For The Birds

I’ve been a birdwatcher since I was 10 or 12; what got me started was the year when Evening Grosbeaks — colorful seed-eaters mostly found north of the U.S.-Canada border — moved south in search of food and a few found their way to our next-door neighbor’s feeder. After that, I was hooked. My brother Mike and I went out numerous times in early mornings looking for whatever was out there, and sometimes we were surprised by the interesting birds we saw. Often our mom and dad would join us, and we covered a fair bit of wild ground in central Wisconsin over those years. For several years running we participated in the Sandhill Crane census in March and April. The goal wasn’t to be absolutely precise, but to give as accurate a description as possible of cranes in our assigned area. Were they flying – and in what direction? How many? Was a nest visible? From that jumble of information the scientists at the International Crane Foundation in nearby Baraboo, Wisconsin, could assemble a reasonably accurate picture of how many cranes were in the state, where they were, and whether they were breeding pairs or lone birds seeking territory and a mate.
One summer morning in 1981, my brother called to ask if I wanted to participate in a Black Tern survey at a nearby marsh. Leading the survey was Mike Mossman, who would later become an Ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. We spent the day paddling around a small lake in canoes looking for floating Black Tern nests, being dive-bombed by the parents and scooping the chicks out of the path of our canoes. I recently got in touch with Mr. Mossman, who graciously sent me copies of several photos from that excursion, including this one:
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That’s fifteen year-old me, holding a Black Tern chick, with bird poop on the bill of my hat. Those parents were very protective of their young! He mentioned that he’d used this photo often in slide shows for years to demonstrate the enthusiasm of volunteers involved in research as citizen-scientists. I was flattered, and also glad I finally grew out of my acne. Another shot Mr. Mossman sent me showed me ducking down in the canoe, with an angry Tern just pulling out of its dive at my head. The hat was as much for protection from the birds as anything else.
Over the years, I’ve continued to get out on occasion to look for whatever was out there — often with my wife as driver and second set of eyes — and have been rewarded with some amazing experiences. I’ve birded on three continents plus the Caribbean, and seen things I may never witness again. The incredible diversity of birds — the variety of sizes, shapes, color patterns, and the remarkable scope of adaptations for capturing a nearly infinite variety of food types always leaves me with the same sense of wonder I had as a teen. I was never the most popular kid in my class to begin with, and telling the other kids I was a bird watcher did me no favors at the time, but I wouldn’t do anything differently.

Only a few years ago, I was walking home from the shop where I work when I noticed a little jewel on the ground: a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird lying on the pavement, stunned. It was a windy day; perhaps it had been blown into a car or a light pole. Whatever had happened, it was in the middle of a parking lot, and likely to get run over. I carefully picked it up and took it to an overgrown lot across the street to recover. I ran the four blocks home and filled an eye-dropped with sugar-water; if I could get it to drink some, it would recover its strength that much faster. Bad news: when I came back it was still there, which was also good news, because I now had a digital camera with me. Among others, I snapped these photos: 100_1389100_1387

On the left is the bird — a juvenile or female — on the small branch where I set it. Pure muscle memory forced its little claws to grip the twig as I gently nudged its feet into place. On the right is my hand next to the bird for scale. The fact that I could touch it means it was really knocked out. It appeared to me to have a swollen, bruised eye — on the side not visible in these photos. It would not wake up enough to drink any of the sugar water, even when I very lightly tapped the end of its bill with the eye dropper, and put a tiny drop there for it to taste. As I was looking at another photo I’d just taken, I noticed something; the shot was blurry — the bird had fluttered its wings. I looked up just in time to see it buzz away into the bright summer afternoon. The entire exchange — from finding it to running home and back to watching it leave — had taken less than an hour.

As well as the International Crane Foundation, I’ve been a member of the Audubon Society on and off — on when finances permitted buying a membership — for years. They do good work protecting the habitat of these winged marvels, and alerting lawmakers of laws that might adversely affect birds. Sadly, bird numbers are dropping across the board; habitat destruction is the number one cause of decline in bird populations, some of which have dropped by as much as 90% in the last decade. If we are to have the joys of nature around for more than another decade or two, we need to be more careful stewards of the land. It makes me think of that hummingbird: I wonder if it’s still alive, and if so, has it raised any young to carry on in its place? With winter grounds in South America being converted from forests to cattle grazing land for a hungry, ever-growing human population, Hummingbirds, like so many other bird species, may not have much time left on this earth.

Good luck, little jewel.

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