“Daily Sightings” A Blog
Years ago, I was in my office on the 26th floor of a Chicago skyscraper, doing work profoundly unrelated to nature.
I had the feeling of being watched.
I looked over my shoulder.
On the other side of my window was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, clinging to the building, meeting my gaze.
The bird had picked my window. Not the window of some guy who wouldn’t know a sapsucker from his elbow.
I grabbed a cheap throw-away camera and got a picture.
The shot was poor. Dark and fuzzy. I found it yesterday, while cleaning out a desk.
Back when I saw the sapsucker, I had the momentary feeling that it sought me out, personally.
Looking at the old picture, I still wondered about that.
But shook off the thought.
Just chalked it up to the simple truth that sometimes you watch the birds, sometimes they watch you.
Winter has been brutal.
Cardinals, woodpeckers, juncos, sparrows, nuthatches, jays and others are poking through snow-covered ground for seeds.
Some birds have snow on their heads. It coats their feathers. These cold birds don’t care. They’re all business, brisk business. Maybe, when summer comes they’ll relax.
But, what if it doesn’t come?
In 1816, it didn’t come. That year, summer took a summer vacation. You can look it up. North America, Europe, the whole world, lost a whole season.
There was snow in June, frost in August. Crops failed. People moved. Skies were sunless and cold. In England, Mary Shelley got so depressed about it, she wrote the dark novel, “Frankenstein.”
But our serious, snowy birds aren’t depressed, and they aren’t thinking about summer. They’re thinking only this: one seed at a time, one day at a time.
They don’t have time for the future. Today is all there is.
I took this picture years ago. And I think I’ve looked at it a thousand times.
The deer was trying to hide, but the tree was skinny, and she wasn’t.
I keep the photo in my workout room, and smile at it every day while doing leg stretches against the wall where it hangs.
It just doesn’t grow old.
This gets me wondering about why we stay interested in the same things. Why we do something a thousand times.
I saw an American Kestrel on a wire.
I stopped the car, pulled off the road onto a snowbank, got my binoculars, and looked.
The hawk looked back, saying with penetrating eyes; “What you lookin’ at?”
I thought it could just as well have been saying “What you still lookin’ at’?”
Because I’ve seen a thousand Kestrels.
After the first, you have lost your Kestrel virginity. But you don’t have to lose your interest.
Maybe some day I’ll quit looking at the same things. Quit doing the same things. Quit the same job. Maybe quit this blog.
Maybe not. After all, what’s better than doing something a thousand times? Doing it a thousand and one times.
Bird watching might’ve started as a compromise.
As a kid you’d have preferred lions, crocodiles, gorillas.
But in the prairies and backyards near Chicago’s steel mills you didn’t get lions. Just birds
You saw a rare Purple Gallinule. That started it. Then Ring-necked Pheasants. And herons.
Migrating wood warblers, too, although screw their picky little names.
You got Red-tailed Hawks. Barn Owls in dark alleys. You saw a Scarlet Tanager, a tease from the tropics in town for a visit.
Turkey Vultures hung over the municipal dumps on that far south side of town. And a Bald Eagle, once in a blue moon.
You figured that if you ever went on a safari, you’d watch the real wild things. Hyenas, cheetahs, pythons. And you’d put birds on the back burner.
Now, you see it differently. It’s a fierce twelve below zero, and your yard’s full of beasts.
Cardinals, Blue Jays, Fox Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, White-breasted Nuthatches.
Watching them might’ve started as a compromise, but it’s not like that anymore. These guys are fierce. Hell, it’s twelve below, and for them it’s just another day on the job.
There are trees in front of a suburban office building. They’re leafless, but have red berries.
A flock of Cedar Waxwings has found them. You sit in your car and watch from the warmth behind your windshield.
In addition to the novelty of waxwings, you see the oddity of flock behavior.
The birds are eating berries, or just squinting into the wind, freezing their butts.
Then, bam, all take off, only to regroup a minute later.
Seems the flock has a mind belonging to it alone, not any one member.
You think: whose idea was it to take off? Then to circle around and come back? Why did the others follow that guy? Or was there even one guy?
Maybe the flock itself is the one guy.
Flocks behave as though they have a central nervous system. Science has studied this, and come up scratching its itchy scalp.
You shake off these thoughts and leave the car. Time to go into the office building and observe another kind of flock behavior.
This morning, real life looks like a still photo. I’m by a pond. Barely sunup. The sky’s reddish behind the trees.
The pond is flat ice. I don’t mind the cold, the quiet. Or the emptiness. But usually, there’s something moving.
Juncos in the leaf litter. A squirrel. Once I saw a coyote on a morning like this, exhaling smoke. Now, nothing.
This must be what Mars is like. I wanted to go there when I was a kid reading science fiction. Today: screw Mars and its lifelessness.
We’ve got all the lifelessness we can handle, right here on this planet, on this pond, on this morning.
Then, wait. A bird flies from treeline to treeline. A familiar profile, a familiar wingbeat. An American Robin.
Robins used to be our signal that warm weather was coming after a long winter.
