Stopover.

December 20th, 2012

By Nath Jones

Nath Jones is a writer in Chicago. She wrote that she grew up with bird watching parents. She explained that they listened to bird call records all day, planned family trips around migration paths, spent hours silent in idling cars, and almost all family traditions involved birds in some ways. She wrote to say that she’s got a bunch of ideas for guest essays. And sent the following…

~     ~     ~

A year ago I took my mother to the Bahamas to see the birds for her birthday.

Our guide was a thin woman who’d raised her children on a sailboat. We definitely wanted to see as many species as possible. She had lots of locations for us: wetlands near Atlantis, quiet roadside stops near construction areas, a path with some grassy clearings at the headquarters of the Bahamas National Trust, and an elderly woman’s backyard.



My father was an avid birdwatcher so I’m familiar with behavior like standing stock-still and silent in a parking lot, looking up into dense trees, listening. I’m familiar with rushing along a path after a fluttering something. And scanning a focused area through binoculars came right back even though I hadn’t really been birding since well before my father’s death in 2005.



But going to this elderly woman’s backyard in the Bahamas was really something.

When you pay a guide for a tour—like, say, a winery tour, or a tour of local architecture—you’d expect to be ushered from one place of significance to another.

But when our guide made a quick cell phone call, turned down a residential street, and parked abruptly near a nondescript house, my mother and I just sort of looked at each other. Like, “What’s happening?”



Now. When I was a kid in a small town in Indiana, yes, we had a nondescript house with a bird feeder out back. And. Yes. Over the years many wonderful birds stopped in our backyard. We enjoyed watching them from the kitchen table during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But. Even if my father were a very good birdwatcher, even if that bird feeder were the main focus of our interest and afforded us almost all our mealtime conversation, our house was never a stopping point on any ecotour.



Anyway. Mom and I are curious enough and polite enough that, of course, we got out of the car in the Bahamas on this residential side street. And. Yes. Okay. Fine. We nervously followed our guide who rushed right into the backyard.



We took our seats in lawn chairs against the house. Five feet in front of us were about twelve different kinds of feeders. There were hanging columns like our finch feeders. There were flat, open, square-screened frames hung in trees. They swung gently under the weight of birds landing and taking off. Ropes and twine and clotheslines ran in all directions from bush to bush, feeder to feeder, so all the migrants had plenty of places to rest.



So. There we were.  At someone’s house in the Bahamas.

With hundreds of warblers and finches and little flitting, chatting, busy, hopping birds: Cuban grassquits, American redstarts, bananaquits, and several red-legged thrushes.

The elderly woman who owned the house came out for a few minutes. She was in her housecoat and slippers. Sat with us. Indicated a few favorites. Especially the bright, beautiful red, indigo, and green male painted bunting.

Mom pointed, thrilled. I took a picture.

Pine Marten

November 2nd, 2012

I saw a Pine Marten. Mac thought I was talking about a bird. He’s no birder. It’s not a bird, but a big weasel. You don’t see it most places. It made my day.

We were a thousand miles from a city, a hundred miles from a real town. Every once in a while you’ve got to get into the backwoods. For the birds, and for other animals.

We’d seen Pileated Woodpeckers and Bald Eagles. There were porcupines and coyotes. I’d been hoping for a bear. Mac wasn’t hoping for anything except time away from his job and his wife.

After dark, we went into a roadhouse. It had beer signs and a stuffed bear over the bar, posed to look fierce, but looking instead like a young bear shot for no reason.

We had a few beers. We didn’t look different from the locals, but we stood out. Here, everyone knows everyone. They know if they don’t know you.

A pale, plump girl tended bar. She asked if “you boys was up here fishin’.”

Mac said we were watching birds. He’s feisty Irish. Even though it was true, what he said, he knew it didn’t fit here. I guess I mumbled something about looking for bears, if there were any that hadn’t been shot young.

