A lesser birder’s first hard-core birding trip

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Dressed for a perfect day at the beach during spring migration. (Photo by Richard Jones)

We were warned that birders were notoriously on time — that “on time” for them could mean up to an hour early. So naturally on Day One of our birding expedition in coastal Texas at the height of spring migration, my daughter and I nearly missed a 6:15 a.m. departure to Kingsville.

We wouldn’t make that mistake again.

As we strolled through the Omni lobby, admiring ourselves in new, starched floppy hats and flak vests, we hit George Armistead, American Birding Association’s membership director, nearly head-on. He had that caffeine-glazed, camp-counselor, coxswain aura about him: “Your van is leaving! I was just about to call you.” Then, in an aside to the finger-thrumming clipboard sentry: “The Byrnes are here and accounted for.”

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Gotta like-a Leica’s Jeff Bouton. (Photo courtesy of his website)

Tardiness proved advantageous. There was room for only one more to be stuffed into the government-issue white van, where each binocular-draped occupant was intently scoping us out. I was directed to ride in the “VIP” minivan — along with supernatural birding guide Jeff Bouton of Leica, local expert Larry and a spry, chipper 70-something birder from Quebec City, Richard Jones. His other hobby: tending roses.

My eyes aren’t the best, admittedly. Larry’s a bit hard of hearing. Richard? A hoot. As beastie birder Bouton, while driving 60 mph, identifies unheard-of birds darting across predawn skies or perched inconspicuously — the rest of us craning our necks for a great-tailed grackle or a mourning dove— our VIP van gets redubbed “The Short Bus.”

Our new pal Richard Jones

Our new pal Richard Jones, a retired university professor whose specialty was Canadian history. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Richard had already been birding for a week in Texas and tells of a chiggers assault at King Ranch. Despite stuffing his cuffs into his boots and stretching woolen socks over his calves and coating himself in bug spray like a basted chicken, he sustained 100-plus bites. Some, on his belly, are half-dollar-sized. He applied the standard birder remedy: dried, clear nail polish, intended to suffocate any clingy or burrowing mite. “I promised my wife I wouldn’t make it a habit!” Jones joshes. Bouton mutters: “And I thought the French were progressive …”

Now thoroughly spooked about bugs, I regret packing only a non-DEET eco-spray, which consists of a blend of cloves, cinnamon, peppermint and prayer. I am lovingly mocked.

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Some of our mottled krewe. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Within 70 minutes, we reach our first birding hotspot, a remote road across from a few houses backing to an inlet. Dogs bark, but we hardly notice over the babble of avian delights.

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Jen Brumfield in the field (Photo courtesy of her website)

The guide from the other van is a brawny woman dressed like a rapper, with hipster glasses, a black skull cap (it’s 90 degrees), black Eagle Outfitter-style safari shirt and caramel cargo pants. She’s also toting a scope and tripod near as tall as she is. Her voice is husky and certain. She wastes no time plucking species IDs out of thin air. “Brown-crested flycatcher, on the wire … Bewick’s wren, about to pop up … female painted bunting, on the fence … there’s the male … orchard oriole, 2 o’clock … dickcissel flying over … green jay in the mesquite … I hear a bobwhite, in the distance.”

She’s Jen Brumfield of Cleveland, a naturalist dynamo, who has already clinched — read “annihilated” — two Big Year records for Ohio’s Cuyahoga County and raised its profile on the birding map. Jen has a knack for finding birds in strange places, such as the rare brown pelican hanging around Cleveland last summer. Her “Pelly” has its own Facebook page; officials made souvenir T-shirts of it; a local brewery is soon coming out with a tribute, Wandering Pelican Black Lager. Jen picked up Ohio’s first neotropic cormorant just days ago. This is the woman about to show me a treasure trove of birds. I ask her how long she’s been birding. Since age 2.

The bobwhite she pinpoints in a certain clump of grass 200 yards away. “It’s getting closer, moving toward us.” She impersonates the call. Her bird call repertoire is extraordinary.

The bobwhite is getting about as excited as I am. Closer and closer … and then BIG movement. A Cooper’s hawk railroads across the field, bangs into a fence and excavates the bobwhite from her happy place. Amid mournful groans, Jen notes the plump game bird was a female. She puts her scary-real bird calls on hiatus for the day.

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Birding behind a Mexican restaurant. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Meanwhile, my daughter and I are wearing so much gear, we feel like Navy SEALs. We move in formation with the group from hotspot to hotspot, from amber waves of grain, from sea to shining mudflat.

