What the Birds Are Saying

Carolina Wren Calling
Adult Carolina Wren calling for its young fledge to fly to the shelter of a shrub.

I remember my first spring when I truly listened to the birds. I was amazed at the sounds I heard. It was a true medley of birdsong that was deep and complex. To hear it you must first listen. And to really hear it–to hear the individual birds and their unique notes–you must listen carefully.

It was after that first spring when my ears where first exposed to the sounds of the woods that I realized how quiet the other seasons are. The dead of summer might as well be a ghost town after the frenzy of activity in spring. For those that listen, the silence can be disquieting.

As the years went on and the lively season of spring came and went I learned to identify more and more birds by song alone. And in doing so, I began to hear what they were saying:

“Here I Am”

For many birds, their song is one that defines territory. It says to the world, “Here I am!” In the case of the Red-Eyed Vireo, it nearly literally says this. A helpful mnemonic for identifying this bird is Here I am, Look at me, Look at me, Here I am. The Red-Eyed Vireo is a good bird to identify by song because it sings constantly. If you are in the woods in late spring or summer odds are you’ll hear this bird endlessly singing. From dawn through the hottest part of the day, the Red-Eyed Vireo lets you know that it is there by repeating its song literally hundreds and thousands of times.

“Over Here to Safety”

I watched a family of Carolina Wrens fledge last June. It was an intriguing thing to witness. Three wren fledges took their time leaping from their nest (which was about 30 feet in the air). They each struggled to find their wings for flight. They were clumsy like babies learning to crawl. They all sought refuge under a trash can. The wren parents were off in a tangle of vines and bushes calling relentlessly. “We’re over here,” I imagined them saying coaxing their young into the safety of a dense shrub.

“This is My Love Song to You”

In spring, it is the warblers mainly that are known for their love songs–songs meant to attract a mate, as well as, establish a territory. The complexity of these songs vary from each specie. Some are simple and fleeting, others are melodic and flowing. These songs are the basis for every mating pair of warblers in spring. First the song, then the nest, then the nestlings. I’ve heard it said that every song is a love song, perhaps the same is true for birds.

“Cheer Up”

Some days I walk home from work feeling defeated. The stress has gotten to me and I’ve become trapped in the cycle of days defined only by work and sleep. On these walks I pass under enormous oaks and elm that provide a canopy for the neighborhood. Sometimes there are American Robin in these trees and they are singing, “Cheer Up, Cheerily, Cheerily, Cheer Up.” This is in fact, the mnemonic used to identify these birds. And in fact, it’s the exact thing I need to hear in those moments.

There are many other songs and sayings that are projected from those tiny feathered bodies hidden amongst the greenery of our lives. But to understand what the birds are saying, you first have to listen.

The Old Man and the Trees

Hooded Warbler
Hooded Warbler

I met a man who looked like Ernest Hemingway.

He was out-and-about picking up trash as part of the local bird club and I joined him.

Together we walked the park, garbage bags and litter-pickers in hand.

He spoke often and in good spirits. He told me about aging and nature, the number of edible plants within the woods, and to be weary of what the damn government might want to take from me.

He went on and I listened.

At one point he paused and looked deep into the trees. There was a bird singing just beyond sight.  

He turned with a big grin on his white-bearded face.

“That there is a hooded warbler,” he said.

I was dumbfounded. “How can you tell?” I asked.

“Aww, you know,” he replied, “I’ve just been listening for 50 years.”

Moby Duck: One Man’s Search for an Elusive Waterfowl

Searching for Wood Ducks

Call me the Existential Birder.

Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–

I began a search for wood ducks.

Having become a more serious birder, it was my aim to get a good look at all sorts of birds: warblers, woodpeckers, waterfowl, what-have-you. But where I fell short was the wood duck.

My treks into the woods of the Southeast were typically driven by The List. What bird could I by chance come across today?

In spring, my eyes were in the trees searching for vireos and warblers of all sorts–vibrant and soulful with the sound of spring. In summer I looked for the July natives such as the wood thrush and the yellow-billed cuckoo. In fall, I hoped for warm windy days so that I could see the hawk migration in full swing. And in winter, I scanned the lakes looking for migrant ducks and swans that frequent the shallow waters of the Piedmont.

Throughout all these seasons I looked for one bird in particular, a “common” bird, a year-round bird, an elusive bird–the wood duck.

At first these attempts were quick glances in passing. I’d happen upon a wetland and scan the area for wood ducks. With no success, my search became more pointed and intentional.

This led me to venture further into the rural woods of coastal North Carolina. I found myself near Lake Mattamuskeet on a trail that wandered around a wetland prime for birds that thrive on shallow water and secrecy. It was dusk and light was leaving quickly. I was told that there were wood ducks here, but that I would probably hear them before I would see them. I saw nothing. And I heard nothing.

The following year I came back hoping my persistence would pay off. But the trail was muddled with dried leaves and overgrown grass. Each step was a warning call. I continued on only to be disappointed again. An explosion of wings went off to my left a quick look only gave me the distinct eye ring of a female wood duck. The male and the others were gone before I could truly observe them in flight. I was not satisfied with this encounter. It was a tease. However, afterwards when I described the moment to another birder they laughed and said “That’s a fairly typical view of wood duck.”

