“Daily Sightings” A Blog

A striking memory.

Monday, May 27th, 2024

You don’t see people strike matches much any more. When I was a kid, my dad would light a cigarette even when we were walking in the woods.

I remember hiking with him, and a few steps away a flash of flame would be there in the foliage as my dad’s match flared. It was gone in a blink. But the memory’s not gone.

I remember noticing something like that years later on a solo hike. The woods were green and thick. But there was a flash of hot orange amid the leaves for a moment.

I thought of my long-gone and fondly remembered dad starting up a cigarette for relaxation back in those days when people smoked and believed it was good for them.

But what I saw wasn’t a match. It was a bird, with patches of  hot red-orange, and it was there for a second. Then gone–a memorable moment. My first sighting of an American Redstart.

Its flash of color wasn’t my dad’s match but something as quick and elusive. If you’re lucky, you see one of the these birds passing through during spring migration. Around Memorial Day.

Blowing out of hell.

Tuesday, May 21st, 2024

Dateline: somewhere north of the windy city. A “flyway” according to ornithologists, good for birdwatching. But birding will take a back seat to this story.

Although a bird waits offstage to “strut and fret…a tale told by an idiot.” Snippet from Shakespeare, sorry. But the bird IS a tale told by an idiot, you’ll see.

For now, let’s talk about wind. Hot wind. Chicago is famous for things other than pizza. One is its chilling winter wind, called “the hawk” in folklore. Icy blasts off the lake into the city are appropriately predatory.

But there’s an opposite side to that. Take today. A day in late May. A mean south wind is gusting across Chicago and into the forested outskirts with hot vengeance. A wind blowing out of hell.

Don’t turn the air on in your house, the system will break. It’s 90 out there, and the wind is coming in gales. Screens blow in. Curtains flop and slap. Every bending tree is getting stripped of twigs.

You go down to a small woodland lake and face the wind out of hell.  Even sleeping naked tonight, you’ll be miserably hot.

But late in the day, as you let the blast furnace blow your hair, carrying all the pollutants of Chicago and points south into your face, courtesy of hell itself…you notice that bird mentioned earlier.

A Green Heron nosing along the shoreline. You’ve grouched about this bird’s name before, but cranky and sweaty in the gusts from hell you say again: damn, that Green Heron ain’t green.

It was a bird named by “an idiot.” You watch it strut and fret at the edge of that wind-tossed lake and think: sorry, kid—you’re hardly green at all. But birds make a decent distraction.

For a moment, you’re not pissed off about the wind straight out of hell. And you pity anybody looking for a Green Heron, expecting it to be green. Things don’t work that way in hell.

Not so green

Forget “naked.”

Thursday, May 16th, 2024

You have binoculars but haven’t been using them recently when looking at birds. This is known among birders as “naked birding.”

It’s widely practiced by the confident, complacent and otherwise preoccupied. You could look it up. And it’s not advisable behavior in the bird-busy season of spring.

Example: in a freshly greened-up suburban neighborhood, you see a flock of birds crowding and fussing around somebody’s backyard feeder.

As far as stopping to observe all this, a part of you feels: “Been there, done that.” You know there will be some late-leaving juncos, downy woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, the usual gang.

Besides, you’re not on a quest in the woods, but merely on a neighborhood dog walk. Still, you stop.

A slightly different bird in that crowd catches your eye. You linger.  You send a mental message to that interesting bird  saying, “Don’t move.” And make a quick trip home to get your binoculars.

Minutes later you return, not naked. Old habits don’t go away easily. You take a look, focus in…

Whoa. What? A Northern Waterthrush? Ovenbird? Swainson’s Thrush? Veery? It’s on the ground, this oddly reddish bird. Got interesting markings—maybe a Wood Thrush?

Focus, man. That’s no thrush; it’s a late-migrating Fox Sparrow. An old-time personal favorite, with its streaked front, rusty plumage and long tail. Been a while since you’ve seen one. The thought hits: maybe you’re the one who’s rusty, m’friend.

But now you’re feeling like your old self. Binoculars in hand, you’re not doing the “naked birding” thing. You’re a little energized. The way you like to feel, especially in spring around here. There’s a lot going on.

Yeah, every once in a while, you gotta bring the world into sharper view, close in on it, make it part of your day. You gotta get back to being the two-fisted birdwatcher you always were and still are.

Forget naked. Hell, you just saw a Fox Sparrow.

