“Daily Sightings” A Blog
From spring through fall, an old dead tree near a highway has many cormorants in it. It’s been their hangout for generations. People drive by and think they’re seeing crows or maybe vultures. But they’re cormorants.
On this winter day, you drive past that spot and notice the tree’s no longer there. When things warm up and cormorants return, they’re going to look for it.
You continue down the road, away from the blank space where the cormorants’ tree used to be. The gap back there reminds you of a missing tooth.
When the cormorants come they’ll hover over it in confusion for a while. You feel a kind of philosophical shoulder-shrug sorrow for this inevitable truth.
Their world is going to be shaken. They’ll manage, of course. But the fact that such things happen to birds and man is disconcerting, like the ominous appearance of a cormorant itself.
If you’re around next spring, and if you drive past the tree that’s not there and you see that there are no cormorants, you’ll know that your life has been changed a little.
Yeah, your life. Sure, it’s the cormorants that have been affected. But they were your cormorants. And that old dead tree was your old dead tree. A part of your world that got a tooth knocked out.
It’s raining like crazy over a woodland lake the way it does sometimes on an August day that starts sunny.
The sky darkens. Low clouds roll over and unload. The lake’s surface makes you think of machine-gun fire.
Thunderclaps encourage that idea, and lightning. Wind shakes trees. Leaves and branches fly off and spin around.
Somebody’s lawn chair blows into the lake.
Water comes down with sound and fury as Shakespeare said somewhere.
But unlike his sound and fury, this isn’t a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.
It’s a tale told by a warm front in disagreement with a cold front signifying nothing. Except the uncertainty of August sunshine.
Now a bird flies across the lake through the rain. It’s an American Robin but this bird’s name is not important.
What’s important is its improbable, implacable route. Flying straight through all that wind and rain, in spite of it all.
You wonder: where’s it going? What’s so important there? How can it maintain altitude when the weight of so much water is pushing down on its back? What’s it thinking?
You’ll never know. And it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that you feel an unexpected moment of admiration for a bird flying unfazed through a storm. This makes your day.
On May 26, 2012, we published a post titled “Unseen.” It said Northern Flickers hadn’t been noticed much around here recently.
Separately, people who saw a Flicker and weren’t sure what kind of bird it was, went online to search for a picture that could help them identify it. They found our post with its photo, and the bird’s name.
Many sent us a comment to let us know. Seems Flickers weren’t “unseen” everywhere.
It’s normal for a post to get a few comments, but “Unseen” generated an uncanny number. Close to a hundred at last count.
And they still come in. Some in response to that 2012 post, and some to the one you’re reading now.
Flickers are out there, even though experts have reported they’re declining.
Well, they’re not declining on this site. Here’s another picture.
Ray and Barbara from North Adams, Massachusetts were nice enough to send it.
Flickers may be scarce in our neck of the woods, but they’re still spotted.
Years ago, you’re in an office on the 26th floor of a Chicago skyscraper, doing work profoundly unrelated to nature.
You have the feeling of being watched.
You look over your shoulder.
On the other side of your window there’s a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, clinging to the building, meeting your gaze.
The bird had picked your window. Not the window of some guy who wouldn’t know a sapsucker from his elbow.
You grab a cheap throw-away camera and get a picture.
The shot is poor. Dark and fuzzy. You find it recently, while cleaning out a desk.
Back when you saw the sapsucker, you had the momentary feeling that it sought you out, personally.
Looking at the old picture, you still wonder about that.
But you shake off the thought.
You just chalk it up to the simple truth that sometimes you watch the birds, and sometimes they watch you.
Sunday, early. Bushwhacking through woods and fields. You see the first waves of fall migrants. Warblers, thrushes, hawks in groups. It’s a whole new ball game as the season changes.
But you can’t stay.
You gotta get home to watch the Bears kickoff. During the game, a familiar idea comes to mind: Stereotype busting.
(It’s the reason behind this website. You know: birders are rugged, not stereotypical geeks. We’ve said this before.)
How did the Bears kick a stereotype right out of the stadium? Here’s how:
Today’s new coach is a thin guy in glasses, and they say he’s got a law degree. Not exactly the old-time image of “Da Bears.”
Never underestimate anybody.
He was a college quarterback, then a big-time winner in cold Canadian pro football. A stereotype buster.
You liked watching the birds change with the season as you slogged through the wilds in the morning. And later that day you liked seeing an intellect in glasses have his team kick ass.
