On a sun-splendored day in early September the young boy went outside to play in the yard of his parents' Maryland farm. But something he saw held his attention captive almost as soon as he ran out the door of the old clapboard house. Just to the right of where the dirt and grass driveway entered the yard was a tall thistle with full purple blossoms. On one of them was a brilliant, small bird, bright yellow with black wings. It was the most beautiful, perfect creature he had ever seen. His mother told him it was a goldfinch.

He decided to see what other birds he could find. The second one was a mockingbird, not nearly as attractive, yet it had big, showy white patches on its wings, a long tail that it swished around, and sometimes it would walk on the ground slowly spreading its wings as if trying to demonstrate something. And its song was loud and complex and never-ending. This was in 1949; and the boy today is still captivated by goldfinches and other birds.

Jump to August 9, 1996. At the small public library where the boy – now a grown man – worked, a man in his 60s asked for help. His clothes were dirty, his features coarse, as if he had just gotten off work from his shift at a factory where conditions were unsanitary, perhaps even dangerous. His unwashed hands, full of creases and cracks, did nothing to dispel this impression.

But he had just seen a small bird and wanted to know what it was. He said it was bright yellow with black wings and he had seen it feeding on top of a thistle plant on a purple blossom. Nothing the man said made the librarian believe he had paid attention to a bird or anything else in nature before or had ever sought out a public library to satisfy his need for information. On this day and at this place he had asked the right person.

A few years later another man came to the library, a worker for the state parks department. He described exactly the same situation, had no idea what he had seen. One could be forgiven at this point for thinking there is really something special about goldfinches. There is.

I don't know that I had an epiphany that suddenly ignited an interest in birds. Something in me is hardwired to be smitten with nature, and birds were my first source of fascination. This passion for all things feathered was already imbedded in my psyche by the time I was in early elementary school, maybe 7 or 8 years old.

The closest recollection I have to a "spark bird" involves nothing outrageous, and everyone reading this has seen scads of the first species that probably truly inflamed my imagination as a youth.

In those fantastic boyhood days, when everything was an enormous mystery and adventures lurked around every corner, my favorite place was the Olentangy River in Worthington, Ohio. We lived a block away from this strange world of jungle-like forests buffering a winding ribbon of clear water filled with fishes, turtles, and snakes. Many other interesting animals dwelt along the Olentangy, but it was the birds that really caught my curious pre-adolescent eye, and drew me back to the river time and again.

A kindred spirit and best buddy, Jeff Held, and I lived for our Olentangy River safaris. We'd dart off to the river at every opportunity, like callow Indiana Joneses. Our moms would have gone into conniptions if they had known our modus operandi for river exploration. Jeff and I would find the most buoyant, seaworthy log we could, toss it into the current, hop on and head downstream: modern-day Jim and Huck Finn. Oops-my mother will probably read this. Hopefully the statute of limitations on inappropriate pre-teen behavior has expired.

And our favorite bird-the one that always drew our oohs and aahs and was first on our list of big game trophies? The great blue heron. To us, coming upon one of these impressive beasts was like discovering a living, breathing pterodactyl. We'd round a bend on our trustworthy log, in a place as wild as the Amazonian jungle in our minds, and suddenly: GRAAAAK! Flushed from the riverbank, one of these gargantuan fish-spearers would launch itself into the air with cumbersome rows of those massive wings, uttering god-awful, frightening croaks.

We were impressed. And back for more we'd go. Jeff and I never tired of looking for those herons. To us, they epitomized the majesty and mysteriousness of a natural world we were only discovering, and to me, helped permanently cement a deep love for birds and an unquenchable thirst for learning more about them.

In the years since those early days of adventure, I've seen countless thousands of great blue herons. I still look at each one, probably a little more closely than I do other species, even those of considerably more glamour. The herons' gangly long legs, sword-like bill, inscrutable reptilian stare and overall dinosaur aura, and horrifying sound effects made an unshakable impression in my formative mind. Plus, those great blues stood nearly as tall as this cow-licked, freckle-faced fourth-grader! How could I not have been amazed?

Jeff's gone now, lost at a tragically young age. His memory, and thoughts of our Huck Finn days, nearly always flits through my mind when I cross the path of a great blue heron. In a way that only I'll understand, this magnificent heron piqued not only my interest in birds, but always will be a living tribute to the memory of one of my best friends.

Thanks in part to the great blue heron, I began a lifelong love affair with nature. Initially, I wanted to know all of the names of the birds I saw. Then came an insatiable desire to seek out those I hadn't yet seen. After that, I wanted to learn more about each species, just as friends want to get to know each other. After a while, I began to wonder what kind of plants my birds were perching in. Eventually, I became a botanist and just as smitten with flora as birds. Now, there is nothing in the natural world that won't captivate me, at least briefly, and I only wish I had a bigger brain so I could learn more about it all.

Thank you, oh great squawking fish-spearers.

I was sixteen in 1978 when the inaugural issue of Bird Watcher's Digest came out, with artwork of eastern screech-owls adorning the cover. I still have that issue, and BWD was and is a big part of my enjoyment of birds. As a youth I devoured the words within, as I still do. It almost seems surreal that now my own words appear here, and I couldn't be more honored.

Happy 30th, BWD!

A yellow warbler lit in my willow tree one long-ago August day and I have never been the same since.

I didn't know it was a yellow warbler, of course. Unlike my husband Bill, whose interest in birds had begun long before with his Eagle Scout requirement of a bird-study merit badge, I had never paid attention to birds at all. Oh sure, I remembered my mother's putting out crumbs for the cardinals every time it snowed, and I guess I could have picked out a blue jay in a crowd, but beyond that every bird looked pretty much the same to me. Dull and brown, like the sparrows that came to the feeder Bill had made when we moved into our first house. Emphasis on dull.

But on this summer day, newly returned from a vacation in the North Carolina mountains that had opened my eyes to the infinite varieties of wildlife for the first time, I was finally ready to see things that had been around me all along. So after Bill left for work and our son Dave went off to a day at baseball camp, I took my coffee out to the patio for a quiet hour in my leafy backyard before beginning my own day.

A flash of yellow feathers caught my eye high in the willow tree and I thought, that's different. I couldn't remember having seen any yellow birds at the feeder. What could it be?

I decided I would find out, and surprise Bill with the news at dinner. I had no idea I would change my life in the process.

I had never used binoculars before, and hadn't a clue as to how to find anything in a field guide, so my self-appointed task turned out to be a lot harder than I'd imagined. Miraculously, though, the bird stayed around, moving from limb to limb of course, hiding behind branches at times and even zipping over to our neighbor's yard on occasion, but always staying within binocular range and giving me every chance to get it right. I needed all the help it was offering.

Was it an evening grosbeak? A female scarlet tanager? An oriole? A goldfinch? I'd never supposed there were so many yellow birds. And all those warblers! How could anyone sort all of those out? What was I doing, even trying?

But I couldn't stop.

It took, incredibly, three solid hours, but at last came that magic moment when the bird and the book came together and I knew. It was a yellow warbler. I had even seen those reddish streaks on the breast that told me it was a male. I'd done it!

I was exhilarated. To think that such a beautiful creature was right here in my own small yard! It was worth every second of the effort. And then I realized I could hardly wait for tomorrow, for what else might I find? I didn't want to miss a single thing from that moment on…

I have been birding, and learning, ever since.