Give Up the Search!

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Juvenile wood stork

A wood stork appeared on the far reaches of Guilford County this past June, north just above the big lakes. Wood storks are not considered rarities in these parts, but they are uncommon.

I had heard about the sighting through a listserv. If you are new to birding finding a club or a listserv is a great way to discover birds in your area. The email regarding the wood stork came on a Saturday morning and I headed out just before noon to find the bird.

With only a brief description of where to find the bird along a 3-mile stretch of trails, I headed out eyes searching the adjacent wetland for giant, ugly birds with snow white feathers.

I knew this trail well and could pinpoint the location that was described in the email. I was headed about ¾ of a mile down the trail to the very end of a wide marsh area, prime territory for beavers and ducks.

The trail meanders about 20 yards from the water and is elevated revealing a unique ecosystem of reeds, water, and muck. Trees spot the landscape and make great perches for Great Blue Heron. Along the way I made a point to stop and scan the waterway whenever an opening in the trees presented itself.

Each vista point revealed no wood storks. In fact, it was mid-day in June and there wasn’t any wildlife activity aside from a few rogue cardinals. I continued and eventually made it to the spot that was described. I carefully and methodically scanned the area. But there was nothing to be found, just a thick grove of trees and brush sitting knee deep in water and entwined like a fortress.

So I waited.

This is a common scenario for many birders. While you wait you continue to look and listen. You notice the sticky stillness of the summer air. You notice the poison ivy growing just off the trail. You consider the futility of searching for winged creatures in your spare time.

Minutes pass and you asked yourself, “ How long do I plan to sit here waiting for a bird that may have moved on hours ago?”

At the insistence of this question you give yourself 5 more minutes. If the wood stork doesn’t show in 5 minutes, you’ll leave. And so the 5 minutes come and go and you resign yourself to head back down the trail. You could stop once more at the overlooks and scan the wetland for life, but would it really make a difference?

Instead, give up. Stop looking. Walk with your head down in defeat!

This is what I did. I moved down trail quietly and preoccupied with thought. I was no longer concerned with birds or finding what I was looking for. I was hot and sweaty and ready to get home to eat lunch.

It’s sometimes these moments that lead to discovery.

Nearly 300 yards into my retreat I happened to look up and see a large white bird gliding noiselessly over the reeds. It flew straight to where I had previously stood, making the entire distance without flapping its wings once.

I walked the distance back as quickly and quietly as I could. And through the branches, standing upright in the water was the wood stork–the bird for which I was looking. It very well could’ve been the only wood stork within 100 miles and it happened to reappear in the exact location that was described.

Many time I’ve sought out specific birds. Obsessed over checking a species off a list or getting a good photo. I’ve searched and not found what I was looking for.

There are moments though when the search ceases that you find exactly what you’re looking for.

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.”