Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, Bird Nerds!

9.2015 Blood moon eclipse

It was October 30th, Devil’s Night, and something magical was buzzing in the air.

Maybe it was the candy and chocolate meant for trick-or-treaters and sampled first by adults; or the way pumpkins had transformed into lanterns that smiled and screamed from porches and windows. Maybe it was the breath of autumn filling the air with the sweet musty scent of wet leaves and cinnamon; or the freedom to dress like a mummy or a cat or a puzzle piece. Whatever the cause, there was a mischievous, childlike spirit emanating from every shadowy corner. These shadows held secrets and unexpected things.

Some of these came in the form of ghosts, spiders, and children jumping into view with a loud, “BOO!” Some showed up as birds.

10.30.15 Varied Thrush
The Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a black and orange robin relative hailing from the damp woods and ravines of the west coast. From Alaska to southern California it creeps through the forest carpet, calling out with a ghostly whistle (some say UFO-like).

It seemed on this day the winds were in our favor, bringing to our metropark this west coast wanderer. Birders texted and called each other with the news, gathering hurriedly to the scene. Still dressed in work clothes, I ran through the parking lot in hopes I wasn’t too late.

Quickly my worries were dissolved as I heard Scott say, “Andrea, Varied Thrush in the scope!” On my tip toes I peered into a beautiful circular world of magnified bird. I could see its black bib and bright orange breast whose feathers reminded me a little bit of bubble wrap. Amazingly, this Varied Thrush, entirely festive dressed in orange and black, was not the only faraway traveler in sight.
Out on the water there was spinning top, its whites and grays becoming a blur which matched the shade of the cloudy sky. As it slowed, it revealed itself as a bird even more out of range than the first. It was a Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) and was uncharacteristically inland. It likely traveled down from the high arctic, from which it would typically follow the Atlantic or Pacific to spend its winters at sea.

10.30.15 Red Phalarope
In the presence of more experienced birders, these two birds (the thrush and the phalarope) provided a rare scenario where I was not the only one seeing a bird for the first time. At least one of these birds was a lifer for many in the crowd (a lifer or life bird is a bird one has never seen before).

Ever hungry for a closer look, we decided the Varied Thrush would be easier to approach than the Red Phalarope swirling around in the waves. A few of us drove to the other side of the bay, crossing backyards (with permission) to wait for our Halloween bird. It soon obliged and gave us a few glorious moments empty of breathing yet full of camera clicks. When the thrush scurried out of sight, we collectively exhaled, smiled, and pumped fists. 

 Just as Halloween shrieks with simultaneous delight and horror, so too did events unfold.

10.30.15 Varied Thrush
There was one more bird silently waiting in the wings- a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) who was hungry for something unusual. The Varied Thrush was a bright orange target for this bird of prey. After it descended upon the thrush, it began to pluck the feathers which scattered across the muddy beach like the spines of fallen leaves.

Just then, a friendly young couple walked up to our birding group and asked what we were doing. We all sort of scrambled for words and explained that we just saw a rare and beautiful bird which then got eaten. Even as non-birders, they seemed to understand the emotion of the situation; we all did, as we dared to think about life and death.

I was reminded of Halloween’s roots in the Celtic tradition of Samhain. According to Spring Wolf
“During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life.” Perhaps a dramatic comparison, the day's events still seemed a fitting and timely metaphor.

Now, Halloween is here to welcome the darkness and savor the light. Tonight, when the sky is black and the moon is wide awake, perhaps we’ll hear a faint, otherworldly call, the whistle of a black and orange ghost.

10.30.15 A very Halloween scene
Hold the dark holiday in your palms. Bite it, swallow it and survive, Come out the far black tunnel of el Dia de Muerte And be glad, ah so glad you are... alive! -Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Big Sit 2015

It was a brisk morning with winds that easily cut past layers of clothing. It’s a good thing I brought a blanket, I thought to myself as I got out of my car and gulped down the last of my coffee. I then approached Lake St. Clair Metropark’s Observation Deck.

Big Sit circle, complete with gear
It was just 9 o’clock in the morning, but that's late for birders. I braced myself for jokes about my arrival time, and sure enough was greeted with, “Welcome to the afternoon shift, Andrea!” The space was already peppered with equipment: Swarovski spotting scopes, binoculars, cameras, lawn chairs, and an impressive lineup of blue coolers. The “morning shift” consisted of about 8-10 bundled-up birders, most of whom had been there since around 6am.