We drank and thought about burgers, but no menu was offered. A table of four guys might’ve been staring. Big guys, with sawdust on their jeans.

Mac and I grew up in Chicago. We knew when the air had a charge we didn’t like. We paid the pale bartender.

As we drove out of the gravel parking lot, those four guys came through the door. They went to a car. Could’ve been they were just calling it a night.

Mac and I said nothing. I drove up the 2-lane. The forest was heavy on both sides. In my rear-view, headlights shone. They’d come out of the roadhouse lot, heading toward us.

I got it up to about fifty, and was interested in what might appear in our lights. Sometimes we’d see a coyote on the road this time of night. Might be a wolf, but wolves don’t travel alone.

I’d been hoping to see a real bear on this trip. Not a stuffed one. That would’ve been a jackpot, even topping the Pine Marten.

Mac popped a beer from the cooler we kept in the back and relaxed. No radio up here, or we’d have tuned in some rock.

Two headlights, like eyes in the distance, hung behind us.

After a while, the road curved into a hairpin switchback and the rear view mirror went dark. We were out of the line of sight of any car that was behind us, and we’d be that way for a bit.

I sped up, as I reached behind me for a beer.

A logging road appeared on the left and I cut the wheel, getting onto it fast, popping open my beer with one hand. I made a 3-point turn in there, then headed back to the 2-lane and went in the opposite direction from where we’d come

“Pine Marten,” I said. “That was a first.”

“Kinda bird, right?” Mac tipped his beer and smiled. A guy who cares nothing for bird names or rare weasels.

Mac sipped his beer and looked tired. It had been a long day. We were ready to get back to the fish camp where we’d rented a couple of cabins.

I had ticks to peel off my ankles. I had to phone my wife in the city and tell her all was cool, I’d seen Pileated Woodpeckers and a Pine Marten. She’d think the marten was a bird, but I was too tired to care.

We rounded the hairpin curve, and saw the car coming at a good clip. Its two headlights heading up the road. Our two going down it now. Just cars driving in opposite directions.

They sped past. Maybe they were looking for red taillights up ahead. Maybe not. Mac and I drank our beers, and didn’t give a shit.

~     ~     ~     ~

Ravens.

October 17th, 2012

A moody poet. Not a two-fisted subject.

Edgar Allan Poe

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.

 

Bread Birds.

August 28th, 2012

Awright! After going silent for about ten months, the curiously named character, Bob Grump sends in another guest essay. He’s usually on a rant about one thing or another, and they’re not always friendly or popular. But, this time he’s in a gentler mood. Must be because his belly’s full. 

~     ~     ~

By Bob Grump

We lived in a crummy apartment building in a crowded city neighborhood near Wrigley Field, this ballpark beloved as it is by us in Chicago. And by most Americans.

It’s where the Cubs played crummy ball season after season, year after year.

And in our neighborhood of brick walls, alleys, courtyards, narrow streets, cars, buses and garbage cans, there were birds.

Little brown things. We didn’t know they had names. Well, yeah, they had names: birds.

I know now what they were, but who the hell really cares? Naming birds is a form of pedantry, isn’t it? You might not agree at first. But in your heart, well, maybe.

Using the word pedantry is a form of pedantry, too. Damn it. Can’t get away from this kind of thing. It’s a loop. Which brings me back to Chicago.

Okay, we fed these little brown birds. Ma Grump, my mother, took store-bought, cheap and supposedly unhealthy bread slices, and tore them into squares. She put these on the concrete outside our windows and doors, and let the birds come.

I was a little rug rat of three, four or five, and I watched. Big eyes. I liked the bread. I liked the birds. I liked my mom for giving our bread to them.

I knew that they were tasting what I had tasted that morning at breakfast, and that day at lunch. Good American factory-packed white bread, sliced and soft and mass-produced, wrapped in a plastic bag and tied with a string tie.

A wonder, that bread. A Wonder, literally.