I rack up 157 life birds over four days, starting with the pair of brown boobies hanging out just outside the hotel near the break wall for the week, which George Armistead showed us through a scope as soon as we deposited our suitcases. Among other species that worm their way into my heart: the crested caracara, the hooded oriole, the inca dove.

I lack sophisticated photographic equipment, but here are a few shots I took using an iPhone and/or basic camera.

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Least sandpiper. Or pectoral sandpiper. I forget which. Can only tell when they’re side by side. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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A juvenile summer tanager. I think. Help me out here, peeps (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, terns do it. And  so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Birds do it, bees do it. And so do laughing gulls. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

A male indigo bunting dines with a female ... something ... at the orange cafe. Photo by Terry Byrne

A male indigo bunting dines with a female … oriole? something … at the orange bistro. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

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The pied-bill grebe I nicknamed “Nessie.” (Photo by Terry Byrne)

 

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala are.

On safari at King Ranch, where the wild impala roam. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

At King Ranch the third day, we enter a whole ‘nother world that feels more like Texas than J.R.’s empire. It’s eco-tourism nirvana, and larger than Rhode Island (poor R.I., always getting compared to breadbaskets). Cruising the ranch’s Norias Division, we marvel at unusual mammals alongside avian awes: nilgai (a spooky blue-hued cross between a deer and a cow, but not really, which is indigenous to India), javelina (feisty wild boar), hordes of white-tailed deer and a feral population of East African impala. We also spy roadrunners — but no coyotes, tumbleweeds nor IEDs marked “Acme.”

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Jim distracts some of King Ranch’s owners, who sneak up on us unexpectedly. At right is Calvin Rees, who can hardly go a day without photographing birds. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

King Ranch is home to 330 nesting pairs of ferruginous pygmy-owls, comprising 95% of the species’ North American population, explains our cowboy guide, Jim. He won’t guarantee the bird, but we end up seeing two, and I practice digiscoping — in layman’s terms, that’s taking a photo by mating one’s iPhone with a high-powered scope, aligning a pinprick of light with a pinhead lens, and crossing your digits. It’s an art, as demonstrated by Sharon “BirdChick.com” Stiteler the previous night over chow. I try. I keep my day job.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl.

My digiscoped ferruginous pygmy-owl, a target bird for my daughter, who lured it in by wearing her craft beer pygmy-owl shirt that day. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

I also manage to avoid bug bites but pick up one or two non-lodged ticks and enough plant life to seed a greenhouse. Matt Fraker, an XXXtreme birder-adventurer with sculpted back muscles, manages to pick up his 700th ABA life bird, a Botteri’s sparrow, posing in the prairie grass like something biblical.

That night is our one free night, with no seminars, presentations or potato dinner, so my daughter and I scope out a few local dives, bird a bit on our own and wind up at the hotel bar on the 20th floor.

After several sleep-deprived nights and craft brews, we get tipsy and decide to go rogue, conspiring to skip our planned field trip the next morning.

Matt's Botteri's sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Matt’s Botteri’s sparrow. He digiscoped this using my camera. It is singing. He was crowing.

Just as I’m composing an e-mailed excuse to George, he appears before me, like Jiminy Cricket or a wagging-fingered, haloed angel on my shoulder.

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here to celebrate their life birds! Matt buys us all a round of top-shelf Don Julio’s tequila rocks to toast that little sparrow in the grass who remains clueless to the consummate joy it gave us hominids.

Birders perched on the bar. That's Matt, between my daughter and, far right. (Photo by bartender)

Birders perched on the bar. That’s Matt, between my daughter and me, far right. (Photo by multitasking bartender)

Matt also happens to have the next day “free” (no scheduled tours, but of course he’ll go birding) and offers to let us sleep in, until 6:30, and take us on a private tour of Choke Canyon to pick up a few straggler species we need. For me, that would be a pyrrhuloxia, which looks a lot like a diseased cardinal.

Matt Fraker, a manic birder.

Matt Fraker, manic master birder. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

But instead of sleeping in, I wake with a start at 3 a.m., with visions of 127 Hours in my head. What if Matt is a serial killer who uses inexperienced birders to attract black vultures to his canyon lair? Why is it called “Choke” Canyon, anyway? Will we even have a cell signal out there? Am I a bad mother?

Matt point out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Matt points out a hooded warbler for Cassy at Corpus Christi’s Blucher Park. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

But Matt, like all of the other birders at the ABA annual conference, proves cool and trustworthy. Instead of trucking out to Choke Canyon, he decides to take us to a closer, richer hotspot: Blucher Park, where we pick up nine warblers, watch a great kiskadee devour a songbird and a snake, and track a chuck-will’s-widow like Native Americans until it encircles us in awkward flight like a bat out of hell.