Early morning

Sunday, May 12th, 2024

Thanks to a guy named Thoreau, you might find yourself muttering in your mind something about a word that doesn’t exactly fit into a two-fisted lexicon and that word is “blessing.”

As another old-timer would have said, it doesn’t “roll up its sleeves, spit on its hands and get to work”. (Sandburg, writing about “slang”). Back to Thoreau. (You forget his first two names for a moment—guys of that era often went by a mouthful, no worries, they’ll hit later when you stop trying).

Back to excuse-making for the less than rugged word, “blessing.” But screw such self-editing. Thoreau said this: “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”

Two-fisted or not, that sticks in the mental library if early morning walks are a routine part of your routine. And if you have a dog who needs a daily reminder that he’s house trained, you get him the hell outside early. Like “still kinda dark.” “Crepuscular” early. A ritzy word also not in any two-fisted lexicon.

But forget about whether a word has muddy boots, and just say what’s going on. Like: every freakin’ morning at dawn, you’re out there walking the pooch. Watching the eastern sky lighten over the trees sometimes in orange glow and other times in silver, and you say: hell, Henry David, you nailed it.

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day. If the word fits, wear it. You do feel blessed to see the day start, dark then light. It’s blessedly quiet, too, and in all seasons dawn smells good. And you see birds. Sometimes deer. Once in a while a coyote stares before turning with a shrug and trotting off.

This morning, on your early morning walk, there was suddenly a silent presence moving over you and your dog, a flying machine of commanding size, owning the sky, stamping an image into your day…and you know it was a Great Blue Heron rising for reasons of its own, powerfully, soundless wingbeats putting a mark on the moment and disappearing.Blue heron in flight.

You don’t want to recite in your mind that quote from Thoreau, but it floats undeniable as the heron, low and quiet. Even your downward-sniffing dog has looked up, all eyes, which you read as unlikely canine “awe” but you believe it. And get on with your day, silently thanking Mr. Thoreau for his insight and the heron for his wingspan and the dog for being the reason you’re out there on an “early morning walk.”

~

“Early Morning” is a re-run. It appeared last November, one of our first posts after coming back from a hiatus. It was in the Viewpoints category and today it reappears in Daily Sightings. With a new photo. Nothing professional, just a spontaneous iPhone shot. This added photo spurred us to re-publish the piece with a nod to Henry David Thoreau and doing things we like more than once–such as our dawn walks.

Not a bird.

Saturday, May 4th, 2024

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.

Not a bird

~

Old-time two-fisted birdwatchers might remember this tale which still appears in Daily Sightings under a different title. After eleven years or so, maybe it’s worth a second look. And it even links to a slew of  short stories. For new readers, some things to discover in the wilderness of the present. 

Hike.

Monday, April 29th, 2024

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.

~

The above appeared in “Wild Notes – Observations about birds and other fleeting things,” a book published in 2015 by one of our writers.

 

 

But wait.

Tuesday, April 16th, 2024

It was a lousy week. The water heater cracked and flooded the basement. Home internet service kept going out. There were doctor appointments. But wait. Aren’t we going to talk about birds here? Is this a gripe column or a birding journal?

Yesterday April turned a corner. Sun warmed every bit of our world with light. A nearby lake looked like green glass. Turtles basked on logs. Canada Geese showed up, that old mix of the annoying and majestic.

But wait. That’s not what this is about. No, while still fretting about water heaters, internet service and doctors…something unexpected happened.

On this bright afternoon a Red-breasted Merganser popped up on that lake. There was its unmistakable elongated shape. Prehistoric beak. And spiky backward-tilting crest. Light and dark coloration with a reddish tinge. All that you know about a Merganser: there.

By some roll of the avian dice, it dropped in for a visit, floated around in odd-duck strangeness, and the odd duck standing on shore completely forgot—for a moment—about water heaters, internet failures and doctors.

A better name.

Saturday, April 6th, 2024

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.”

Dot.

Saturday, March 23rd, 2024

You’re driving on a gray four-lane outside of gray Chicago. There’s wet snow in the air and low clouds. Up ahead floats a living warplane soaring over the road, losing altitude.

It’s a large gull on wide wings. White-gray against the white-gray sky. Next to the road is a tall, narrow pole. Behind it, a strip mall and retention pond of flat gray water.