Today, it’s the only movement by a frozen pond at the start of winter.
The irony is interesting. But it doesn’t make this place less bleak. Well, maybe a little.
Recently, a friend went paragliding off a mountaintop. Said there was a vulture nearby in the sky. They shared an updraft.
This reminded me of Ed Abbey, who praised the Turkey Vulture, a bird that “…contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height.”
In his book of essays, “Down the River,” Abbey wrote that if there were reincarnation, he’d like to come back as a Turkey Vulture.
Not a bad idea. You have to admire a free-wheeling vulture, observing everything, threatening nothing, powerful, but not in the business of hurting, surviving on ready-to-eat food.
But a vulture’s diet isn’t worth dwelling on. The lazy soaring, now that’s the thing. Might be nice to own the sky like that. And for a moment, I thought: gotta look into doing some paragliding.
Then I thought: …maybe not. Strapping on a parachute and helmet, dealing with the harnesses, buckles and belts—eh, I don’t know.
Guess I’ll stay down here and admire the Turkey Vulture’s natural soaring. Just like I admire Ed Abbey’s natural writing.
Most contact with wild things is interesting. But eye contact is personal.
I was reminded of this when a friend sent me a photo of a bear taken in a relative’s backyard. The animal’s frank gaze reminded me of a few experiences with stares.
In the woods recently, thought I was alone. Then I noticed a coyote standing not far, watching. His brown and gray colors blended into the November trees. We made eye contact, and held it.
Then he’d had enough, and trotted off.
Near an icy pond last year I saw a Great Blue Heron. He turned to look down his nose at this guy with the noisy boots. We locked eyes. After a while, I hiked on.
And once, in a forest near Lake Superior, it was just me and my old camera on an empty trail. Or so I thought. Then a big-bellied guy holding a hunter’s slingshot came out from behind a tree. We made eye contact.
But we broke it, and went our separate ways. The bear made me think of all that.
From your car on the way to work you see a Blue Jay. Juncos. A Yellow-rumped Warbler. You’re not even on a hike. You ditch work and head to the woods.
No birds. Nothing. Just a lot of empty trees and fallen leaves. The leaves crunch when you step on them. You get a little mad. Mad at the woods.
Wait: that’s crazy. The woods didn’t do anything. They’re just being what they are, with or without birds. Quiet trees, noisy leaves.
And the woods don’t care that you’re mad. They don’t need you in them. Birds don’t need you there. You ditched work, and the woods couldn’t give a rat’s ass.
This makes you mad at yourself, and the woods, too. You cut your losses and hike out.
As you near the trailhead you see a Turkey Vulture. He’s looking down on you. You figure he’s thinking that if you don’t cool off you might become a nice meal.
This makes you smile. But, just because you’re smiling, doesn’t mean you’re going to forgive the woods. They don’t get off that easily.
You have a hands-off philosophy about nature. You say: Don’t cull suburban deer, don’t trap coyotes, don’t chase off geese and crows; don’t hire an animal removal guy to get rid of a beaver.
This is how you feel while sitting on a log, deep in the woods by a riverbank. But…
Yeah, but. Here’s a ‘but’ you didn’t see coming. Back home, a skunk moves in under your house. It’s a four-legged tear gas canister, and its smell gets in every room.
You remember a picture you saw in an old bird book: a Great Horned Owl had caught a skunk. The owl’s huge talons pinned it against a tree limb, and the owl was about to dig in.
Maybe you felt a little sorry for the skunk, skewered that way.
But…now, as you air out the house you’re thinking: screw the skunk. Screw your hands-off philosophy.
You’re gonna have to look up that animal removal guy. Unless a Great Horned Owl gets over here and starts doing his job.
There’s a big apple tree nearby. Many of its apples have dropped as they do this time of year.
The fallen fruit used to attract bees. You had to watch your step. You could get stung. But, there are no bees now.
There’s another big tree not far from here. Unlike the apple, it’s dead. Branches look like claws. And it’s full of cormorants, a whole colony.
Cormorants used to be uncommon. Your neighbor would say—hey, look, a vulture. Privately, you’d think: nope, that’s an odd bird called a Double-crested Cormorant.
This fall, you’ve got these two trees to wonder about.
One’s alive and full of fruit, but uncommonly free of bees. The other is lifeless, and uncommonly full of cormorants.
Once, our part of the world had many bees and few cormorants. What’s going on? That’s up to science to figure out, if it can.
Meanwhile, the common old thought hits again: change happens—get used to it.
(Episode one appeared here on August 9 of this year).
A beaver’s chewing trees around the lake. Homeowners want to chip in and hire a trapper.
One neighbor says: hell no.
He moved here to be around herons, geese and ducks, sandpipers, tanagers and thrushes, owls, deer, muskrat, skunk, possum, raccoon, mink, coyote, fox, snakes, and if need be, beaver.
He gets outvoted. A trapper soon catches a 40-pound beaver, befuddled in a cage.
The dissenting neighbor won’t pay his share of the trapper’s bill, causing dissent. But why should he pay?
