“Daily Sightings” A Blog
Today I watched a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers working to build a nest in a hole, high up on an old tree.
Good. This is a species that’s in decline, officially described as “near threatened.” But they haven’t been classified as “rare,” yet.
What is rare is this: the two birds I saw, one male, the other female, looked exactly alike.
In the bird world, sexes are usually identified by differences in color.
In the people-world we’ve got all kinds of ways to announce our gender.
Most birds just use color. Like: a male Scarlet Tanager’s red; his mate’s olive drab. Even Robins have shades of difference. And so on.
But, with Red-headed Woodpeckers there’s no way to tell. According to experts, even experts can’t do it.
Both sexes are the same size and build, with identical coloration.
So how do the birds know who’s what?
This has even stumped the world’s greatest know-it-all, the internet.
That’s okay. The internet can be stumped, and so can we.
The Red-headed Woodpeckers are the only ones who need to know, and somehow, they do.
A while back, I was in a Chicago bar. Through an alley window I saw a fairly uncommon Eastern Towhee.
There were some city weeds among the cracked pavement there. Still, you wouldn’t go in that alley to see birds. Maybe you’d go to see rats.
But when it comes to birds, you gotta expect the unexpected. Birds are found where you find them.
Same thing goes for finding two-fisted birdwatchers.
I know a guy, six-one, two-twenty, mostly muscle. Played starting center years ago in high school. He’s been known to scare bouncers in night clubs.
These days he’s into the wife & kids, pizza, workouts, and real estate deals. Not exactly the old-school image of a birder.
(We don’t like the old-school image of birders. That’s what this website is all about).
Today I got an email from this guy with some excitement in it. He wrote: “Hey, I just saw a Ruby-throated Hummingbird out my bedroom window!”
Little bird. Big guy. Is it surprising that he cared? Hell, no. Two-fisted birdwatchers, like birds themselves, are found where you find them.
The trees in May have small movements in them. Most people don’t notice, but you do.
They’re recurring migratory birds called warblers. And like most things, they have good and bad points.
The bad is their name. It demeans these tough little guys. They don’t warble. If they make a sound, it’s more of a buzz.
They fly in squadrons for thousands of miles, and are pure stamina. They ought to be called navigators, not warblers.
Yellow Warbler, Prothontary Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler (shown below), Wison’s Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Palm Warbler, Hooded Warbler and many more; the warbler family is big.
But the family name’s not fair to these athletes. If you were naming a sports team, would you pick: “The Warblers?”
Now, here’s what’s good about them. Continuity.
Every year, they muscle their way over oceans, lakes, gulfs, rivers, woods, mountains, canyons, forests, through storms, and around tall buildings, only to show up in your backyard for a while.
You can count on them. As warbler seasons pile up behind you, you appreciate that kind of thing.
Saturday April 27. Dateline: my couch. There’s a sprained back in the picture, but it can kiss my butt. If that’s the pain meds talking, they can kiss my butt too.
I’m doing two kinds of bird watching.
One: I’m looking out the window. We’ve had floodwater so I’m seeing an uncommon Caspian Tern circling. He’s lost or nuts. We’re not the Caspian Sea.
Two: I’m watching a rare bird named Robinson make history in the Bulls playoff against the Nets.
This guy is a five-nine one-man show in a world of giants. He’s turning the tide in a game that was going downhill. It takes Robinson and his two-fisted teammates three overtimes to win, but they do, with historic stats.
Nate Robinson proves that little is big. Impossible is possible. Man can fly.
But what about the Caspian Tern? I saw it through my window, a sighting appreciated in Illinois. But it wasn’t the rarest of the day. Not with Nate Robin-son making the rare bird life-list of the season.
You might think you’re strong. You work out. You’re a two-fisted hardass. But you’re a featherweight compared to a Golden Eagle.
You think you’re strong enough to drag a 14-foot steel rowboat up a beach. Can’t weigh more than 150 pounds, way less than your own weight. So you throw out your back.
(“Gotta weak back—when’d ya get it—‘bout a week back—slap, smack, bonk.” –The Three Stooges, circa 1935. Two-fisted guys).
Meanwhile, the Golden Eagle has been said to carry off goats and even heavier prey. The bird can lift three times its weight. About 540 pounds, if it were you.
