On keeping our favorite places—and birds—a secret

We want people to love and appreciate nature, but we also want our own oases and a measure of respectful behavior.

When I worked for a newspaper in Virginia, I was invited to fill in one week for the legendary outdoors writer Garvey Winegar. His columns typically included a feature story and a lengthy fishing report from all over the state. I was thrilled to take his place.

I had just come back from a summer backpacking trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains. So I wrote about the experience as the feature to go with the fishing report. I’d been to the rugged St. Mary’s Wilderness, several thousand acres of dense forest and rhododendron-draped hillsides. Virginia was experiencing drought, though, and its mountain stream ecosystems were suffering. I wrote about that and provided a general description of the area and the backpacking experience. 

Within a couple of days, I received a letter from a reader. It was the first letter I ever got from a reader, so I remember this well. And it literally was a handwritten letter—there was a lot less email back then. 

Essentially it stated that I was placing the wilderness at risk by publicizing it. The writer went on to say that one of his favorite spots was ruined after receiving some publicity.

It was a bit of a bummer, but I’ve taken this feedback into consideration ever since. I could see the letter writer’s point.

It’s a proverbial double-edged sword, though. We want people to love and appreciate nature, which requires some awareness. In my view, that awareness and publicity is the gateway to action and taking steps to advocate for nature and its protection. But we also want our own secret oases and for others to be respectful when they do visit. 

The same is true with birds. We want people to know about the beautiful and diverse array of species we have in Chicagoland and the window they provide into a bigger world. We want people to appreciate the species we do have, their resilience and their fascinating life stories. But we also want to protect them. 

I skew toward the publicity edge of the sword. The threats facing birds, and the lack of education and awareness, are just too severe. This has been especially true in the last four years of rollbacks and cuts that were once inconceivable.

The vast, vast majority of birders are mindful and appropriate. For anyone who’s not, their actions should be addressed in a constructive way when the opportunity arises. And it should be constructive, because there is an unfortunate tendency to chastise and lecture about etiquette. If anything, that becomes a deterrent unto itself.

So back to filling in for Garvey Winegar, whose name often was pronounced “Harvey Vinegar,” much to the amusement of my Sports department colleagues. My family has a favorite camping spot in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I tend not to disclose the exact location, though I want the world to know about it because it is so special. This takes restraint, but I weigh the pros and cons each time it comes up.

That can be okay in birding, too. But most people have no idea that our most spectacular species in Illinois even exist. Most people cannot tell birds apart at anything more than a very basic level. And that’s what fuels me to keep telling these stories. 

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