One answer: democracy rules. Second answer: ever hear about the “tyranny of the majority?”
The opinion from the Two-Fisted Birdwatcher legal department is simple: there’s nothing simple about the situation.
We feel bad for the neighbor, bad for the lost trees, bad for the beaver. What to do? Go bird watching.
Later, deep in the woods where trees naturally live or die, a woodpecker hammers in the distance.
You search for it, moving further away from people and the complications of democracy.
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.
My son reminded me that we’d argued years ago about rushing to get him a fast-food meal advertised as a limited time offer.
I never liked limited time offers.
Went into the wild to clear my mind. This doesn’t always work. The quiet woods can be a philosophy classroom if you’re not careful.
The thought hit that Scarlet Tanagers are a limited time offer. I missed mine this summer.
Hell, it doesn’t stop with birds. Sunday’s NFL game had a former player doing analysis. He looked nothing like the jock we remember. He looked like my wife’s Uncle Louie.
Even the blond bombshell who sings the NFL theme song got replaced by a younger blond bombshell. Face the music: we’re all limited time offers.
It took a Great Blue Heron to get my mind off this stuff.
We stared each other down. He was unflappable. We know he won’t stay when ice comes. But his eyes said he doesn’t give a crap about limited time.
Gotta be more like him. While there’s time.
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.
I 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 my mind.
I thought 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 to know for sure.
In case you want to do that, there’s another kind of link. You can click the last word in this post, and you’ll be taken there.
It’s just a piece of 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.
Low clouds, steady drizzle. This Midwestern wildlife preserve has the feel of a rainforest. Heavily overgrown, shadowy and damp.
There are no birds. That’s okay. It’s August. It’s raining. You don’t expect birds.
You walk through a clearing and notice a broken, wooden fence.
Years ago, on a day that wasn’t gloomy like this one, you saw a meadowlark sitting there in sunlight. You remember things like that.
You also remember reading recently that Eastern Meadowlarks have declined by 70% in the last few decades.
Today, this wilderness preserve makes you think of the famously endangered rain forests we hear so much about.
But it’s nothing like them. It’s just a nature preserve on a rainy day.
Still, the thought hits: was that meadowlark the last one you’re going to see around here?
C’mon. A common Cardinal is a knockout.
It’s not officially called a “common Cardinal.” It’s officially known as a Northern Cardinal. But just the same, it’s pretty common.
Actually too common, and that’s the problem.
You see one at the side of the road or in the bushes next to your kitchen window and you don’t give it a second thought.
But wait. Give it a second thought.
If this bird were rarely seen, like, say, a California Condor, a Painted Bunting, a Pileated Woodpecker, a Golden Eagle, a European Goldfinch in an American meadow…it would stop traffic.
Not just because it’s got a pyramid-shaped beak, a black-patterned face, a long tail, a sharply pointed crest, but because IT’S ALL COMPLETELY BRIGHT RED.
So why the apathy toward Cardinals? Answer: they’re “common Cardinals.” You see them every day. You are Cardinal desensitized!
If you can figure out a cure for this, let’s hear from you.
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.
In the woods, you see a Phoebe. Reminds you of a dog named Phoebe. Good times.
Further down the trail: coyote scat. Reminds you of studying coyotes and collecting this in baggies which you kept in the freezer until your wife threw it out, and almost threw you out.
Okay—focus. You lean against a tree—best way to see birds. But ants climb aboard, and you do a little dance.
This reminds you of dance lessons reluctantly taken before a wedding. Couldn’t get the hang of it. C’mon. Clear your mind.
The effort to stop random thoughts reminds you of Zen. This reminds you of championship coach Phil Jackson. Which reminds you of basketball. Maybe you’ll shoot some hoops later.
Then you see an Eastern Kingbird in a clearing. A rare bird only because all birds are rare in the August quiet. But it reminds you of a comment from a nun in Dakota.
She saw an Eastern Kingbird next to a Western Kingbird on a wire. Eastern sat east and Western, west. A damn cool observation, but she didn’t say damn.
You go wandering and you might find birds. Your mind goes wandering, and who knows what it’ll find. No matter, you gotta go wandering.
You don’t see a lot of birds in midsummer.
Today, it was midsummer with a vengeance. Quiet. Just sun and bugs. Trees heavy with green. Tall grass in the prairie.
But there was a Red-tailed Hawk circling overhead. Like a kid with arms outstretched pretending he’s an airplane.
It wasn’t hunting. When hawks hunt they drop from a branch onto a squirrel. Or dive in fast to grab a duck. No, he was doing what he was doing just because it was fun.
Maybe he was looking at me and thinking: that guy’s doing what he’s doing just because it’s fun.
Most bird sightings are quick. But this went on. I got a slow look at this badass bird as it lingered over the clearing that it clearly owned.
The fanned out tail was backlit, showing some redness. The wings were wide and flat. The beak, curved and pointed. Talons were tucked-in, weapons not in use for the moment.
I wasn’t seeing a lot of birds today, but I was seeing a lot of bird.