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 ask 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 and 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.”

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.

 

 

Birding and the Places You Will Go

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Pettigrew Lake, North Carolina

Can you think of a class of animals more ubiquitous than birds? Birds inhabit almost every inch of this planet–from the Antarctic to the Sahara to the wide expanses of the Himalayas and the Pacific. Each specie finds its place somewhere. And for those of us who look for birds, we must go to these places.

It is easy for bird watchers to get wrapped up with The List. Like roadtrippers fixed only on their destination, birders can miss out on the natural beauty of the environments birds occupy. It’s important to lower the binoculars every now and then and allow the world around us to excite us.

We find more than just birds in these places. We find the simple truths of nature–those that enlighten us to the world and to ourselves. The more I bird, the less important the birds become. Instead it’s about the times and the moments and the places:

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NC Highway 12, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
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Vonore Beach, Tennessee
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Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
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Guilford County, North Carolina
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Grandfather Mountain State Park, North Carolina
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Bodie Island Lighthouse, North Carolina
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Wetland created by a beaver dam, Guilford County, North Carolina

Looking forward to the many birds and the many places I will find in the future.

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.