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Sandra Guzmán

Sandra Guzman chats with her fellow birding society members

"The walks remind me about the ancient wisdom of my native clan — that we are not part of nature; instead, we are nature."

You could say that a dead man introduced me to birding. 

Shortly after moving from New York City to Exeter with my husband, Willie Perdomo, who was joining the Academy faculty as an English instructor, I was walking home on Tan Lane when I heard the sweetest music flowing from Phillips Church. I was still learning my way around campus, and curiosity about the church and the sounds emanating from it inspired me to walk in. 

I sat quietly on a bench in the back and listened to speaker after speaker share delightful memories of English Instructor Peter Greer ’58. I remember most vividly his friends talking about his passion for birds. Greer had taken more than 30 birding trips to Canada, Costa Rica, the Caribbean and as far away as New Zealand. But I’m told his favorite birds were locals — chief among them the bluebird. 

By happenstance, I met Greer’s widow, Dale Ann Atkins, a few days later and mentioned that I had gone to her husband’s memorial. “I wish I had met him,” I confessed. On the spot, she invited me into the Impromptu Birding Society, or IBS, a small group of Exonians — including Peter’s friends; retired math, religion, English, history and science instructors; faculty spouses; the Academy’s doctor; and an occasional faculty kid — who meet, when weather permits, to bird. 

The IBS was officially formed on the Saturday of Greer’s memorial, in 2014, by Dave Weber ’71, ’74, ’83 (Hon.); P ’92 — English instructor emeritus and Greer’s close friend and birding partner. As mourners gathered by the Exeter Woods for a walk, people say a bluebird arrived and perched in a nearby tree. Dave thought it was a sign that the group should keep meeting, and five years later, he continues to scout locations and lead adventures. 

The first morning I joined the group at Kwaks Wildlife Sanctuary in Newmarket, Atkins brought me a stunning surprise — Greer’s binoculars. I felt blessed to be looking at birds through his “eyes.” That day, we saw a brood of ovenbirds, including three babies. The remarkable scene was so cute and so rare that it compelled one of my fellow birders to recite lines from the classic Robert Frost poem, "The Oven Bird." 

Intriguingly, these New Hampshire outings remind me of my magical childhood in the Caribbean and long-ago moments with my grandfather, mother and aunties. They were my first teachers, patiently explaining the flora and fauna of the rain and dry forests that dot Puerto Rico, the island of my birth. 

Now, as often as I can, I wake up to greet the daylight and go on long walks with my fellow birders, hoping to get lucky and catch a glimpse of an indigo bunting or a white-throated sparrow, or hear the songs of a chickadee or a wood thrush. 

This summer, birding gave me an unexpected gift. At my feet, the forest floor pulsated with a sea of bluets, violets, ferns and wild pink lady’s-slipper orchids (I counted 49). I imagine Georgia O’Keeffe would have had a field day painting them. The realization I had was sublime: Birding is not just for the birds. 

Being part of the Impromptu Birding Society has stretched my heart and offered me community. But also, the walks remind me about the ancient wisdom of my native clan — that we are not part of nature; instead, we are nature. 

A lovely man whom I never got to meet while he lived on this earthly plane introduced me to birding and I am forever grateful.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.