Give Up the Search!

20180602154129_IMG_9844
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.

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. 

 

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 Restlessness Within Us All–Zugunruhe

Tundra Swans
Tundra Swans migrate from the far reaches of Northern Canada and the Arctic Tundra to winter near the fresh water lakes of coastal North Carolina.

Restlessness will beset us all–a need to move, to get out, to run away, or to walk toward. These times of unease can redefine us or reground us in what we already know to be true.

We may find ourselves moving away from home and the only things that are familiar. We may trudge through the wilderness of our lives in hopes of finding something new or reassuring. We may find ourselves far away and in need of making the long journey home, forever changed with the layers of life that cling to our skin.

In these moments, there is a deep sense of longing for something mysteriously on the fringes of our lives. Those who move, whether it be backward or forward, home or away, should find relief in their willingness to explore the surroundings of their being. For this willingness is one giant part of what makes you, You.

Birds too have these moments of restlessness; and a bird’s restlessness is called zugunruhe. Like a tree’s leaves, a bird’s sense of belonging changes with the seasons. When the time comes each Spring and Fall, migratory birds head North and South, respectively.

Zugunruhe refers specifically to migratory restlessness. It is a mysterious quality that reveals itself only during migratory periods. During these times, migratory birds are known to be particularly restive–ready for the right wind or weather to make their long flight to their seasonal homes.

For a long time, humans have marveled at the mysteries of migration. But diligent research is starting to answer most of our questions. For example:

Migratory birds are able to orient themselves in many different ways. Research has shown that birds have an incredible skill set for navigation.

Birds can read the magnetic fields of the Earth to navigate the globe.

Birds can orient themselves using the sun. Diurnal songbirds, such as warblers, prefer to navigate at night and can use the stars to navigate.

Birds who have traveled the path before can use landmarks, such as mountains or the coastline, to find their way either North or South.

Even first-year migratory birds display signs of zugunruhe. A first-year bird that is caged will leave its perch and flutter in the exact direction that it needs to fly toward. This suggests that zugunruhe is something innate within each individual bird–a deep knowledge of the need to go and the exact direction it needs to follow.

Migratory birds display zugunruhe for the duration it would take to actually fly to their intended destination. If it takes two weeks for a specific specie to get to its winter home, a caged bird of the same specie will show signs of zugunruhe for two weeks. It’s as if the birds know the exact time they’re supposed to start and end their long journeys.

Reflecting on zugunruhe I cannot help but relate the idea to the human experience. Is the restlessness within us all some sort of innate impulse? Is it driving us toward something or somewhere specific? How come it pushes some further away from home than others?

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the mysteries of migration. Something very human. Something that expounds on an individual’s need to move and adapt. Something only the birds really know.

Research Links:

Science Direct

Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Homing and Migration in Birds

The Sixth Sense of Direction, or, Navigation Secrets of Migratory Birds