IN THE FIELD: Why birds?

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By Tuesday, Jun 14 Environment
Bill Case
A yellow-crowned night heron.

For some reason, I’m gotten the question three times in the last four days: What it is about watching birds that draws you? It’s something I’ve thought a little about, so perhaps I should address it publicly.

I never actively chose to be a birder. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in birds. Maybe the bird field guide lying around when I was learning to read had something to do with it. When I was eight, I started keeping a little journal of the birds I saw. While on vacation in Maine with my family, I would wander away from the beach to stare at mudflats, sorting out Least Sandpipers from Semipalmated. Not until college did I start going on dedicated bird walks with a club, finding a plethora of species I’d never seen.

On the simplest level, I see birds as extensions of the particular landscapes they inhabit, adding another layer of interest to those places with their songs, their activity, their sheer beauty.

yellow-crnd nt heron_MK

A yellow-crowned night heron. Photo: Maha Katnani.

But beauty isn’t everything. That explains why I spent nearly an hour today off-trail in the woods, staring at the trees to catch a glimpse of the Worm-eating Warbler. This is a buffy little songbird with some black stripes through its eye—not very colorful, and not even rare. Its song isn’t even a song, more of an insect-like trill. But it is elusive, hiding out in densely wooded hillsides. The two I heard were calling tauntingly from the same area for ages but, with the foliage, I couldn’t see a thing. When one landed on a branch in plain sight, I got really excited. I could see the underside of its tail really well, and then it flew off. Not very satisfying.

Woodpecker Lewis_BC3

A Lewis’s woodpecker. Photo: Bill Case.

But I suppose the challenge of seeing birds is also part of the allure. They don’t just sit out on display waiting to be identified. The mystery of “what is it” in the moments before the bird poses firmly in binocular sights gives birders a rush, I think.

And if I had seen a Worm-eating Warbler before, I wouldn’t have cared. It’s technically on my “list list” because I’ve heard it a number of times, but I’d never definitively clapped eyes on one. Birders are fairly well known for keeping meticulous lists of the birds they see. I am not one of those. I pretty much know which species I’ve seen, though sometimes it gets hazy. In that sense, I’m not a very good birder. But seeing new species—especially less common ones—is always one of the most exciting parts of birding.

Last month, for instance, brought two “life birds” (the term for one’s first sighting of a species). One was the Yellow-crowned Night Heron I saw while doing the May Census in Dutchess County, New York. I’d always wanted to see one of these small herons, which, despite their name, are also active during the day. Walking through the woods, we approached a small pond, and a bluish gray waterbird flew up from the shoreline. It landed only a few yards down and, through binoculars, its sleek elegant plumage was unmistakable. It skulked along the shoreline and we watched it leisurely for a good 20 minutes until it slipped into the reeds and out of sight. I wasn’t expecting to see one of these birds in the middle of the woods in Rhinebeck, but apparently they range inland as well as in coastal areas mostly south of here. Never knowing what will turn up where is another lure of birding.

Woodpecker Lewis_BC4

A Lewis’s woodpecker. Photo: Bill Case.

I also wasn’t expecting to see a Lewis’s Woodpecker from my parked car in a residential street in Durango, Colorado, though I knew they were in the vicinity. The dark woodpecker swooped into a tree in the median of the boulevard. This Western species has an iridescent dark green back and a pinkish belly, a unusual color scheme more like a hummingbird than a woodpecker. When it disappeared into a hole in the tree, I realized that must have been its nest tree. Another one landed nearby. A couple of hours later, bizarrely, I found one dead on some wood chips in a park. I studied its superb plumage up close, glad that I’d seen one alive first. I’m pretty sure dead birds don’t count as “life birds.”

Later, hiking through a burn area in the San Juan National Forest, we saw and heard the woodpeckers everywhere, their dark forms flying through the charred but very alive landscape, which was perfect for woodpeckers with its dead trees. The bird seemed to fit this place. Perhaps most of all, I love how birds have an “otherness” emblematic of the natural world as a whole, which pulls us out of our own lives into an intricate world we only vaguely understand, which always exists beside us, whether or not we tune in.


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