"....sourdough?"

Loved it then. Still do. And it drew birds to our concrete world so I could watch them up close. The birds were, and are, wild animals.

I’d rather we’d lived over a river in India and tossed scraps to tigers and cobras.

Or that we lived on the edge of the Congo and fed hyenas, apes, skulking leopards, and I could see them.

But, there, at that time, in our gritty city, the birds came. For our bread.

Right now, I’m not thinking so much about those birds, long dead—their life spans being just a few years.

No, I’m thinking about store-bought crappy, bad-for-you, soft, sweet, damp white bread, and how Ma Grump cubed that bread in compassion.

She brought the birds to us. I watched. But this isn’t some sappy appreciation of bird life. It’s a sappy appreciation of mass-market white bread.

This stuff is much maligned by the sanctimonious who like earthy bread that tastes like it’s made of sand.

And it’s maligned by those who think spoiled bread—otherwise known as “sourdough” is somehow better. Bullshit.

The best bread on the market is still the soft squeezable store bread that’s white and damp and sweet. It’s a pleasure that’s overlooked, ignored and disrespected, just like the hardy little brown sparrows it once fed in our crummy city neighborhood.

Sparrows that had white wing bars and black throats for reasons no person will ever understand.

I had a sandwich tonight, made of such bread. It made me think about how we don’t appreciate the mundane beauties.

A better name.

August 7th, 2012

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.”

Our two-fisted name.

July 14th, 2012

The idea of a two-fisted birdwatcher came about because the image of bird watching needed toughening up.

Bird watching can be a wilderness boot camp.

There are bugs, bears, thorns, mud, toothless people with shotguns, all kinds of adventures.

To say nothing about Bald Eagle nests that make you climb trees. Great horned Owls that make you prowl the night.

And Clark’s Nutcrackers that drive you up a mountain.

It’s for the hard-bitten, mosquito-bitten, tough and hard-hitting.

The phrase, “two-fisted” means just that: “hard-hitting,” according to the dictionaries.

It also works pretty damned well for those interested in birds, because binoculars are gripped in two fists. 

In addition to binoculars, drinks are sometimes gripped this way.

That’s why there’s the colorful phrase: “two-fisted drinker.”

Fun pictures of these characters are on Google images.

There’s a pizza joint in Colorado named “Two-Fisted Mario’s.”

I wouldn’t mess with Mario.

Old boxing films used the phrase, too.

But the most illustrative, and illustrious, use of “two-fisted” can be found in the pulp fiction world from the mid last century.

There’s a website that revels in this stuff.

Shown here are a few samples of what you can find there.

We thought our logo was cool.

Then we saw these forerunners of Indiana Jones adventures.

The exploits in “Two-Fisted Tales” may be history.

But, the wilderness, with its timeless, trackless forests, prairies, mountains, deserts, rivers, animals and birds, isn’t history.

And, as long as all this is out there, we’ve got our own two-fisted tales to keep discovering, experiencing, writing and reading about.

The case of the naked jaybird.

July 8th, 2012

You’d be surprised what people ask a bird detective. Or maybe not. It’s hard to surprise yourself these days.

But this case isn’t about being surprised. It’s about a silly simile…

I was meeting a college professor buddy for a drink. He usually has all the answers. This time the prof turned the tables.

“Got a bird question.”

I said what no detective should say. “Shoot.”

“This morning, after my shower,” he said, “I walked into the kitchen with no clothes on.”

He added, “Been workin’ out. I’m proud of the old bod. But my wife gives me this shocked look.”

I sipped my shot and beer, a current combo of choice.

“Well, you were giving her a look,” I said.

“Then my wife shouts the words I need to ask you about. She says: ‘Why are you walkin’ around naked as a jaybird?’

Hmm, I think, interesting…

The prof slaps the bar and says, “Where’d that expression come from? Solve that, and your next boilermaker’s on me.”