You notice the bird dip and bank, drop airspeed and calmly alight precisely on the pointed tip of the tall pole. You think: an incredible feat. Then: incredible feet. How did the bird land perfectly on just the pole’s top? There’s nothing much to grip up there.

Now, with folded wings the gull sits. Chest out, head back, calmly above it all. This gray-white flyer which you know is a local Herring Gull. You drive past. Tires swish on that wet street and the odd sighting is quickly history.

But the bird leaves you with a fitting ending. You think: it “dotted the I.”

 

No new birds.

Saturday, March 2nd, 2024

You get to a point where you’ve seen ‘em all. Just takes being in the game long enough. One afternoon a neighbor phones to tell you there’s a “Bald Eagle on the deck behind your house.” Huh? You look out the kitchen window. Eagle. Eye contact. It flies off with wide wings that make you recall scenes shot on an aircraft carrier.

And it goes on. A Pileated Woodpecker flies alongside your car not far away in place or time. You remember a Groove-billed Ani on a Caribbean Island and a White Wagtail in Scandinavia. The “Doctor Bird” in Jamaica, a storied long-tailed hummer.

“The boys are back…”

So much history. Bobolinks, Meadowlarks, Cuckoos. All the thrushes including routine robins from kid-hood on. Grouse, grebes and egret types. Pheasants and one wobbling Woodcock. Kestrels, falcons, most every kind of warbler, woodpecker and flicker, a passel of passerines! Including the flashy favorite tanagers.

So many checked off and remembered. The wish list became the life list. Your motive to score something new feels honestly extinct. You wonder if the thrill is gone.

Then yesterday you see a feisty Red-winged Blackbird, first one of early spring. Big male, waiting for female companionship to arrive. You take note of this. Why? A common sighting; you’ve seen a million in a life of two-fisted birdwatching. But you smile and hum: “The boys are back in town…” homage to the earthy rock classic by Thin Lizzy from the 1970s. A soundtrack to this moment. Who cares if there are no new birds; you’ve still got the old ones and they’ve got you.

Souvenir on a freezing morning

Saturday, February 24th, 2024

Your early morning dog-walk combined with late winter snow today, and brought you not just into a mundane Midwestern neighborhood, but also into Norway. Norway in your mind.

You’re no world traveler, but years ago circumstances allowed for a trip to this place of fairytales and fjords, far from the beaten paths of Paris, London or Rome.

You were in a Norwegian neighborhood with similar snow and silver sky. You’re mentally back for a visit. Now in two places at once. The place where you and your dog are rooted in reality…and the place where you once felt stupidly amazed at how “They have pine trees just like ours,” and “There’s a cottage with a picket fence, a Norman Rockwell scene, but we’re in freakin’ NORWAY.”

And so, yeah, you’re in the Midwest morning, but also in that other one far away in miles and time. There’s a bird there. Of course. This is a “Daily Sightings” column. It ranges free, but there are usually gonna be birds.

And the bird could be a real one, say a winter Robin on your neighbor’s lawn. But it also could be a memory, the “White Wagtail” you saw perched on that picket fence in front of the Norwegian cottage.

Fun to remember the moment, to see that non-American bird in your mind again. And to surprise yourself again by knowing its name.

You’re there in far-away Norway, on a hilltop street overlooking Oslo, while others in your party visit a nearby museum where they’ll come out marveling at Norse carvings or something.

But you have chosen a neighborhood walk. And you see a White Wagtail. Two things about this are notable. One: you’re there—a place you never thought you’d be on this planet. Two: you know the name of that bird.

How? Why? You’ve never seen one before. Only in “birds-of-the-world” books, probably. Maybe the Hall of Birds in Chicago’s Field Museum? You cannot imagine why you knew the name of that bird. Then, or even now. You just did, and just do. White Wagtail.

On this snowy morning north of Chicago, there it is again, this “memory-bird” joining you and your dog, a souvenir better than anything from a museum in that country of pine trees, Norman Rockwell scenes, friendly folk and birds that somehow—for unfathomable reasons—you know by name.

Back to the woods.

Saturday, February 17th, 2024

“Whose woods these are I think I know…” You do, huh? Okay, Robert Frost, I also know. They’re mine. And by the way, gotta say: you are one hell of a two-fisted poet. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a favorite around here. Maybe it’s the woodland setting. You’re good at taking us there—avoiding the “road not taken” if you don’t mind an allusion to another of your cool poems.