And it’s got no problem. No weak back. No week of pain meds just to get out of bed. Two talons trump two fists.
Many birds out-muscle us. Ospreys, crows, woodpeckers. To say nothing of Ostriches—which hardly count as birds, but still…
They’re all stronger, pound for pound, than we are. Another reason to appreciate watching birds in the wild, even if your hike’s cut short because your back is killing you, rowboat boy.
What kind of grebe? C’mon. If somebody says, “The grebe is back,” is that the first thing you’d ask?
More likely, you’d say: who is this guy, and what the hell is a grebe?
But wait. You have some interest in birds, so maybe you do wonder what kind of grebe, of all possible grebes, it could be.
We’ll get to this grebe’s identity. But first, another observation.
In Illinois, American Robins used to be the birds that told us spring was coming. Not any more. Now, they stay through winter. You see them year ’round.
This means little, except that things change.
But grebes don’t change. There’s a pond here, and every April it’s got a grebe in it, meaning that spring has arrived.
Grebe migration is happening. We see it in action by spotting this single grebe.
A Pied-billed Grebe, in case you want to know. Since you’ve read this far, you probably do.
Let’s drink to that. Here’s to people who want to know about grebes. And things that don’t change.
Take your kids to Disney World over the years, and they change like time-lapse photography.
This place makes you notice time passing. You also notice birds. Including a favorite, which I’ll get to in a minute.
First, quick impressions: A Mockingbird on an umbrella table. A pair of Ospreys hunting over Bay Lake. They don’t care if the lake’s manmade. Its fish are real.
Anhingas and Double-crested Cormorants are on the shoreline. White Ibises walk among crowds. Long-legged tropical birds acting like pigeons. Goofy.
Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures watch. Maybe a goofy Ibis is dead. Or a feral pig rots in the palmettos. There’s a lot to eat at Disney World.
A Wild Turkey walks the golf course. Boat-tailed Grackles are common. American Coots float in Fantasy Land. A Bald Eagle circles above it all.
Then there’s an all-time favorite bird. He was around when you were a kid and still is. Things change, but not him.
The terse writer Cormac McCarthy comes to mind. His writing has little excess language. (“No Country for Old Men,” “The Road”).
I thought about him recently because we got a question about the identity of a tan, black and blue bird seen in the Old World.
Jay, I figured. Just Jay. No excess language needed.
Here in the New World we don’t have that kind of simplicity. We have Blue Jays, Steller’s Jays, Gray Jays, Scrub Jays.
In Eurasia, just Jay.
According to field guides, many Eurasian birds are commonly known by single names: Nuthatch, Wren, Blackbird, Kingfisher, Teal.
While here, there are White-breasted Nuthatches, Marsh Wrens, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Belted Kingfishers, Blue-winged Teals.
Old World birds must have been the originals, first to get named. Our regional variations of these species had to carry further instructions.
Here, we have a Black-billed Cuckoo. And a Yellow-billed one. In Europe they have a Cuckoo. One word.
Such short bird names are good. Easy to read and remember. Like something Cormac McCarthy would write. Enough said.
It’s not just a walk in the wild. It’s a football snap. A pay raise. A skirt lifting. Hike is a versatile word.
But, mainly it’s a walk in the wild.
You head through deep forest. There’s snow in patches and you see tracks. You think about a bobcat.
You get to a river and there’s beaver sign, wood shavings. You see Wood Ducks, wildly colored.
Under the roots of a tree is a den. Half-eaten raccoon nearby, its spinal cord pebbly. A coyote lives here, far from the trail.
You bushwhack on. A bird squawks over the water. Belted Kingfisher.
A deer with erect ears is watching you. You watch back. Three other deer become clear. They jump away, white tails up.
You see a Great Horned Owl, tree-colored, in a tree. You’re warm in the freezing day, pushing on.
You reach the rapids where water pours over rocks. A few years ago, your dog jumped in and you helped her climb out, both of you soaked.
Here, time stands still. Yet time passes. Maybe the owl understands how both can be true.
Hours later you head out, bushwhacking, still bushwhacking. You think: don’t forget this hike. Write it down.
You have binoculars but don’t use them. This is known among birders as naked birding. Popular among the confident and complacent.