This got me thinking about why a shot and beer is called a boilermaker, another mystery.

“Meet me here tomorrow.” I said. And get ready to buy.

I went to the detective’s best friend, Mr. Google. He had nothing. Just theories: baby birds being naked, jailbirds being stripped, some others that were too bird-brained to mention.

Nobody knows where the freakin’ phrase started.

But nobody had asked a bird detective, until now.

Didn’t take me long to crack the case without even cracking a field guide.

I just thought of the last blue jay I’d seen.

Or the Scrub Jay in California, the Steller’s Jay in Arizona. Even a tan and blue Jay in Europe.

Each stuck out like a hooker at grandma’s bingo party.

The phrase “naked as a jaybird” came about because people noticed, as I have, that a jay is indecently exposed.

It’s so loud in color and voice, that it can’t hide. It’s uncovered, revealed, naked to the world, wherever it goes.

Naked as a jaybird.

The prof will recognize the naked truth. But will he honor our deal and buy the boilermaker? I have no doubt.

The only doubt I have is that I’ll get to the origin of the phrase “boilermaker.” That’s my next job. But, before I start, I’ll need to soak up a little research.

Hot and Bothered.

July 3rd, 2012

I’m standing on the north shore of a small, woodland lake. The wind is blowing out of hell.

It’s a hot wind. But temperature is not the reason it’s from hell. This wind has come up here after blowing over Chicago, which sits to the south. It carries factory smells, car exhaust, burnt rubber from highway tires, greasy urban humidity.

A Green Heron comes in for a landing. His skinny wings stretch and slow him, like a jet on a carrier. He walks in the shoreline mud. Doesn’t see me because I’m not moving, just watching.

Green Herons are small for herons, but have the predatory beak and long legs. It hunches its shoulders, and is all eyes, looking for fish or frogs.

It’s got orange legs, white neck, a rusty body. What it doesn’t have is the color green. This bothers me.

Yeah, there might be a weak excuse for some vague greenish-gray on its back, but that doesn’t cut it.

Reminds me of another heron, another visitor to this lake, another misnamed bird. The Great Blue Heron. It’s tall as a big kid; with eagle wings, long legs and a sword beak. It’s gray, white and black. What it’s not is blue. It’s a great heron, okay, just not a great BLUE heron. That bothers me.

Not so green

When the wind is blowing out of hell, you get bothered by things.

Author Raymond Chandler wrote that when L.A.’s hot Santa Ana blows, “…it can…make your nerves jump and your skin itch…every booze party ends in a fight…”

I think about bird names on this day when the temperature’s pushing a hundred, and wonder what the hell caused some to be so wrong.

Herons are only part of it. The Great Crested Flycatcher isn’t great, and doesn’t have a crest. It’s pointy headed. But so are other flycatchers. Including one called a Peewee, which isn’t especially small.

Ever see a Red-bellied Woodpecker? The word “belly” is amusing in any bird’s name. But this guy’s belly isn’t red. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has a tinge of yellow near its crotch. But not much. You couldn’t even call it a Yellow-crotched Sapsucker.

The Bald Eagle’s not bald. It’s got a full head of thick, white feathers. The Golden Eagle’s not gold; it’s brown. And so it goes.

Sure, some birds have okay names. The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher works. Especially if you spot one catching gnats. And the Blue-footed Booby’s a good name, because it’s got blue feet, and c’mon: Booby.

The Green Heron takes off while I’m thinking this. Must’ve got tired of finding no food on my shoreline, or maybe he noticed me. He flew south, into the heat. He seemed comfortable, just another day at the office for him. He didn’t know he was called a Green Heron even though he’s not green. Or that the wind was blowing out of hell.

Why should he be bothered about such things? Why should I?

~    ~    ~    ~

These thoughts were originally expressed with slightly different words in a Daily Sightings post about two years ago, also written during a heat wave. 

The blue Cardinal.

June 20th, 2012

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, 2017): 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?

stellers-jay

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.

