Winter Birding

Winter Wren
A Winter Wren in snow.

Come wintertime we tend to retreat into our homes. We wait out the cold there, dressed in our PJs and accompanied by a warm drink or perhaps something stronger. When we do go out, we walk from our front door to our car door and blast the heat all the way to our destination cursing the cold that cracks our hands and lips.

Yet for the brave few who venture out into the winter world, they find something new in the familiar scenes that surround them. The seasons bring something new each year and winter is no different. Some may see this dark season as a symbol of inevitable ends; but for those who venture forth, surely they see the life that prevails in spite of it all.

My wife is just one of those people. She is an adventurer of sorts. She finds no solace in the comfort of routine and familiarity. She needs to be somewhere new, experience something different and this impulse is a blessing because it continues to take us to new and interesting places.

Each year December 30th through January 1st we take a trip to the NC Outer Banks. For many a coastal trip in the dead of winter seems heinous. But for the naturalists out there, it is an ideal time. Migratory birds are in full force and the forest and fields are void of the bounty of spring (beautiful as it may be, the lush leafiness of spring hides much of the nature we are hoping to find).

This past year was particularly cold. We bundled up layer upon layer and walked out binoculars, scope, and camera in hand. The barrier islands are fierce in winter. The wind is unmerciful at best and the icy spray of the ocean is never more than a quarter-mile away.

I remember my wife bundled and smiling. Her voice rising over the wind.

“This is perfect!” she said, her eyes bright and cold.

I couldn’t help but think about my definition of perfect. Were I to define the perfect day on the outer banks of North Carolina, I might leave out the bit of freezing and shivering and discomfort. I might instead wish it to be a moderate 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, comfortable and calm. I might wish the wind to be someplace else, because its presence is inconvenient as I try to focus my scope which constantly shakes with every gust.

Perhaps if these changes occurred and I could indeed control the climate of my life I’d be happier.

But who says that happiness requires control. Who says that I can’t be happy in the dead of winter or in a storm or when my fingers are wrapped beneath two layers of gloves.

My wife does not allow the rain or the wind or the cold dictate her happiness. She goes out into the world and feels it on her skin and that, that is what is perfect to her. The fact that she can go out and experience every nuance the Earth has to offer. Each season, each habitat, each day.

Winter birding may not be for the faint of heart. But it is certainly for those who are open to the joys that can appear on cold, windy days.

 

Birding at Dusk

20171230182358_IMG_7659
Sunset at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Two hours before sunset the sky is filled with day. The colors of the Earth are vibrant beneath the blue sky and it is quiet. There is still time before the night comes.

At the first hint of change, from day to night, the forests and the fields and even the lakes will become alive again–a frenzy of feeding before the light runs out. Fish reveal themselves on the surface of the water and birds make their hurried calls to eat before dark.

You’re apt to hear the chittering of a Kingfisher making its rounds above the water–diving in and reemerging with a small fish. If you pay attention, you may see the bird land on its chosen branch, perhaps a downed tree sticking out from the shore. Keep watching because you just might observe the Kingfisher bashing its prey on the branch, incapacitating the fish before it is swallowed.

One hour before sunset the sky is gold and the lighting becomes divine with the hint of heaven reaching down through the leaves. Most birds will use this time quietly. Their locations will only be revealed to you in the rustling of the leaves and the motions among the trees.

Thirty-minutes before sunset the sky is becoming red and pink and purple and blue and . . .

The colors of the Earth are no longer vivid, but the sky bleeds an artist’s palette. Visual observation is still possible here, but behavior is what we’re looking for. How does nature behave before bed?

There is a calming that occurs in the final seconds of daylight, a peace available to those who are there to experience it.   

It is in these moments that the world becomes beautiful again–and indeed it is necessary for us to be reminded of this. No matter the difficulties of your day and the challenges of the night, these moments will be there for you.

If only you have a mind and a heart to observe.

Extinction and Our Sense of Place

auduboncarolinaparakeet
“Plate 26-Carolina Parrot” from John J. Audubon’s Birds of America (link)

Imagine a parrot, with its bright floral plumage, perched on a limb. Others are sure to be near, squawking and flying in colorful droves.

Where are you?

Some place tropical? Equatorial even?

Believe it or not, the Carolina Parakeet inhabited many parts of the Eastern United States–from the deep South into the North, as far as New York and Wisconsin.

They preferred woodlands and old growth forests that blanketed the edges of rivers. Being the only parrot native to the U.S. region, they were uniquely adapted to survive cold winters. They were gregarious and flocked together feeding off of cockleburs, thistles, and fruits. They were brightly colored with a green body and a head of yellow and red. They were . . .

