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


  1. Andrea! This was such a great post to read. One of my moms hobbies is birds and i shared some of the information with her. She really enjoyed it! So thank you :) Your Halloween post was just the right amount of spooky and had me very entertained to keep on reading.

  2. In the craziness of life and work, I think it is great to have a hobby, especially one that you are so passionate about. It gives life extra meaning and enjoyment. You can definitely tell when reading through your post how excited you were to see the Varied Thrush bird. It is quite an interesting hobby and one that would provide lots of excitement depending on the rarity of the bird. I liked how creative your blog post was, but it made me sad the bird became prey to another bird's hunger.

  3. Thanks for the Love everybody!
    It's hard for me to even see birding as a hobby because for me it's a life-altering passion. I plan to explain this further in a future blog post, actually. :)
    I'm glad you enjoyed my post, and hopefully learned something new.
    Also, while I agree it was incredibly sad to see that beautiful bird killed, I would much rather see a bird killed by another bird than by the hands of man (deforestation, pollution, hunting, etc.).
    Once again, thank you for your comments and your kind words. <( ')

  4. I enjoyed your post. The combination of the birds and relating them to the spirt of Halloween was ingenious. The fact that you have a passion for bird watching not only is surprising (because it is a lost art) but a welcome facet of hope for one of my passions which is forest watching (entering a quiet area and sitting down and becoming part of the forest to watch the interaction of nature). Thanks for giving me some new hope for our busy lives.

  5. Daniel, I appreciate your reference to birding as an art, although all is not lost! I am grateful every day to still have nature and birds to enjoy and study. Your passion is definitely along the same lines as mine. I too appreciate sitting quietly in the woods, and just allowing it to show me what it wants me to see. I Love how you said you become a "part of the forest" because I think deep down we all have that desire to be back in that place where beauty abounds. I hope you'll continue following my blog, and I will definitely follow you back! Happy birding...or, uh... foresting. :)

  6. I wish I could take the time out to enjoy nature and relax. We are way to busy in our life to just "stop and smell the roses." Need to take a page out of your book and just stop.