Two for Father’s Day.

June 16th, 2012

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.

“Tits.”

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.

“Flicker.”

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.

Premature Summer.

June 9th, 2012

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.

Flock that.

June 6th, 2012

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.

Looking past.

June 2nd, 2012

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.

Unseen.

May 26th, 2012

Yesterday, I spooked some deer in my woods and saw their white tails flip as they ran.

This reminded me of a favorite bird I have not been seeing recently. The Northern Flicker. An un-sighting can be as noteworthy as a sighting.

What does a deer’s rump have to do with big tan woodpeckers that have black specks, yellow under their wings, and bluish heads with red spots?

Like deer, Flickers flash white at you as they take off.

There’s a big, bright patch on their lower back.

I don’t know why it’s there.

Girls have been highlighting their lower backs with tattoos for years. An attention-getting decoration. Maybe a Flicker’s white rump is also designed to grab attention.

Who’s to say? But, more important: who’s to see?

There are damn few Flickers around. Even the ornithologists call it a “decline.” I didn’t realize I hadn’t been seeing these birds until the deer’s white tails reminded me.

Flickers are among my favorites. That they’re largely unseen these days is disturbing. If you made a film called “Unseen,” people would think it was a scary movie.

FOOTNOTE:

The above post ran in May of 2012. Since then, it’s received a lot of comments, more than 100 at last count. One just recently came in, almost four years later. It’s good news that people are seeing Flickers, and when they Google them, they often wind up viewing this page. Thanks to everyone who commented, and told us that Flickers are alive and well.

Countdown.

May 23rd, 2012

I saw a Western Kingbird where Eastern Kingbirds live. A new bird for my life list.

This list is just a bunch of checks in my field guide. When I see a new bird, I find its picture and check it off.

There are many checks.

Even Alaskan, Caribbean and pelagic birds.

Along with vagrants like the Western Kingbird.

I like the term vagrant.

But, I’m starting to dislike the checklist.

Counting new things seems, at first, to be counting up. But up is the wrong direction. It’s really counting down.

When I bought a new car, I noticed the odometer counting up. But as I drove away, my car was going down in value, down in history.

A countdown.

When I put a check next to the Western Kingbird, I thought, okay, another new bird added.

Then, I thought: no, another bird subtracted from the future.

A bleak thought. But there’s a cure for bleak thoughts. Sit by a river in the woods, away from everything. And forget about counting.

Smell.

May 19th, 2012

I saw surprisingly few birds today, even though I was in the woods for hours. But I did have an observation.

Something on the birdless trails tweaked a memory of the last Bulls game. Might be the feel of a letdown, but that wasn’t all. There was a smell.

When I watched the Bulls I’d been eating onion pizza. Today, I smelled onion in the green woods. It was pretty strong, and got stronger when I stepped in the undergrowth.

A dimly remembered fact came to mind. This area has been known since pre-Columbian times for wild onions.

Some people call them leeks. Whatever, they have a distinctive smell. And they were growing strong where I was hiking.

The word “Chicago” is from a Native American language, and means “wild onion,” as you might have heard.

That’s a pretty sensible name. Unlike New York’s “big apple,” whose origin is murky.

There’s no redeeming bird-watching story to share after today’s hike. All I came out of the woods with was a great onion smell in my nose.

It made me look forward to lunch. And to my next visit to this place. The birding has got to be better tomorrow. And, besides, I like onions.

Edible.

May 16th, 2012

You came for the wild. You wanted to see birds in deep woods, not at feeders. You wanted the rugged, wild-ass ones, far from anything man-made.

The woods are bloated with green. But birds are strangely scarce. Instead, deer caught your eye. This happens sometimes.

Bird watching isn’t always about birds. It’s always about watching.

You watched the deer grazing in knee-deep foliage, and they watched you. You got into staring contests. Big animals, defiant, standing their ground. They chew, and your mind takes a hike of its own, on a weird trail…

You think about how these deer live in a place where everything’s edible. The whole world is food.