They were . . .

I had no idea that these birds ever existed until I came across an unusual passage in a local history text. The chapter entitled “Early Settlement-1797-1820” briefly alludes to these eccentric birds:

“Traveling was not all bad; some who made the journey into Middle Tennessee were fascinated by the Cumberland parrots that inhabited the unbroken forest. They were green in color, had red bills, and were somewhat larger than pigeons.”

-excerpt from Thomas Gray Webb’s A Bicentennial History of Dekalb County, Tennessee

That is all that was said, but I was intrigued by the description. I could not place a bird in my mind that could possibly fit the description and I had never heard of a parrot native to Tennessee. After some digging, I found that the term Cumberland Parrot referred to the Carolina Parakeet, or Carolina Parrot as some call it. This led me to the famous illustration by John J. Audubon, as seen above.

By the early twentieth century the Carolina Parakeet’s population dwindled into extinction. The last wild bird was killed in 1904 in Okeechobee County, Florida. And the final two captive Carolina Parakeet’s died at the Cincinnati Zoo, within a year of each other in 1918.

The extinction of these birds has been attributed to many varying factors. Certainly, habitat loss played its part, as farms and human development took over the once wooded river banks that these birds depended on.

The active practice of poaching also took its toll on the numbers. These birds were prized for their feathers and as domesticated pets. Additionally, many farmers saw these birds as pests that decimated their crops and killed them indiscriminately. They were easy targets due to the fact that flocks would return to the dead and wounded.

Much of the Carolina Parakeet’s biology and extinction remains a mystery though. There was very little complete in terms of the study of these birds. In the end, it’s thought that the Carolina Parakeet succumbed to poultry disease, as the ever-growing demand for chickens grew in an ever-industrializing country.

Often I think of extinction as simply a misfortune of the past, something unlikely to really change the outcome of the present. But when I think about the Carolina Parakeet roosting among the trees that stand along the banks of the Little Tennessee River–near the place where I grew up– I wonder how different my sense of place would have been had I woken to the squawking of parrots, along with the calls of the Blue Jays and the woodpeckers.

Reasearch Links:

The Last Carolina Parakeet

Carolina Parakeet: Removal of a “Menace”

Birds of North America: Carolina Parakeet

 

 

 

Connection and the Christmas Bird Count

20160511192724_IMG_0198
House Finch in an Eastern Redcedar. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

From December 14, 2017-January 5, 2018, birders of all ages and experience will traipse around feeders and fields counting birds and tallying species.

The Christmas Bird Count is one of the greatest citizen science efforts the world has ever seen. For over 100 years, birding enthusiasts (birders, bird-watchers, twitchers, what have you) have braved the winter weather in order to go out and count birds!

It’s a tradition that started at the turn of the 20th century. It began with only a handful of eager birdwatchers, led by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. It only took 28 people, but together they tallied over 18,000 individual birds and 90 species. Now the Christmas Bird Count boasts tens of thousands of participants all across North America. Last year’s count found over 18 million individual birds and 2,607 bird species.

But what is it exactly that drives these enthusiasts to leave their homes and trot through a field or a forest or even a front lawn to count birds?

Any birder will know the bewilderment of a friend’s face when they find out you’re a birder. At times these friends may be pleasantly surprised because they too are secretly a birder at heart. Other times though, your peers may look at you quizzically wondering whether or not you’ve lost your mind. It is in those times that I’ve wondered myself, “What is it about birds that keeps me coming back?”

It’s not necessarily the birds, but the moments that the birds create. When a bird flutters into view, it is only there a moment before it is gone. In that moment you must be quick to collect the details.

When you go out into nature and decide to start noticing the details, you begin to make connections–connections to place, connections to nature, and (in the case of the Christmas Bird Count) connections to people. This is significant considering our desperate need for connection (think social media, television, celebrity culture, etc.). We’re a people searching for each other; we’re a people searching for the present moment; and we’re a people searching for ourselves.

It’s lofty, I know. But it’s also simple. Take a moment and observe the world around you. You’ll be amazed how it changes you.

What the Christmas Bird Count does is it connects people with nature, with tradition, and with other like-minded yahoos foolish enough to go count birds in the dead of December. It’s a remarkable experience open to any and all.

In Search for Birds, You’ll Find . . .

In search for birds, you’ll find nature bit by bit. It can be disappointing at times for the forest to be quiet and the trees to be void of any fluttering. But if you are patient, nature will reveal herself to you. Be vigilant to observe. The array of creatures that will cross your path will only be there a moment before they again disappear into the brake.