The only bird in the quiet woods was a Great Crested Flycatcher. It’s not unusual, normally. But normal isn’t always normal any more.
You hadn’t seen one for a while and it triggered the thought of a Ferruginous Hawk. Why? It didn’t look anything like a hawk. But there was a link somewhere in your mind.
You think of a story written years ago, buried now in the “Stories” section of this website. “The Ferruginous Hawk.”
The link between this story and the sighting of a single flycatcher in an empty woodland is there, maybe—but you’d have to read the story again to know for sure.
And you could do that. Because of a link. You could click the last word in this post, and be taken there.
It’s just a piece of short fiction, written for the hell of it. But some stories get under your skin. They surprise you by coming to the surface when you don’t expect it.
Like when you see a lone Great Crested Flycatcher. A bird that’s no Ferruginous Hawk. But still, there’s a link.
Today, a neighbor said we’ve got beavers. No smartass reply welcome. The guy was serious. Some trees were gnawed, and might fall.
We live near water. Nice to sit at the end of the day and look at this water with trees reflected in it.
In one of the trees an American Bittern stares down at you. This wading bird should be in reeds, but it’s up a tree. Birds do what they want.
There are orioles and tanagers in these shoreline woods. Phoebes, too. They like to hunt over the water and return to a hanging branch. You see Belted Kingfishers sometimes.
And Red-winged Blackbirds very often. You might think these are so common they’re boring. But they never get boring. None of this stuff gets boring.
The neighbor said the powers that be in this community are thinking of hiring a beaver removal service. “Humane relocation” guaranteed. A claim that makes your BS detector go off.
But if more trees get chewed, it could come to that. Leave it to the beavers. Let’s hope they relocate on their own.
When you’re out in the deep woods, you might focus on a woodpecker, and discover there’s a porcupine on the next branch.
Or you look at vultures picking at something in a clearing, and notice that a coyote is looking back at you from the tree line.
It’s good to get out where the birds are. More than good. It’s wild.
While birding, you might see muskrat, beaver, mink, snapping turtles, alligators. You’ll come across deer, a sure thing.
Could be you’ll see snakes, moose, elk, fox, antelope, javelinas, armadillos, wild sheep, maybe a bear.
You might spot a Pine Marten, if you’re lucky.
Marten sounds like a bird’s name. When you talk about it later, people think you’re talking about a Purple Martin, something like that.
But it’s no bird. It’s a predatory mammal, all fur, teeth and claws. It hunts in trees, and is rarely seen.
“Pine Marten” is also the name of a fiction piece in our Stories section.
Well, we call it fiction. But, like everything mentioned here, it comes from real life.
Stereotype breaking took an audible twist today.
We already know that the whole point of this website is to break the stereotype that bird watchers are dweeby.
They’re wildlife explorers of all kinds and can’t be pigeon holed. This is made clear on our home page, and in the short essay about our name.
But back to the audible twist.
A guy you met today, no dweeb, says, “Damnit, I’m not seeing the birds I’m hearing!”
He chugs the rest of his beer, crushes the can like a paper cup, then goes on.
“I heard a Black-capped Chickadee, Cardinal, Northern Oriole, Hermit Thrush…”
And he names some others.
Then says, “I didn’t have binoculars, wasn’t near feeders, and the trees are too thick. All I could do was hear ‘em.”
It was a complaint. But you took it as a testament to this guy’s ears and his knowledge of birdcalls.
You think to yourself, hey, a new twist in stereotype breaking: the Two-Fisted Bird Listener.
A while back, you were in a Chicago bar. Through an alley window you 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.
You 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 and kids, pizza, workouts, 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 you got an email from this guy with some excitement in it. He wrote: “Hey, 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.
Saturday April 27. Dateline: the couch. There’s a sprained back in the picture, but you’re too busy to care about it.
Because you’re doing two kinds of bird watching.
One: you’re looking out the window. There’s been floodwater out there recently, so you’re seeing an uncommon Caspian Tern circling. He’s lost or nuts. You’re not on the Caspian Sea.
Two: you’re 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? You saw it through your window, a sighting appreciated in Illinois. But it wasn’t the rarest of the day. Not with Nate Robin…son making a kind of rare bird life-list this season.
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.
Dave Brubeck died a few weeks ago. Saw this while working at my computer. Hell. Brubeck.
Well, the guy lives on in a jazzy, smoky, boozy, sexy, moody and rhythmic corner of your mind.