Then I had an idea.

Perhaps if I offered shelter, the wood ducks would flock to me and see me as a friend. Being cavity-nesting birds, wood ducks require very specific housing often left by woodpeckers and tree rot. Due to habitat loss it is a struggle to find adequate housing near shallow wooded wetland to raise some chicks.  I had heard that they accept manmade houses readily and gratefully. So I applied for a grant and purchased wood duck boxes made out of white cedar.

I assembled the boxes, concocted make-shift baffles, and hit the lakes to find the best spot to place the boxes. This was in coordination with my local bird club and the county Parks Department.

During the project I went out to restore older boxes. I paddled a canoe up to an old box that didn’t have a roof. When I looked inside, I saw a female wood duck. I quickly glanced away from the opening and held my breath. I stood as still as I could, balancing myself in the canoe. A second look was too much though and the bird flew out, bursting from the box in a fantastic flutter that frightened me and almost made me fall out of the canoe.

Even this encounter wasn’t satisfying. A birder likes to observe and to collect details. These quick encounters gave me no time to appreciate the beauty of these birds. I had to keep looking.

The wood duck boxes did not help me in my attempts to happily check this bird off my list. Instead it made me spiteful.

A bitterness grew in me–I’ll be damned if this bird gets the better of me!

A year went by. I continued my search.

I sat alone on a guardrail just off a road that runs adjacent to a local marshland. It was early March, wintery and in-between migrations. It was dusk and there was very little activity.

I sat there, simply thinking, and hoping for a wood duck to float out from the reeds and into the view of my binoculars. A truck pulled up behind me and stopped. It was another birder. One who knew me and knew what I was looking for, “You find your wood duck?”

“No,” I said.

He gave me advice on where to find some and then drove off, both of us wishing the other luck in our respective searches.

As I walked back to my car, three ducks flying fast began to circle the marshland. I quickly looked. The lighting was poor, it was twilight, but I could just barely see that they were wood ducks. They circled the water three times but did not land. They must’ve known I was there.

Perhaps it is my fate to be perpetually searching.

But surely, I’m not just searching for this one specie of duck. Perhaps I’m searching for more–driven mad and driven forth by some unknown force of nature, a powerful and keen impetus to be out in the world and seeking.

Later that week, I followed the birders advice. I went to the exact spot he suggested at the exact time he suggested. I took the trail about a half-mile into the woods and  walked out onto a platform that overlooked a maze of water and grass in a wetland designed by beavers.

I had been to this location in the summer when the view was blocked by green leaves, but winter had removed the obstruction and the view of the wetland was unimpeded. I scanned the area noting the Canada Geese and Mallards, observing the signs of beaver, and still hoping a wood duck would pop out from behind the tall grass.

Sure enough, two wood ducks appeared–a male and a female. They navigated the waters disappearing behind muck and grass and reappearing again a moment later. They were far off, but still visible and clearly identifiable.

I sat and watched them for a while, observing the colors of their plumage and their behaviors before nightfall. It was all-and-all uneventful, just a man in the woods with a pair of binoculars, breathing in the cool winter air of March, looking out at a world that rarely looked back.

It is an odd feeling to find what you are looking for.

I was resigned to accept that my search was over. Now I could place a little check next to the words “Wood Duck” in my Peterson Field Guide.

The damn duck had gotten the better of me after all. 

 

What a Bird Taught Bruce Lee

gull

It’s always a pleasant surprise to spot a bird in an unusual place. One of the places I love finding birds is in books. I recently read Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, it’s a collection of essays and writings by the man himself: Bruce Lee.

In one essay, Lee is meditating alone on a boat. It is here that he begins to unravel the famous metaphor that later turned into the maxim “Be Water My Friend.” Lee was an incredible thinker, a man born in San Francisco, one who grew up in Hong Kong, and later majored in philosophy at the University of Washington. Like his fighting style, his thoughts were a blend of many styles, both Eastern and Western.

It is while on the boat, meditating on the qualities of water that Lee spots a bird:

“Suddenly a bird flew by and cast its reflection on the water. Right then as I was absorbing myself with the lesson of the water, another mystic sense of hidden meaning revealed itself to me; should not the thoughts and emotions I had when in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the bird flying over the water? This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached–not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

I lay on the boat and felt that I had united with Tao; I had become one with nature. I just lay there and let the boat drift freely according to its own will. For at that moment I had achieved a state of inner feeling in which opposition had become mutually cooperative instead of mutually exclusive, in which there was no longer any conflict in my mind. The whole world to me was unitary.”

-Bruce Lee essay entitled “A Moment of Understanding,” published in the book Bruce Lee: Artist of Life

I’ve grown to associate birding with mindfulness–the birds passing before my eyes and my thoughts passing across my mind. In fact, part of the appeal of birds is that they are momentary creatures, their presence so immediate yet so short-lived. It is a reminder to be present and to accept the discoveries of any given day.

This is one of the unspoken lessons I’ve learned while birding–the importance of presence and acceptance.

 

 

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

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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.

Connection and the Christmas Bird Count

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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.