Friday, April 15, 2011

Another turn of the wheel

It happened some time during the week, when I wasn't looking. I first noticed it yesterday, on my early morning Pond Walk: it's green! The tiny buds on the the trees that have been promising spring for the last ten days or so have fulfilled their promise. The leaves are opening, the flowers are blooming, the first insects of the season are pinging at my face. It's finally spring!

As I strolled towards the pond, I heard the buzzy, insect-like call of the chipping sparrow, my first of the season. The song alerted me to scan the tree tops until I located him, trilling and buzzing from the top of a pine tree. Which leads me to a piece of advice I would give any birder trying to improve his or her skills: learn the songs. Since my audio recall is much better than my visual memory, bird song has been key to my slow improvement in bird identification.

In case you're wondering about a good system for doing this, my method has been to consult birding guides and local checklists to get a decent, but workable, list of birds I might see at a given spot at the current time of year, and then study them on Cornell's All About Birds website. I look at the photos, and play the songs...and look at the photos of all the similar species, then play those songs. A certified "bird nerd," I can do this for an hour or so at a time.

If you're really bad at learning the songs, don't despair. I would say, just start with the most common birds, such as the northern cardinal and the American robin (or whichever are most common in your area), because you will have plenty of practice at hearing those. And once you get a few down pat, the next few will be easier.... Plus, some birds songs are very distinctive. Who else but the olive sided flycatcher would say, "Quick, three beers!," for example?

But I digress.... After the happiness of my Year Bird, I entered the trail around the pond, amazed at the sudden proliferation of the foliage. I wanted to jump up and down with excitement. It's spring, yes at last! My sensitivity to the seasons is almost pagan, that's for certain.

Another thing I noticed--for the first time in months, no dark-eyed juncos. The "snow birds" must be heading north. I know I said I wouldn't miss them, but that was a lie. I do miss them. They've only been gone a few days, and I miss them already!

After work, Greenturtle and I went out to Funk's Grove, and I was excited to look for the great blue heron rookery again. As so often happens, by the time we got there, the weather had turned against us, cloudy and windy, with a bit of a chill...not the best conditions for bird-watching or photography.

With that in mind, here is the rookery:

Every time I have gone back to that spot, in the woods off the beaten trail, alongside Timber Creek, I have felt it was special, and yesterday was no different. We enjoyed the sight of the herons flying back and forth from their nests, and then the unexpected sight of a wild turkey flying past! And the boggy banks along the water have burst forth with marsh marigolds.

Here is a demonstration of how to enjoy marsh marigolds and a great blue heron rookery at the same time...but stay elevated, they're called "marsh" marigolds for a reason!

I was excited to show Greenturtle all my discoveries in that area, and was pleased that I could still find my way around despite the incipient greenery. At the late time of day, there were few birds to be seen, but I had a chance to test my plant-identification skills, naming off the mayapples and red trillium cropping up (no flowers yet), and also finding a catnip! Alas, I also saw tons and tons of garlic mustard cropping up, a terribly invasive weed, not native to the continent, that is more or less taking over the woods and crowding out native plants, such as wildflowers. Note to self: go back with trash bag and pull up as much as possible. Also note to self: don't be wasteful, cook it up! Garlic mustard is actually nutritious. In fact, it was first brought to America as a kitchen herb...that got loose and took over the land.

At the far end of the woods, the fields were now occupied.

I really want to stop now, with the happiness of spring. I'm almost done. But, I have to comment, how almost a year after the anniversary of the BP Oil Spill, new drilling permits are being issued in the Gulf of Mexico. As I cooked up some shrimp for dinner tonight (shrimp gumbo with extra greens...really good!), I thought about the short-sightedness of it all, and not just for the birds and sea turtles and dolphins. What good will oil do us if we poison our food? Shouldn't the most important question be, "How can we get by with less oil?"

I don't want to bum people out, or make this space too "political" -- all who love birds are welcome here! -- but this is an issue that is really important to me. We still don't know the extent of the real damage from the spill, and yet most people seem to have forgotten it. And that is only one of the many, many insults to the planet that we are inflicting.

How can anyone love birds and not care? And yet...most of us are part of the problem, too. I know that I am. Not only has my bike-riding experiment sadly failed (mostly because of my timidity at braving the traffic), but I continue to drive hither and yon in search of birds. Mea culpa.

I was born restless, but now in addition to the urgency to move, there is the guilt. I used to recite a short poem by Edna St Vincent Millay to describe my attitude:

I burn my candle at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light!

This could be the twenty-first century's anthem, and taken collectively, I no longer find the light to be lovely. Our whole culture--and, increasingly, the world -- is busy burning that candle, and it truly will not last much longer. Perhaps if I hadn't learned to love birds, it wouldn't hurt so much. But there's no going backwards.

My other motto used to be a quote from William Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell"--

The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

That used to be my justification for every emotional meltdown, youthful indiscretion, and bad hangover. Who wants to play it safe? I'm older now, but my relentless quest for birds might still be considered excessive by some.

If I ever find the palace of wisdom, I'll let you know. In the meantime, thank you for bearing with me, and my bittersweet thoughts this spring.

Happy birding.


  1. I think the problem is that WE are the candle we're burning. We don't plan for 7 generations; we don't plan for 7 years! I've got your juncos up here, in my yard. I'm running food out to them frequently, as they are ground feeders, and the first of 7 or 8 expected inches of snow is covering it up fast! Tears (of envy) are running down my cheeks as I admire your photos. My poor brave crocus is being buried, too. Mom

  2. That is a good way of summing it up. I get frustrated by otherwise well-meaning people who think that only humans matter, because taking better care of the environment would ultimately be the best thing for humans, too. What we do to the earth affects us too.