Example: in a late winter field you see a flock of ground birds in snow and weeds. You know at a glance they’re merely Dark-eyed Juncos and House Sparrows.
But a slightly different one catches your eye. You stop, and, okay, you whip out the binoculars.
An early Northern Waterthrush? Ovenbird? Swainson’s Thrush? It’s reddish—maybe a Wood Thrush?
Focus, man. That’s no thrush; it’s a Fox Sparrow. A personal favorite, with its streaked front and long tail. Been a while since you’ve seen one.
Now you’re feeling like your old self. Not naked. Not complacent. A little energized.
Every once in a while, you gotta wrap your two fists around a pair of binoculars and get back to being the birdwatcher you started out being.
Forget naked. Hell, you just saw a Fox Sparrow.
A few days ago near Chicago, I watched a couple of Mallards in a late winter storm accumulating snow on their heads.
Things change. Used to be ducks went someplace else; now they’re here. They weren’t freaks of nature. They were just coated in white, tracking through snow toward a feeder meant for other birds.
Weather patterns changed, migration habits changed, the world changed. They were part of it.
Change is a cold fact, and it goes beyond cold ducks.
A guy can see a recent photo of himself that shows what looks like a snowy coating on his head. He’s no duck in winter. He’s a guy with hair going white.
It’s another way the world changes. You can grouse about it, or take it in stride. Nothing will change the fact of change.
You go about your business with snow on your head.
The snow that’s on the Mallards’ heads will melt away. These ducks will soon be playing in the sun.
But, your snow’s staying. The sobering expression “shit happens” doesn’t carry half the weight as “change happens.”
I flew to New York recently, got a window seat, and as usual, spent most of the flight watching the world below us.
Back in my frequent flyer days, I once told a business buddy not to think of me as an idiot for spending most of the flight looking out of the window instead of talking to him.
He said he did think I was an idiot.
During my stay in New York, I noticed a seagull flying over 8th Avenue and 34th Street. Pretty far from the waterfront.
I couldn’t tell what kind of gull it was. Herring? Ring-billed? Something rare? Glaucous, Iceland, Bonaparte’s?
Forget it. Just a gull in a gray sky, looking down at the city below. It headed uptown, taking its time, forty stories high.
I don’t think it was searching for food on 8th Avenue. It wasn’t an idiot. It was just enjoying being above it all, appreciating the view.
You think you have to go into wilderness to see wild birds.
Then you drive along an Interstate north of Chicago and see a Bald Eagle fly over your car. Wide black wings. White head. No doubts.
Once again, birds remind you that they’re going to be where you find them. Or where they find you.
You could hike through the North Woods. Freeze your butt, tear your pants, twist your knee, and never see a Bald Eagle.
You’d go to wild places anyway. Eagles aren’t the only reason. When you’re in the wilderness, you’re back where you came from. You feel good.
But Interstate highways are also where you came from. They make you feel good, too. They bring you where you want to go. Sometimes they bring you an unexpected sighting.
It’s a free country. Why shouldn’t this bird be there? Especially this bird.
Winter in the woods. There’s a small pond just this side of the river. It’s flat ice, making you wish you’d brought skates.
At that frozen pond, I saw a Great Blue Heron. It was standing on the hard surface, and didn’t look happy.
Next day, it was gone and I never saw it there again.
When I was a kid, my family drove to a state park for a summer vacation. At the entrance, we saw a man lying in weeds.
My dad stopped the car and got out. Gotta see if that guy’s okay, he said, cigarette dangling.
Just sleepin’ the man said.
Through the years, we came back to that state park for other vacations, and always looked for the guy lying at the side of the road.
Every time I hike near the small pond in the woods, I look for the heron I’d seen standing on ice.
If I felt the need to name things, I’d name the pond Heron Pond. And I’d call the road Sleeping Man Road.
But I’m not in the business of naming things. Still, that doesn’t stop me from remembering them. And, in a way, that’s the same thing.
On a freezing day, I put an extra amount of seeds in our feeders. Then a bag broke. Pounds of seeds fell to the ground.
So what. It was cold. Birds could use the food.
But by morning, it became clear that this act went viral.
Birds came in droves. More noticed, and they came, too. Exponential growth. The ideology of the internet, gone wild.