20161231102305_IMG_5838
Racoon fishing for some food. Spotted this guy while looking for sparrows hidden in the fields of Pea Island, NC.
20160703151129_IMG_1737
Black Bear in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spotted some Cedar Waxwings flying over a creek before seeing this bear.
20160528091113_IMG_0684
Black Snake in a tree. We could hear a Wood Thrush singing its summer song. Our search for the bird led us to this snake.
20160618095732_IMG_1279
Eastern Fence Lizard. Spotted this lizard while searching for Orioles and Yellow-Breasted Chats in an undeveloped suburb. Photo by Tripti Suwal.
20170506105525_IMG_6275
Northern Cricket Frog. Just barely saw this well-camouflaged amphibian as we were observing a Little Green Heron in some marsh land. Photo by Tripti Suwal.
20160522104459_IMG_0575
Ebony Jewelwing. This damselfly was on the trail on a quiet day in late spring. We didn’t see much that day but we did see a juvenile Indigo Bunting. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

 

The Newness in Nature

20171120153433_IMG_7343
Crow perched on a wire.

The Earth has been around for a long time and yet when we look into nature we refer to it as the unknown. We have this sense that some great mystery lurks just beyond the edges of the forests and the deserts and the oceans. Yet, for us humans, Earth is all we’ve ever known.

Why do we regard our home with such obscurity? It is a blessing I believe: to forever be on the cusp of discovery. Human history is one that has been shaped by the discoveries of man, but there are still new discoveries going on every day. Even on the smallest scales . . .

I recently started a nature club at my school. It is a school that is characterized by free-and-reduced lunch and one that has been dubbed “high-minority.” Many of my students have very few opportunities to experience the natural world outside of their neighborhoods.

At our last club meeting, we planted bulbs as part of a beautification project. One student was not happy about the project. She told me that she didn’t want to get her hands dirty and that she was upset for being placed in the club. I told her to have an open mind and to just try the club for at least one day.

While the other students were planting, I handed her my binoculars and challenged her to find a bird. This changed everything. Moments later she came back grinning and pointing toward some birds she’d found in the top of a tall tree.

They were crows.

Other students were immediately drawn to her enthusiasm and wanted to see the birds for themselves. Pretty soon a group of students were wandering the school grounds in search for something new.

Discovery is out there for everyone. And anyone who looks will be granted a new experience, one that sits deep in your bones. When you look back on the moment you will remember it all–what you saw, what you felt, and the possibilities that filled your mind.

 

Binoculars Enhance What You See and Feel

Barred Owl
Barred Owl perched above a creek. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

There are two numbers that are associated with every pair of binoculars. These numbers may appear as 7×50, 8×42, 10×50, etc. The first of these numbers indicates the magnification. So, if the first number is 5 then the binocular will magnify an image times 5, making it appear 5 times closer to us than normal eyesight. The second number refers to the objective lens diameter, or aperture, this number indicates the size of the area in which you are viewing. A smaller aperture will give you a narrow view, whereas a larger aperture will give you a wider view. Likewise, a sizeable aperture will allow more light to pass through the lens, making colors more vivid and clear.

The most recommended specs for binoculars is 8×42. This range allows birders enough magnification and aperture to view birds clearly and with a steady hand. Higher magnifications or lower apertures can result in a shaky scene.

A good pair of binoculars will enhance your ability to see things that are far away. This is clear–but we take this simple fact for granted. To see the world up close is to see the world differently. Birds are a perfect example of this.

For many, spotting a bird is like seeing a shadow in your periphery. It is barely noticed and when it is, it’s easily dismissed.

“It’s just a bird,” we say.

And so it is. But with the ability to see the bird up close, there is so much more. If you’re an experienced birder, just hand your binocs over to someone who’s never used any. They’ll peer through the lenses, frustrated at first trying to find exactly what you’ve told them to look for–a barred owl you’ve spotted perched on a branch just over a creek.

The person will scan the trees searching for the bird, wandering through the many leaves and branches, until finally they’ve spotted it. Almost always they’ll pause and a smile will spread across their face.

Through their new eyes, they see the world anew. They see the colors and the tones and the textures that make up the bird. They see the movements and the subtleties of the forest and the creatures that live within it.

If you note it, the person is usually shocked, dumbstruck by the details that were hidden in front of their face. There is great joy that can come from the simple act of noticing, and binoculars allow you to do just that on a more magnified scale.