So, Robert, yesterday I’m in the frost-chilled woods. The “frost” thing has nothing to do with you, everything to do with February weather.

The woods are “mine” for reasons rooted in no legal ownership, other than spending a lifetime in their familiar wilderness that’s deep enough to attract the solitary Pileated Woodpecker. They’re a half-day out of Chicago along a river and broken by swaths of prairie, but mainly they’re old growth Eastern broadleaf forest, dense and lively. Plus, I’ve given names to many locations within them, a kind of “staking of claims,” which we’ll see.

I hadn’t been back for a bit—call it a hiatus—but it was like I’d never left. My woods hadn’t changed if you don’t count a few fallen trees. No, there were things I recognized, and realized with a smile that I’d named privately. You don’t forget something when you give it a name.

I hiked past places I’d dubbed “Dead Deer Fork” and ”Raccoon Vomit Trail.” There was “Fat Beaver Beach.” And one of my favorites, “Coyote-Stare Ridge”“ I won’t bore us with explanations. You can guess the origins of such names, especially if you’re a two-fisted woods walker yourself, with your own private grab bag of funky place names.

We’ll stop, but first, gotta give a quick nod to “Scarlet Tanager Cottonwood” and “Last Meadowlark Creek.” Plus it’s fun to mention “Praying Mantis Rock”…and the “Pileated Police Pullover” at an unforgettable weedy roadside.

Point is, you just can’t help remembering a place when it’s linked to a moment, and that becomes its “name.” After a bit of a hiatus, it was great to get back to the woods and revisit those names, still there in the quiet, dependable wilderness.

How and why to find a Mountain Bluebird

Monday, February 5th, 2024

 

Picture the Rocky Mountain wilds. If you’re not from around those parts, you’re not likely to have seen a little all-blue bird known as a “Mountain Bluebird.”

 You’ve seen other bluebirds (Eastern) and Jays (Blue) and Indigo Buntings (cool!). But your life list needs a Mountain Bluebird.

So on a trip West you drop out of society and spend a few rugged days wandering Colorado’s high country.

You get your shot of a Mountain Bluebird, but it sucks.

Your photography lacks skill. The subject is too far, and the focus is fuzzy. The little bluebird seems to know this, the way it glowers at you—eyes burning with disapproval. But you saw your Mountain Bluebird. And the photo, though poor, is proof.

Yeah, and while you were out there in the high country, you happened to snap a shot of a full-curl ram. You don’t see those guys back home. This shot—though still somewhat of an amateur effort, commands a bit more attention.

And you never would have gotten it if you hadn’t been roaming around the Rockies looking for a tiny blue bird. As the Two-Fisted Birdwatcher said somewhere, “it ain’t always about birds, but it’s always about watching.”

Cakes of fat

Saturday, January 20th, 2024

It’s freezing, and you’ve been buying cakes of fat.

Personally, you don’t mind the cold. Every breath is rich in oxygen. This makes you feel good. But cakes of fat? Yeah, also known as “suet.” Birds love to eat it.

You put these square cakes in little holders, and hang them outside near a window. Birds are so frozen and hungry, they leave the wild and come close.

For people, congealed fat is believed to be bad news. But for birds it’s money in the bank. So we buy cakes of it, sometimes flavored with seeds and bits of fruit.

It’s surprising how many birds this draws, and how many different kinds.

What’s also surprising is that you might not feel this is real bird watching. Definitely not “Two-Fisted.” Too easy. But at the moment, who cares?

           Fish in a barrel

It’s good to give the birds a hand when it’s freezing. Even if spotting birds at a feeder is kinda like shooting fish in a barrel.

Today there was a big Red-bellied Woodpecker on the other side of the glass. Lured here with fat and seeds.

Also,  American Goldfinches in sparrow-like winter plumage, Dark-eyed Juncos, Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. A forlorn Mourning Dove.

Your yard’s become something like a zoo. (If you see a gorilla in a zoo, you don’t feel like you saw a gorilla. You feel kinda sad.)

You tell yourself that if you want to do some real bird watching, you’ll put on a coat, boots, a stupid-looking hat, and get your freezing butt into the woods.

It won’t be “too easy” to see a Red-bellied Woodpecker there. But if you do, it’ll mean something. And if you don’t, maybe that’s because the bird’s in your backyard, bopping around in front of a kitchen window.

