Friday, July 31, 2009


There are many ways to enjoy birds and birding. Some people travel all over the world to log as many species as possible on their life lists. Some keep several lists, tracking the bird species they’ve seen in their yards, towns, counties, states…. Some track birds by date, noting the species they’ve seen on each date, in each month, in each year…

Me? I bird listlessly.

When I was a girl, I kept a life list, noting in my field guide the place and date when I’d first spotted each species. Whenever we traveled, I’d keep lists of birds I’d seen in various locales. Sometime during my twenties, though, I discontinued listing. An ornithology course taken during my undergraduate years opened my eyes to the endlessly fascinating subjects of bird morphology (structure) and behavior, which quickly displaced species-counts as the focus of my interest. I had always loved the beauty and songs of birds, and now, with better understanding of their anatomy and behavior, I found even more to love.

Yesterday in walks at two of our favorite places, three encounters filled me with joy and almost entirely satisfied my birding interest for the day. Listing birders would have counted my paltry “list” as embarrassing, but we found much to see and appreciate.

As we walked to the shore of a small lake, one of two Common Loons floated very near the shore, preening and resting. Though loons are usually quite shy, this one seemed habituated to passers-by and kept at its work, cleaning and arranging its glossy plumage, dipping under the water and sending sparkling droplets flying in the sunshine. Birds, especially water birds, must preen frequently, since only when their feathers are in good condition can they hunt, forage, and fly efficiently. Loons dive for their food, “flying” underwater with half-opened wings and propeller-like feet. If their feathers are not in top condition, they will become waterlogged. A Common Loon is among the most elegant of our birds; its shining black feathers are touched with a green iridescence that sets off its pristine white markings. On its back, the black and white form a checkered pattern that is really quite lovely and unusual among birds.

Later, by a different pond, K pointed out a Great Blue Heron foraging silently at the marshy shore edge. This species, the tallest in our region, is a fierce but elegant hunter, wading soundlessly through the shallows in its search for frogs, fish, and anything else that moves, including small mammals. With its heavy spear-like beak, enormous wings, and long powerful legs, this bird is formidable! In flight, its six-foot wingspan and slow wing beats recall some prehistoric bird; this is especially true when one sees the bird in silhouette at dawn or dusk. As we watched the heron yesterday, it caught and swallowed two fish, turning each one carefully (with several skillful toss-and-turn motions) so that it headed down the long throat head first, slippery-wise. It’s always interesting, though somewhat nauseating, to see the fishy lump, sometimes still wriggling a bit, slide down, down, down…

Just before we reached our car, a spot of gold against the blue caught my eye: It was a male American Goldfinch, perched on the very end of a long, up-pointing evergreen bough. Now goldfinches are quite common, and in fact we see them every day at home. But how beautiful was this picture: the brilliant yellow bird with its black, black cap and eye, contrasting with dark green needles and the brilliantly blue July sky! As I stopped to look, a few of its flock-fellows flew into nearby branches, so that the tree seemed lit up with bright gold flames or little suns. The first bird sat quite still, and I was able to bring it even closer with my binoculars, taking time to study the strength of that little seed-cracking bill, the pink feet and legs, and the pattern of feathers in his black crown and around his face and head.

Of course, we saw many other birds during the day (and I could even make a list!), but these three individuals are the ones I’ll remember. Why is this enough? Well, of course, my memory of these birds will forever be entwined with my memories of being with D and K on that day… And perhaps it’s the poet in me, the part of me that pauses to describe, to remember in words…I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. The beauty of birds, their functional elegance, and their aerial and ethereal lives – that’s list enough for me.

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