It was The Big Sit 2015, a yearly, international birding event hosted by Bird Watcher’s Digest. The purpose of The Big Sit is to stay in one spot from dawn until dusk, counting the species of birds observed from that spot. At the end of the day, teams’ lists are shared and compared through the BWD website (click link for details). 

When I joined the circle that morning, team “Metro Munchers” had already listed over 40 bird species, more than 2/3 of the species that would be recorded for the entire day. Later, I asked team captain Joanna where the team name came from, to which she shrugged and replied with a smile, “Because we eat a lot!”

It quickly became apparent this was a birding event unlike any I had attended. Birding requires silence and focus. However, when birders gather together, these stretches of silence are punctuated by storytelling, fact sharing, and jokes that are often incredibly corny and bird related. The difference was that at The Big Sit, the joking and laughter seemed to be the highlights, with an occasional serious break to study a passing bird. I remember one moment stopping mid-laugh, my face going instantly serious as my eyes caught the movement of a bird in the distance. It dove down over the Phragmites before disappearing into the trees, giving us just enough time to conclude it was a Peregrine Falcon.

Kitesurfers at Lake St. Clair Metropark
For most of the day, I never picked up my binoculars, satisfied instead with the company of the birders standing next to me. We were unchecked and unfiltered, sharing snacks and swapping stories. The group changed throughout the day, some joining later, some leaving early. The birders were as varied as the birds themselves with men and women ranging in age from 14 to 87. The eldest of the group was sure to point out the simple but undeniable sentiment, “Birders have more fun!”

As the day progressed, the sun warmed my face until it started to peel. When the birding was dull, our attention wandered to other things. Kiteboarders and windsurfers crowded the bay, entertaining us with aerial tricks. A Common Buckeye graced us with its presence, providing the best photo opp. of the day. 

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)
Passersby would occasionally stop at our circle and ask what we were doing. One woman wanted to know about a large dark, duck-like bird she had seen sitting in a tree making strange pig-like noises. We collectively suggested a Double-crested Cormorant. As if to help us make our case, a Double-crested Cormorant then flew overhead! I pointed up and asked the lady, “Do you mean that bird?” She nodded with a smile and continued along the path.

 As dusk approached, we got another decent push of birds, bringing our count to 62. People began to pack up their gear and their chairs, which reminded me that I had ironically never once sat down in mine. Birders dispersed one by one until there were just two of us left. Kevin and I lingered near our cars, reminiscing over the day’s events, when out of the darkness came the call of a lone Great Horned Owl, which became the last bird to be counted for the day.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

My Spark Bird, the Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). 
The bird colored by the paint of sunsets, with purples and reds and a tail dipped in bright yellow.
Photo courtesy Huevos Rancheros (March 15, 2010)
I remember when I first noticed this avian masterpiece, just a little over a year ago. This bird was art; even the crest on its head resembled a paintbrush.

A month or so later I would first hear the term Spark Bird, along with a litany of terms used fluently within the birding community. A few months after this, I would be fluent in that language too, but that’s a different story.

So what is a Spark Bird, exactly? This is that certain bird species that ignites within a person a spark and passion for bird watching (or birding, as we say).

Ken Keffer asks, “Do you remember the moment you were first fully captivated by nature? Can you pinpoint the split second that changed you from a casual observer to someone passionate about the outdoors?” He later says, “Spark birds ignite curiosity and fuel the desire to learn more about nature, leading you to a lifetime of birdwatching.” See Ken’s article, “Spark Birds: Learning to LoveBirdwatching”

After first seeing the colorful Cedar Waxwing (usually surrounded by other waxwings, making their characteristic high buzzy/buggy sounds), I began to notice more of them, more frequently. Cedar Waxwings became a symbol of the spirit of the start of my birding journey. That spirit is one that continues to guide me; it is one of gratitude and constant wonder.

 “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Today, my senses have sharpened. I can pick out the calls of waxwings, trilling out across summer evenings. I can read their silhouettes amid trees on the sides of highways. I can sometimes even predict which trees they’ll flock to, especially the short, berry-filled kinds you find in parking lots sometimes. I can recall the waxwing flight pattern as it hover attacks insects in mid-air, retreating back to exposed branch perches.

One day a complete stranger was walking by in the woods as I observed a Cedar Waxwing above me. I witnessed the man scanning the branches so I pointed and gave instructions, guiding his line of sight. I saw his face change and alight when he found the magical bird; then he looked at me with appreciation. I felt like I had passed along something meaningful that day.

How about you?
Do you have a spark bird?
Share your stories with me!