Footnote: The above post was adapted from one that ran in 2012, so if it looks familiar, thanks for having a two-fisted memory. The original  was titled “Too Easy,” a critique about that “fish in a barrel” thing. Somehow, in this era of declining bird populations and on this day of sub-zero wind chills, we’re not as concerned about sightings being “too easy,” and we’re pleased to keep those cakes of fat in the game. 

You’re never the same.

Saturday, January 13th, 2024

When you see an unusual bird, that’s cool in itself. But there’s something more at play. You’re different after. You’re a person who has racked up a notable sighting. Maybe you add it to your “life list.” Maybe you don’t even keep a life list. No matter. Seeing a rare bird makes you a rare bird.

You can’t go back to being somebody who’s never seen it. Say it’s a Bald Eagle, a surprise as it soars in front of you, low and fast over a running river while you’re hanging out near the shore. For a moment you’re all eyes and that massive eagle is all you see.

The unexpected size, the surprising speed, its white head and deadly yellow beak like a spearpoint, a weapon on a weapon…and then that big bird is gone. But no. It’s never really gone.

It soars in your memory, now and whenever you want, that sighting. Sometimes when you’re down in the dumps, depressed, dejected or disappointed for earthbound reasons, you can retrieve that moment.

You can remind yourself, hey, whatever else, at least you’re someone who’s seen a Bald Eagle on the wing. You own that sighting. You own a piece of that power. You’re never the same, you’re better.

When you feed the birds…

Saturday, January 6th, 2024

You figure you’re being a good sport. You put feeders out. Seeds, maybe suet. Sure, you get a kick out of watching. But you feel you’re doing some good, helping birds make it through the winter, nourishing them, fattening them. But wait.

There’s another pair of eyes coldly watching. And agreeing with you about the “fattening” thing. The eyes of a predator. Eyes of hunger. And they’re glaring. Just look at the photo below. Let ‘em bore into you. Get a feel for nature “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson famously wrote.

The ironic thing is that when you, kind citizen of the natural world, go out of your way to feed the birds you may very likely be feeding the bird—singular. Take a look in the surrounding trees. Don’t be surprised if you see a lone Cooper’s Hawk blending into the foliage, its markings made for camouflage, its beak made for butchery, its eyes made for watching, waiting.

And its preferred diet: small to medium-sized birds! Mostly caught on the wing. Again, just look at those eyes in Dr. Bob’s backyard photo. They say more than words. When you set out to feed the birds, you might indirectly be feeding a lightning-fast, cannibalistic Cooper’s Hawk.

That does NOT mean we should stop feeding our neighborhood birds. It simply means that we should know the score. It’s a hungry world out there. Look in the trees above your yard and see what might be looking back at you.

Thanks to Dr. Bob, photographer extraordinaire—the guy who sent in this shot of his backyard Cooper’s Hawk. He’s also the photographer who shot and wrote about a female Cardinal here in “Guest Essays” on December 10. No telling what we’ll get next from him. His cameras are set up, and he’s a two-fisted birdwatcher.

A Seasonal Moment

Saturday, December 23rd, 2023

After a long winter’s hike, you’re nursing a beer in your favorite restaurant bar. You’d been out all morning looking for a Snowy Owl, but didn’t see one.

You’re no stranger to this bar, or this beer. Both are old friends. But there’s something different today. The place feels nicer. Why is that?

You gotta think about it. But first, you gotta hit the men’s room.

There’s a big guy in there who got stuck watching his kid while his wife shops in the neighborhood. He’s changing the kid’s diaper on the sink.

The atmosphere’s worse than usual in the men’s room. Plus, you can’t get at the sink.

It’s a deciding moment.

You’re pissed off because you didn’t see the Snowy Owl that many people have been talking about on the internet. Now this.

You want to give the guy a dirty look in the mirror, and say something like “cheeez!” Then leave, and slam the door.

Something stops you. Instead, you say, “Ah, the joys of fatherhood.”

You smile at the guy as he struggles. He looks up and says, “Tell me about it.” And smiles back. Now you both feel good instead of bad.

Back at the bar, it hits you. Why the place feels nicer.

It’s the lights. This restaurant bar is lit up with little holiday lights. They’re strung across the ceiling, over the bottles, around doorways.

You hate to say it—it’s not a two-fisted comment—but they’re kind of pretty. They give the place a…glow

Normally, you don’t care about things in a bar being pretty. Except for tall, blond Donna who sometimes sits with you.

