realize how much these people enjoyed their shared interest.
To conclude, Master introduced us to Vireo masteri, the bird named after him because of his efforts to preserve the species. The yellow and olive-green bird with a short, pointy beak was first discovered in Colombia in 1991. When the bird’s rainforest home was under threat from farming expansion, Master provided funds to make the land private. The land became the first of 18 bird reserves in Colombia established by the ProAves foundation. HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands presented Master with an oil painting of Vireo masteri in recognition of his outstanding contributions to world bird conservation on September 19, 1996 in Luxembourg. It was a great day when Master saw Vireo masteri in Colombia on January 1, 2010.
To learn how to identify the birds that fly through your own patch, Master suggested reading Birds of Ohio, by Jim McCormac, avian education specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. Ever since, I’ve been reading McCormac’s work in my spare time, “ooohing” and “aaahing” as I treat myself to an archived post, article or recorded presentation of his every chance I can get. Besides Birds of Ohio, he has authored The Great Lakes Nature Guide and the award-winning Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage. He prepared the guide that accompanies Common Birds of Ohio Bird Songs, a 99-track compact disc that’s available at no charge from the Ohio Division of Wildlife. He writes a column about nature for The Columbus Dispatch that appears on the first and third Sundays of every month. His blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, is another terrific resource. And he’s a virtual one-man speaker’s bureau on the natural world. Like me, he’s interested in a lot of different things. I love the way he expresses himself, and his knowledge of the natural world is truly encyclopedic.
Master’s talk was so popular that he will be giving it again on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 in the McConnell Arts Center’s Bronwynn Theatre. A reception will take place at 6:30 p.m. and the program will begin at 7:00 p.m. Registration is requested. For more information, click here.