What’s the connection between Brubeck and going hiking? Why mention him on a birdwatching website?
There’s not much smoky, boozy, jazzy stuff happening in the woods.
At least Charlie Parker, also a jazz great, was named “Bird.” But wait.
When I heard Brubeck split the scene, I decided to take a break and walk in the wild for a while. I left work, left my computer with its news of the day, and got into the day.
Brubeck’s quartet made “Take Five” immortal. Even better, it was on an album called “Time Out.” These escapist titles send a clear message.
Maybe they’re the connection. Or maybe it just feels right to put a few words down about a guy whose wild talent will never stop being appreciated.
In any case, I took five.
~ ~ ~
A moody poet. Not a two-fisted subject.
A hard-hitting NFL team—beer, blood, touchdowns, tailgating, cheerleaders. That’s a two-fisted subject.
There’s a connection. Just wait.
But, why would someone who’s interested in birds care?
Okay: A while back the Cleveland Browns left Cleveland, pissing off their fans, and moving to Baltimore.
The team got a new name.
It was inspired by a long-dead, long-haired poet. Edgar Allan Poe, a Baltimore boy. His famous poem is “The Raven.”
Baltimore named their team: The Ravens.
They’ve been fun to watch from the start. They even won a Super Bowl in January, 2001, defeating the Giants 34 to 7. And they’re off to a great start this season.
The Ravens are a ravenous, bone-crunching, smart and fast team. Two-fisted birdwatchers like it.
Poetry, football and birds. Three very different things, all meeting on the same playing field. What a kick.
Double-crested Cormorants look like danger. They ride low in the water, unlike other swimming birds.
You see one. Then it submerges, and you lose sight of it. Keep watching. It’ll surface somewhere else.
But, you won’t see much body; just a long, skinny neck.
Like a periscope.
Today, I watched a Double-crested Cormorant on a forest pond, diving for fish.
A fascinating, two-fisted hardass. It reminded me of a comic book cover from another generation.
I’ve written about these comics before.
Their name caught my eye for obvious reasons.
And speaking of names, this diving, hunting bird needs a better one.
Forget the double crests. They’re usually not visible.
And what does “cormorant” mean, anyway?
No, this bird should be called “The Submarine Bird.”
A guy emails that he saw a blue Cardinal. What gives?
A Steller’s Jay comes to mind. But those birds live three thousand miles west of the guy’s town in Maine. Can’t be.
Still, birds don’t always play by the rules.
What if a Steller’s Jay took a nap in the back of an 18-wheeler at a Utah rest stop? The trucker drives off and four days later the bird flies out in Maine.
Or… Maybe a guy in Maine is spray painting his garage blue. A Cardinal flies through the spray. Unthinkable?
Ed Abbey said, “The unthinkable is always thinkable.”
Okay. Two theories so far. Maybe the bird’s a hitchhiking Steller’s Jay. Or it’s a red Cardinal that got painted by a spray gun.
You have a better idea?
FOOTNOTE (May, 2015): The above post was written in June of 2012, and seemed interesting at the time. How could a Steller’s Jay be so far out of its range?
Since then, we occasionally hear from readers who honestly report “blue Cardinals.” Comments from these people are shown below. We received one just this week.
We have no idea what’s going on. Are these all Steller’s Jays? Are they really blue Cardinals?
This is a question for experts. If an expert should happen to stumble across this site, and see all the comments below, we hope that person will shed a little light on the subject.
Meanwhile, thanks for your observations.
The two bits that follow, “Tits” and “Flicker,” are shortened versions of stories published a while back in different parts of this website. They’re here now because when I wrote them I described time spent with my dad. And, well, it’s Father’s Day.
I’m ten years old, and my dad and I are driving to a White Sox game. I’m happy. Going to see baseball, get hot dogs, hang out with my dad.
As we’re waiting for a light I see a Tufted Titmouse in a tree. Never saw one ‘til then. I say, “Hey, a titmouse.”
My dad thinks all birds are called birds. Maybe some are called chickens or turkeys, and I guess he’d know an eagle, but he doesn’t get into it more than that.
“A what mouse?”
I’d recently been forced to study birds in school so I knew this was a Tufted Titmouse. No big deal.
But it was the beginning of my being teased about birds.
Titmouse. My dad laughed a good belly laugh.
“We saw a titmouse today,” he’d tell friends.