No, you don’t care that they’re pretty. But you gotta wonder, why don’t they have these little lights all year ‘round?

~

This post was first published twelve years ago, and it seems worth posting again. It evokes a feeling that hasn’t changed much in a world that has. Enjoy the season.

An unlikely origin

Wednesday, December 13th, 2023

Say you spend your childhood playing in smoky industrial prairies and wetlands at Chicago’s southeastern edges. How the hell are you going to become a birder. Or—better word—a birdwatcher. (Always had trouble with that popular word, “birder,” but we cover that gripe in another post long ago and not so far away).

How is a kid going to become a birdwatcher when nature is found beneath steel mill smokestacks, a mile from a paint refinery as the crow flies…and neighbors with a municipal dump. Yeah, crows do fly there. Don’t be surprised. Here’s something you might not expect. ALL the birds are there. The whole Chicago-area aviary.

The air doesn’t smell like pristine forest. Still, birds are where you find ‘em, where they have a mind to be, even where the pollution is. Goes against expectations. But birds have little interest in what we expect. Say you’re ten years old and exploring the prairie in the smog of a summer afternoon. You and friends were looking for snakes by lifting a flat rock or chunk of garbage, and pygmy rattlers would wriggle away while you’d jump and whoop, feeling like jungle explorers.

But then you see a Purple Gallinule. Time stops. This is not a backyard bird. It’s an ad for Jurassic Park. It gets you interested in birds. For life. You investigate, learn its name, its origin, its habits. Basically you like its brash coloration and knowing you know stuff about it. You become a two-fisted birdwatcher. Starting in the rank-smelling warm winds blowing across  prairies near factories. An unexpected origin for wildlife and a wild lifelong interest.

“The belly is not red.”

Monday, December 4th, 2023

And…what’s a childish word like “belly” doing in the business of avian taxonomy? This gripe came to mind again while sighting a “Red-Bellied Woodpecker” today. If you mention its name to anybody all they hear is, “belly.” Ornithology screwed up. Or at least English naturalist Mark Catesby did in 1729 when he saddled this bird with its misguided name. Sorry, Mark, the bird’s belly is NOT RED.

People want to say, “Hey, look at that red-headed woodpecker!” But that name’s been taken by another species, and for good reason. No, today’s visitor is stuck with “Red-bellied.” A false and phony handle for this two-fisted bird with its jackhammer beak, black-and-white ladder-back pattern, tan chest, red top and neck.

We knew a guy who drove for Chicago’s Red-Top Cab Company years ago when cabs were not “private cars.” Maybe this woodpecker should be called “red topped.” Oh well, we’re just blowing off steam on a cold morning. But, c’mon, belly?

 

“Gulp”

Wednesday, November 29th, 2023

If I told you I was one happy Belted Kingfisher this morning, would you believe me? Of course not. Maybe you’d think Belted Kingfishers can’t talk. Maybe you’d think Belted Kingfishers can’t write. Maybe you’d think you’re not sure what a Belted Kingfisher is! Some kinda bird, right? Hold on. I’m a KING of birds. The king-fisher! I talk. I squawk. I write. Go with it.

This morning I was perched on a branch overlooking a wild little lake in an old Illinois forest. The sun was shining. The water was that bitchin’ greenish-gray you gotta love. The air smelled like weeds and fish. Great smells! Wait, fish? A great smell? Yeah! Delicious wild fish… mmmm!

And I dove off my branch, fast, (blink and you’d miss that move!) into the lake with a splash. And caught a fish! This is what I do, streaking point-first (my long sharp beak, the point of my story) and zooooming into the water where I speared a silvery fish that caught my eye. Then up and out. Wings working. Taking to the air. Head back, beak open, GULP, fish down the throat. Happy!

Ah, that cold, sleek, sweet, smooth, fleshy, bony, scaly, salty, pure food, a fish! But what really made me happy is that I was watched by a human half-hidden in the trees. Some guy with a shaggy head of hair, almost as wild as my Kingfisher crest! I’m happy to be seen doing my thing, hunting and splashing and fishing, flying and gobbling, looking sleek and cool while scoped out by the human.

Meanwhile, back at the branch…I’m sittin’ in the sun. Buuuuuuuurrrrrrp! Whoa, that was fishy. But almost as good comin’ up as goin’ down. Ah, does life in the wild get any better? Hope you’re still watchin’, shaggy head.