The chuck-will's widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

The chuck-will’s widow feather I found stuck to a branch. It gave Matt the clue of which direction it flew. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

We also run into many birders we know — new friends, old souls —  because by now we are a tight group of kindred spirits.

There’s Curtis, the recent widower who spent more than a decade living the gypsy-RV life with his bird-loving wife. He also happens to be related by marriage to someone I work with and is among the few who speak of things other than birds, from Shakespeare to sunsets.

And Peggy from Minnesota, never married, no children, finally retired and taking flight to see the world, connecting the dots of a life well-lived one small wonder at a time.

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

From left, Eugenia, Rajesh, Richard and Cassy. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Classy, cagey Eugenia doesn’t say much but reminds my daughter of Cate Blanchett’s interpretation of Katharine Hepburn; when she speaks, prepare to be zinged. Friendly Raj is one of three physicans who hang together like a fraternity while looking out for the group’s welfare, making sure we stay hydrated. The couple from the Pacific Northwest seems a bit jaded, loath to glimpse yet another yellow-headed blackbird … until that magical Botteri’s sparrow pops their cherry and they light up like Christmas.

Daughter Cassy in her yellow birding hat and full eye makeup.

Daughter Cassy in her UV-blocking yellow birding hat and eye plumage. (Selfie by Cassy Byrne)

A May-December couple from Michigan share their own brand of heartache in a candid moment; the woman represents the only other ginger besides my daughter and puts her at ease about birding in full eye makeup. One of the Margarets is petite, pert and full of pronouncements with her encyclopedic knowledge, then turns out to be the first cousin of another friend at work. Another Margaret, from Oklahoma, is stunned to discover that Calvin attended her high school and knew her brother.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

Spying two red-headed birders at King Ranch, next to the feed station for the deer and nilgai.

It’s a small birding world, with boundless discoveries. And we have much to learn from these mostly tireless retirees — far beyond distinguishing the sound of a song sparrow from a Bewick’s wren.

Often when I meet someone who knows a birder, they describe them as being “big into birding.”

Yeah. I get it. Big Years. Big Days. Biggest Weeks.

There’s no other way to go about birding but in a big way.

That's me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

That’s me in the center, under the hat. (Photo by Cassy Byrne)

Pick a pecking order: How birds and politics mix

The rufous hummingbird was recently named the American Birding Association’s 2014 Bird of the Year. How did it pull that off? I don’t recall any campaigning.

$T2eC16RHJGEFFm6!7qebBRzq,,WZdQ~~60_35We humans take care of that. Explains Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA: “We listen to member ideas but so far, the staff makes the call on Bird of the Year.” It’s also based on “geography, cool biology and outrageous beauty — not necessarily in that order,” pipes in Ted Floyd, the editor of Birding magazine.

When promoting birds in general, one can’t help but show favoritism now and then. Artists and artisans do it. Ever wonder why male cardinals grace so many Christmas cards? Are they easier to paint/photograph, or just easier to spot?  (I personally prefer the females.) And what’s the deal with owls lately? It’s not just snowy owl irruptions; there has been an eruption of owl ornamentation in a range of products from home decor to personal wear over the past several years.

Some birds seem perennially and unfairly freighted with symbolism. Consider:

Top 5 symbolic birds

1. Eagle (patriotism). And it coulda been the turkey. See American history, or the Broadway musical “1776,” for the animated version.

2. Dove (peace). Still, those male cardinals are giving them a run for their money. What people don’t realize is cardinals are more like Angry Birds than sirens of serenity.

owlaamilne3.  Owl (wisdom). Winnie-the-Pooh’s delightful friend “Wol” is even semi-literate.

4. Turkey (Thanksgiving, sure, but also “a lemon” or a lunkhead). This is probably the first bird every kid learns to draw, or render in felt, glue and construction paper.

5.  The twin pillars of a stork (birth & hope) & a raven (death & fear)

Other birds get drawn into the political fray through no fault of their own.

Top 5 political birds

On that whole national bird / state bird thing. Sure shows a lack of imagination when you have some birds (again with the Northern cardinal) monopolizing seven states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia) as an emblem. Mention the American robin to sensitive Michiganders, and they may get a little ticked: It’s their state bird even though it’s a migrant in Michigan. Whose decision WAS this?

Illegal immigration has always been somewhat of an issue for birds — just ask the European starling or house sparrow, or the boat-tailed grackle, which has become a target for hunters eager to “help” control populations. Here are a few other feather rufflers.

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Big Bird makes a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment with Seth Meyers.