Juncos, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches, sparrows, doves, waxwings, cardinals, jays.
And squirrels, herds of squirrels.
There’s a message here: If you put something into the world that touches the right chord, it gets noticed.
This is not the same as making a video that goes viral, or writing a best seller. Those things are next to impossible. This was just next to a kitchen window.
Still, you know you’re responsible. You feel a little funny about having created all that activity. You think, whoa, what did I do?
I saw a Canada Goose with an arrow through it. Half coming out one side. Half coming out the opposite side.
The goose was with others, standing in a winter field, looking around, eyes calm, just another day at the office.
The arrow must have hurt. Probably cut down on certain activities. Might’ve affected the goose’s rank in the flock. But he seemed to be getting on with his life.
I figured this odd observation was worth a brief mention. But first I Googled “goose with arrow” to see if it really is odd.
Well, it’s odd, okay, but not because it’s uncommon. It’s odd because it’s pretty damn common.
Google pages are full of stories about geese walking, swimming and flying around wearing arrows stuck through them.
These birds are a good example of living with what the universe sends your way. The universe, on the other hand, has some explaining to do.
It’s 9 degrees. The wind is bitter. Ice-coated tree branches rattle against each other. None of this should keep us out of the woods.
Our mission is to debunk the bunk that birders can be wimpy. Mostly, birders are rugged hardasses.
Even in winter, I’ll often hike through the forest to a riverbank where I hang out. Gotta get into the wild if you want to be where the wildlife is.
But, today an unwelcome inner wimp got the upper hand, convincing me that 9 degrees is too damn cold.
So I stayed in and stayed warm, while I watched birds, separated from me by a picture window.
They were mobbing a backyard feeder. Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Cardinals, a Blue Jay, a Mourning Dove, juncos, winter goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees.
Plenty to watch, and pretty interesting. But I have to be honest: this isn’t what we’re about. This isn’t two-fisted bird watching.
Sometimes, you go into the woods to get away from words.
If you deal in words, if you’re a writer, a reader or just a listener, words can weigh you down after a while.
You go to the woods not expecting birds, yet there’s a cold kingfisher sitting on a bare branch. You and the kingfisher see each other, but keep your thoughts to yourselves.
You come to a small dam where river water pools and spills. Even if somebody came along and said something, you wouldn’t hear.
But nobody will come along. You’re off the trail, off the grid. Only trees, and the spaces between trees, for as far as you can see.
There are birds. But no words. That’s the way you like it, the way you need it on this day.
When you leave the woods, all settled and free of words, what craziness makes you go to the keyboard and type these?
Woods. A place away from humans. Bare trees. Frozen undergrowth, deer, mink, coyotes. Birds.
Ironic. You go there to see birds, and the birds are waiting in your backyard. Why would they go into the wilderness where there are no feeders?
But, maybe you’ll spot something too wild for feeders. Maybe a White-winged Crossbill, rumored to be in the area. That would be a first.
You see a manmade sign. “Deer Management Area.” You translate this bullshit: “Deer Killing Area.”
Killing, also called “culling,” is done for reasons of population ecology.
Years ago, local activists mounted an ad campaign around the slogan, “Fighting for deer life.” Clever words did nothing to stop the man in management.
Again, sharpshooters wait to cull.
Sharpshooter is a word thought by some to originate from the Sharps Rifle, a long-range gun introduced in the 1800s.
Words. Sharpshooter. Culling. Killing. Management. You walk past the sign and sit by an unfrozen river in the trees.
If there are fewer deer, well, maybe you’ll see a White-winged Crossbill. If you don’t, there’s still the river. They haven’t managed that yet.
You saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker on a nearby branch. Almost close enough to touch. You figure you’ll tell somebody.
But the word “bellied” stops you.
This woodpecker stands out because it has a bright red head. But, it can’t be called a “Red-headed Woodpecker.” Another bird already grabbed that name.
Any trace of redness that might or might not be on this bird’s belly is no reason to name the whole bird after it.
And belly is a childish word. This woodpecker’s a heavy-hitter. With a jackhammer beak and a red football helmet.
You want to say: hey, a Red-bellied Woodpecker on a branch was real close. Something to see. But you don’t.
Anybody you tell this to will be thinking about bellies. So you don’t say anything.