By Debbie Gardner
Robert “Bob” Tougias may live in Connecticut now, but the avid nature observer and author of the recently published “Birder on Berry Lane” grew up in Longmeadow in the 1970s, exploring the then-undeveloped fields and marshes of his hometown.
“As a young boy I was off into the woods,” the 58-year-old Tougias recalled. “The Longmeadow brook was still a nice stream at that time - we used to catch frogs and chase after rabbits [there] and it gave me the opportunity to explore a bit of nature
“As I got older, a mile and a half away was the Stebbins Wildlife Refuge - it’s almost 1,000 acres - I learned all about the wildlife down there and drew upon it for an interest in nature and birds,” he recalled.
Among those idyllic youthful adventures, Tougias shared, was a time when he found an injured bird, and tried to nurse it back to health.
“I have a vivid memory of that bird and having it up close and seeing all its colorations and wildness; I fed it and took care of it - I didn’t know any better, but somehow it survived,” he said.
That passion for observing nature seems to have been something that stayed with Tougias as he grew, leading him to study wildlife and natural resources and UMass Amherst, and after that, careers with the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Department of Agriculture. It also led him to pen a recurring column, “Bird’s Eye View,” for the New London Daily News.
From birder to book author
His lifelong devotion to the outdoors, coupled with a love of books fostered by a father who was “very much into history,” and shared with his son his “appreciation for reading and writing” also prompted Tougias to try his own hand at becoming an author. His first book, “Birding Western Massachusetts,” written when he lived in West Springfield, was published in 2003.
“It was an idea I had when I was much younger,” Tougias explained to Prime, adding that his first work was, in essence, a guide to where fellow birders could find the best local spots to observe certain species. “I saw a need for the book, and I went ahead and did it.”
In that book Tougias said he “broke it down mile by mile on each trail” and put together a quick guide useful for finding the location of specific species a birder might be looking for, such as the ruffed grouse.
“I had to go on all those hikes, hike the trails over and over, some of which I had done as a child,” to complete the book, Tougias recalled. He said hikers, as well as birders, would find much to appreciate in the trail information contained in that first book.
An ode to backyard birding
Researching his second book. “Birder on Berry Lane,” was much easier, Tougias shared. He simply had to step outside and observe the birds that inhabit the woods that surround the home in rural Connecticut where he now lives with his daughter and their dog.
“It’s a creative nonfiction,” Tougias said of his new book. “It’s an opportunity to express how nature and birds inspired me. I was able to put a little lyrical prose in to inspire the birder, but also kept it entertaining with a little bit of humor here and there.”
The culmination of nearly three years of observation and note-taking, “Birder on Berry Lane” is written like a 12-month journal, with each month focusing on what birds and bird activity Tougias was seeing in his yard and neighborhood. It also shares vignettes of life during the ‘year’ it covers.
“It talks about the different people in my life, I talk about my daughter who went off to college recently, neighbors, I tried to keep it entertaining,” Tougias said. “All the while you are learning a tremendous amount about all the birds you can see around your home. Whoever reads this book will learn a lot - though they may not realize it - in an entertaining kind of read”
In his first email to Prime about his book Tougias explained, “This book takes readers from their worries and brings them with me into the woods, meadows, and gardens of my rural property. It is the perfect book for the troubled time we are experiencing, and it shows readers how much nature is all around them right where they are at home.”
Be your own ‘backyard birder’
If you can’t find Tougias’ book right away - it’s available at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Amazon and directly from Tougias’ publisher (www.penguinrandomhouse.com) - he generously shared these tips to get you started birding in your own backyard.
“A great thing to do is go out in your yard - or if you live in an apartment, go out on your balcony - at the same time every day and just listen,” Tougias said. “What do you hear? What do you see? How does it change over a couple of weeks?”
For those who are serious fledgling birders, Tougias advises that they “get up early - I know that’s hard for all of us - but that’s when you see the most, that’s when [birds] are most active.”
You can also put up a bird feeder to make watching them easier - even in the summer. Tougias said birds will come for their favorite - black oil sunflower seeds - some will also come for grape jelly mixed with any variety of birdseed in an open style feeder- or even try a hummingbird feeder. Just be sure to put the feeder on a pole away from nearby tree branches and bushes, and use a baffler to keep out squirrels and let the birds enjoy the feast.
Or you can simply take a chair outside and watch birds fly overhead marveling at their flight.
You can even let a corner of your yard “go wild” a bit, and watch what birds - and other wildlife - you attract. Tougias said you’ll also help out the planet a bit by reducing the carbon emissions from your yard care.
“When you get in touch with birds - as I say in the book - you are getting in touch with the whole rhythm of planets,” Tougias said. “It’s the music of the spheres.”