Whenever I went hiking in the woods after that, I’d get: “Going to look for some tit-mice?”
This embarrassed me. I knew what tits were, the kind guys talked about in schoolyards. The kind I really wanted to see. But that wasn’t a family subject.
I guess my dad’s amusement over my knowledge of bird names contributed to my being a little defensive about bird watching.
This might be why I like to point out that it’s a two-fisted sport.
In any case, I’m glad I could make my dad laugh, and wish I still could.
My dad had signed us up for a nature hike led by a bossy guy in a ranger outfit.
I was ten, and looking for arrowheads. But I noticed an interesting bird in the underbrush.
It flew to a tall tree ahead of us on the trail. There was white on its back, a red dot on its head. And gold flashes under its wings.
I thought I knew what it was. We’d been studying birds in school that year.
I said to our guide, “What bird has yellow wings?”
This annoyed him. I was a punk looking for arrowheads. He sighed, “No bird.” And resumed lecturing to the adults.
I said, “What if it’s under the wings.”
“Son, no bird has yellow under the wings.”
Under my breath, I said to my dad, “Flicker.”
My dad, who would later tease me for life because I once identified a titmouse, looked at me, eyebrows raised.
He said, “What’d you call that guy?”
Eventually, we neared the tall tree. As the bird moved, yellow feathers under its wings became obvious.
Our guide noticed. He stopped the group and pointed, “Okay, everybody, up here we have something interesting…” As though he’d discovered it for us.
“Flicker,” I whispered to my dad again.
My dad gave me a look.
“Yellow-shafted,” I added.
My woods are a living clock. And the clock’s broken.
You usually know the time of year by the fullness of trees and the height of weeds. But, not always.
Right now, the overgrown, over-green woods are saying August, and it’s only early June. We’re experiencing premature summer.
The migration came early and it’s long gone. Everything’s quiet. Even the common birds are rare. But I saw one by luck this morning, unmoving on a fat tree.
It was a Blue Jay, the best of jays. I’ve seen Scrub Jays, Gray Jays, Steller’s Jays, almost all the jays. (In Europe, they even have a jay called a “Jay.” Not worth writing home about.)
There’s nothing as cool as a Blue Jay. Hot and cold blues, big and small stripes, a neck band, a crazy crest, a tail dipped in white.
Hadn’t seen one in a while.
I rarely see one in August, because that’s when birds sit more quietly. And in my June woods, like I say, it’s pretty much August. The clock’s out of whack, running fast.
Two interesting sightings: A woodland that’s lost its sense of timing. And a Blue Jay. I liked seeing the Blue Jay.
On the nature channel there’s a flock of Snow Geese. I switch to the NBA playoffs. The geese can wait.
But when I get to the game, something’s a little too similar.
Fans filling the seats remind me of the geese milling on the tundra. Not cool.
Today’s conformist crowds dress alike. In a recent Oklahoma Thunder game, everyone wore white shirts.
Earlier in the season, another team’s fans all wore yellow. Or all blue. In Miami, the shirts are all white.
Reminds you of the Star Wars movie, “Attack of the Clones.” Legions of sameness. How can American basketball fans sit there looking like clones?
This all came up because Snow Geese like to collect by the thousands and get filmed.
We don’t know what bird-brained ideology they follow. But it’s not followed by wise owls or other self-respecting birds, including the Scarlet Tanager that made my day last week.
If you’re going to a playoff, lose the conformity. It might be okay in flocking birds. But not in a flockin’ sports fan.
I park on a dirt road in the wild. I change into mud-crusted boots, and head out. I’ve got a pebble in my boot, but screw it.
I pause to look at a Song Sparrow on a nearby bush. Almost not worth stopping for this ordinary bird.
Through the binoculars, something tiny in the far distance catches my eye.
I shift focus, looking past the bush.
An Indigo Bunting sits in the open, and in the sun.
Not a rare bird, but colorful. Like a runway light at O’Hare.
Wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t focused first on the brown sparrow.
On the trail again. Lots to see. Eastern Kingbirds and Bluebirds. Tree Swallows near trees. Barn Swallows near a farm.
A pair of dragon flies, tangled and mating. Good; we can use more in a summer of mosquitoes.
And a Northern Flicker flew over, contradicting something I’d written about this bird being largely unseen around here.
But the best view of the day was the small Indigo Bunting. A bird that was only noticed because I looked past a different one.
All would have been better, though, if it hadn’t been for that damn pebble.