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Birdwatching: Adding Joy and Awareness

Thirty years ago, if you asked me how many birds on the poster I could name, I would have said, “Two, the Robin and Blue jay.” Today, I can say I’ve seen them all in person or in my bird book and, I can now name all but three. The two ducks in the lower right-hand corner look familiar, but I can’t recall their names. Same with the shore bird above the two ducks with the orange legs and orange bill. The bird on the left-hand side, third row down from the top, doesn’t look like a real bird. I’d give myself a B-.

Thirty years ago, I became a bird-watcher or birder as it’s also called. The Oxford Dictionary defines a birdwatcher (with or without the hyphen) as “a person who observes birds in their natural surroundings as a hobby.” The ever-useful Wikipedia defines birding as “the observing of birds, either as a recreational activity or as a form of citizen science.”

It all began in May 1992 at my family’s rustic cabin in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. While sitting on the screened-in front porch drinking coffee and admiring the pink blossoms of the rhododendron and the green mossy ground cover, the most beautiful bird I had ever seen landed silently about twenty feet away―and appeared to look directly at me.

I didn’t move. The bird didn’t move. It was as if the bird was saying, “Look at me,” so I did. I continued staring and holding my breath. After ten or fifteen seconds, I dared to softly call to my son inside the cabin to come onto the porch. He did and was also struck by the striking red color against the white background of his chest. Then the bird was gone; but he’d left behind a lasting impression and, I discovered birds. Twenty years later and I’ve never seen that type of bird again at the cabin or anywhere. Apparently, it was a one-time gift for which I am grateful as it has enriched my life.

After seeing that beautiful bird, I was consumed with looking at birds. It was if birds had never existed before the appearance of that Rose Breasted Grosbeak. I quickly realized that I couldn’t even identify the birds in my backyard. I knew what a Crow looked like and a Pigeon and an Eagle, but that was about it, and none of them ever landed in my backyard.

First thing on my list was to buy a book of birds. Second, go out back and see what feathered friends are in my backyard and neighborhood. Third, try to match up what I was seeing with a picture in my new book. It turns out that that was the hardest part because I didn’t know how to look at birds. I learned to ask myself questions such as: what are the colors? Does it have wing bars? Speckled chest? A line that appears to pass through the eye, or above it? Estimated size. Shape of the beak and tail? What is it doing?

While jogging from the Pentagon to the Washington Monument one day, out of the corner of my eye I saw a bird I hadn’t seen before. Speckled chest, bigger than a Robin but similar, so I immediately detoured and the chase was on. After sneaking around bushes while keeping the bird in sight, I finally identified enough markings to look it up. The Brown Thrashers.

“Male and female Brown Thrashers look alike. Their heads, bodies, and tails are a brownish, rust color. Their bellies are white with black, teardrop-shaped markings. These birds have long legs, bright yellow eyes, and bills that are long and straight.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution printed more about the amazing Brown Thrasher for Father’s Day. “In 90 percent of bird species, males play key roles in building nests and helping rear, feed and protect their young. Among numerous species, the males are just as adept at parental duties as females.

“The brown thrasher, Georgia’s official state bird, is a good example. Known for his spirited singing in spring and a repertoire of hundreds of songs — more than any other Georgia songbird — the sleek, cinnamon-brown male thrasher shares in the performance of household duties with his female mate.

“He helps her select a site for their nest on the ground or in dense shrubs and bushes. Together, they build their bulky, cup-like nest out of sticks, twigs, leaves, weeds, grass, bark fibers, and line it with soft grass or rootlets.

“The female lays 4-5 eggs that she and the male take turns incubating for 11-14 days. When she is on the nest, the male feeds her and, after the eggs hatch, helps feed the brood. When the babies fledge 9-13 days later, both parents continue to feed them for several more days before the young take off on their own.” Now that’s a good father.

“Few birds show more concern over their eggs or young as does the Brown Thrasher,” wrote late Georgia ornithologist Thomas Burleigh. ‘Any intruder, whether it be a snake, a cat, or a man is savagely attacked if the nest is threatened.’

Brown Thrasher were abundant in Northern VA, but I have yet to see one in Central Florida.

Since that day, I saw my first Magpie in Colorado and my first Phainopepla in Arizona. The number of unfamiliar birds I saw when we arrived in Florida was overwhelming. Every new bird is a thrill. Once I got comfortable seeing the Anhinga, Limpkin, Great Egret, and Tri-colored heron, to cite a few, I participated in an annual bird survey wherein I was required to observe for a few hours and record all the birds I saw. Among a dozen or so birds I saw was an Eagle. I see them, but infrequently. They are usually stealing a fish from an Osprey which is a big bird itself, but looks small compared to the majestic Eagle.

There is one bird that is so beautiful, I call it, “God’s Gift,” ―The American Goldfinch. Makes your heart race when they come into view.

Since I was enjoying birdwatching, I thought I’d try to duplicate it, but with trees. I bought a book of trees and set out. That lasted two weeks. I didn’t find trees nearly as interesting as birds, but it did highlight how much there is to learn about the things we see every day.

Birdwatching has enriched my life for thirty years and it all started with the Rose Breasted Grosbeak. Maybe someday it will fly into my life again.


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