What would it feel like? You imagine hiking through woods where there are cheeseburgers on trees. Nachos and Oreos under foot, spaghetti on bushes. Streams of beer.

For deer, at this time of year, that’s their payoff after a freezing, hungry winter in this place.

Okay, you didn’t see birds today. You could go to the feeders near the lodge at the trailhead. There will be towhees, hummers, orioles, cardinals, cowbirds.

But you’re not in the mood. Today, you wanted birds that would say: “We don’t need your stinkin’ seeds.” You wanted wild ones.

So you stay with the deer in their edible world, and think wild thoughts.

Field Mark.

May 13th, 2012

Sparrows generally aren’t interesting. They’re drab, small, not much different from each other, and common.

Today I went to a wild field and saw a little brown bird. Sparrow. No need to define it further. But I looked through binoculars.

Wait. Not a Song Sparrow, which is what my guess was, since they hang out around here. Not a White-throated, White-crowned, Fox or House Sparrow.

Who cares? Just a sparrow. Then I noticed it had a strangely colored beak. Sort of pink. Bird books call that a field mark.

When I got home I leafed through my field guide’s sparrow section. Yeah, they had a sparrow with a pinkish beak. The rest of its field marks matched those I’d seen, too.

The field guide had identified my sparrow by pointing out its field mark, and I admit I found the moment interesting.

I got the buzz I used to get when I first started noticing that birds you see out in the world can be matched up to those in a book.

It was interesting, also, that the name of this bird with the distinctive field mark is: Field Sparrow.

Dark May.

May 10th, 2012

I haunt the woods along the river year ‘round. But in May they’re a little more active.

Example: warblers. Multi-colored birds that appeal to the collecting instinct. They don’t warble, though. Even if they did, the name’s insulting.

There are other May birds. Bright tanagers, orioles, hummers, thrushes, the springtime homecoming squad.

Uncharacteristically, this May I’m drawn to a bird that doesn’t fit with the cool kids.

It’s a creepy bird in a dead tree over the water. Prehistoric profile, hooked beak, beady eyes, snaky neck, long bony wings.

These wings are held open when the bird’s sitting and staring back at you.

It’s a Double-crested Cormorant. Not sure about the double crests; I don’t see even one. But it’s my May bird.

If Poe knew of it he would have canned his Raven and written “The Cormorant.” Although it’s probably harder to rhyme something with Cormorant. How about “mordant?”

I’ve been watching the Cormorant. He doesn’t leave.

Maybe other birds will break the mood he’s brought to this wild place. But, so far, it’s been a dark May.

Rethinking Ireland.

April 28th, 2012

On March 17, I put a semi-serious piece in Viewpoints: “A Bird Watcher in Ireland.”

It was about Ireland being interesting, but disappointing in bird diversity.

I wised up since then, because of a little book I’d forgotten.

In the clutter of my bookshelves, I recently came across “The Birds of Killarney National Park,” a souvenir from my Irish trip.

It was — no joke — skinny enough to be a joke. And it fit with my opinion about Ireland’s lack of birdlife.

But, I started looking through it. Unlike other bird books, which are fat and heavy, this one could be read in minutes.

And I got the feeling that each bird in the little book was a bigger deal than any one bird in bigger books. Because there weren’t that many.

"Irish Stonechat. That's big."

When you’re in America, you’ve got maybe 900 species to spot.

You’ve seen many, and you’re not likely to get blown away.

But in Ireland, there’s around 140, including visitors.

If you see even a Stonechat, hell, that’s big.

Point is: Too much choice can de-sensitize you. Less choice can make what you find…more of a find.

So, on reflection, Ireland’s a fine place for bird watchers. It’s not just about pubs, music, friendly people and awesome green landscapes.

It’s also about rare birds. Because there, most of them are.