Birding 101

Birds reveal themselves to me slowly.  I must see them many times before I understand who they are, what they look like, what interests them, what they sound like, and I can recognize them like an old friend.

When I hear a bubbling American Goldfinch flying by behind me, I smile to myself, envisioning it’s scooping flight pattern, called “zooming” in hang gliding school.  How the goldfinch must love the zip of the dive followed by the lift, stalling and diving again and again, riding its invisible roller coaster and able to stay airborne because, unlike a hang glider, it can flap.

When I see a Great Blue Heron gliding in for a landing at the wetland, I know that the theory that dinosaurs did not all become extinct but some evolved into birds is true.  If ever there was a remnant of a pterodactyl, surely it’s the great blue heron with its crooked neck gliding awkwardly on giant wings, miraculously able to perch high in a tree on it’s fragile, stilted legs.

And now, I am pursued by brilliant Indigo Buntings.  They perch and sing their songs to me, over and over, determined that I will recognize the sound of their voice.  At long last I have learned to know them by their song.  I can smile and look and see a tiny silhouette off in a distant tree top, point, and say, “There is an Indigo Bunting.”  It seems like magic to those who have not listened to the bunting’s song 3x a day for months.  It seems like magic to me, even though I have.

No matter how familiar a few birds have become to me, there is always another bird to meet.  My latest friends are fly catchers.  The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher is easy to recognize.  But the Eastern Phoebe and the Eastern Wood Pewee still manage to confuse me even though I thought I knew what a Phoebe looked like for many years now.  My human friends play the same trick on me–I often recognize them only to discover I’m saying hello to a complete stranger.  At least the Phoebe tells me its name over and over again in its distinct call of “Fee – bee.”

These are things I like to share with others.  I love to see people get excited about seeing a bird for the first time that they’ve walked by without notice for decades.  I love to see someone realize that a bird they thought they knew looks completely different up close through binoculars.

For this reason, I have started leading beginning bird walks for the Audubon Society.  I am not the best birder in the world–there are many species I would be hard pressed to even guess at.  But, having struggled long and hard to learn what I do know, I know what’s helped me learn it.  Maybe that’s why people say “those who can’t do, teach”?

Regardless, I’m happy to share smiles, even if it’s over a robin.

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