1. Big Bird – Embroiled in a 2012 controversy over federal funding of “liberal-leaning” PBS, the good Sesame Street neighbor helped to roast Mitt Romney’s presidential chances.

2. The northern spotted owl / the snowy owl – More owls! The first species was caught up in a Northwest conservation fight / the second, amid this crazy irruption into the Southern states, has been touted by some as evidence of climate change (a politically freighted term all its own).

3. The Canada geese that downed Sully’s aircraft – The risk of bird strikes has triggered miles of legislation and local skirmishes about policing bird nesting areas near airports. A sad tale close to home: the eviction of nesting eagles at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, situated next door to Norfolk International Airport. This is where politics and symbolism intersect. (I blogged about this last year, during March Migration Madness.)

4. The stork – Embodies the idea of sex education, or lack thereof, i.e. how we don’t give our children the straight story, or the gay story.

5. Poultry — Meaning chicken, as in “tastes like …” Does modern farming of food run afoul of animal rights? Everyone from Whole Foods to PETA has a cock in this fight.

Dear reader, do you have a “pet” wild bird or cause?

Birds in popular culture: Flicks, tunes and ‘toons

For those who missed it, I reported in USA TODAY last week on the big birding news that many likely missed.

Bird fans twittered for days about my statement: “Arguably no animal — not even man’s best friend — is as intertwined with human experience as birds, which serve graciously as muse, meat and messenger.”

That bears out in popular culture. A sampling.

5 great under-the-radar bird flicks that aren’t Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (which turned 50 last year):

1. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). This documentary explores the bond between an unemployed musician squatting in San Francisco while tending to a flock of feral cherry-headed conures.

2. Kes (1969). Based on the 1968 novel A Kestral for a Knave, this British film about a boy’s hardscrabble life buoyed by a bird is told in such accented English you might need subtitles or repeated viewings to get all the dialogue. The universal emotion cuts like a knife.

3. Fly Away Home (1996). A Disney-esque tale of a father (Jeff Daniels) and daughter (Anna Paquin) attempting to lead orphaned Canada geese on their migration route.

4. Winged Migration (2001). This spectacular French documentary in the vein of 2005’s must-see March of the Penguins will literally change your worldview.

5. Birdy (1984). Based on the William Wharton novel of the same name, two Vietnam vets deal with their post-traumatic stress in this Alan Parker pearl. One, an avid canary keeper (Matthew Modine), takes his obsession too far and finds sanctuary in believing he is a bird, while the other (Nicolas Cage — aptly named) is enlisted to help free Birdy from his illness.

5 most inspiring TV cartoon birds

1. Road Runner Has an uncanny ability to escape every scrape with danger.

2. WoodstockNamed for the legendary 1969 three-day music and peace festival on Yasgur’s farm in the New York Catskills, Snoopy’s loyal sidekick is famous for busting through pretensions.

3. Woody WoodpeckerVoiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also did Tweety Bird), he’s a rascal who even inspired young boys to imitate his comb-forward hairstyle. (And if you’re still trying to identify what type of woodpecker he is, here’s the definitive word.)

4. Daffy Duck & Donald DuckYou’d think the Looney Tunes mascots might include a loon, but these two resilient comic fowls are linguistic marvels, showing kids everywhere that they can become thhhhomebody even with a thhhhhhpeech impediment.

5. Toucan SamThe mascot for Froot Loops cereal since 1963, he defies birds’ typically inferior sense of smell with an ability to sniff out sugar anytime, anywhere while showcasing an advanced bird brain capable of speaking Pig Latin (OOT-fray OOPS-lay).

6 signature bird songs by humans (selecting just one per decade)

thunderbird11. 1960s: “Surfin’ Bird” — The Trashmen
Released in 1963, it soared to No. 4 on Billboard Hot 100. Its wide appeal and longevity might be explained by it being a blend of two R&B hits by The Rivingtons: Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow and The Bird’s the Word, which was sparked by Red Prysock’s radio jingle advertising a cheap brand of wine, Thunderbird: “What’s the word? Thunderbird. How’s it sold? Good and cold. What’s the jive? Bird’s alive. What’s the price? Thirty twice.”

2. 1970s: “Free Bird” — Lynyrd Skynyrd
Debuted in 1973, Amazon.com music reviewer Lorry Fleming calls it “the most-requested song in the history of rock music.” The band itself is a bit like a mythical phoenix, having made a comeback after losing key members in a fiery plane crash.

3. 1980s: “The Chicken Dance” — In the repertoire of any wedding band worth its salt
Composed by Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas, the translated name is “The Duck Dance.” The accompanying fad dance, often performed at wedding receptions and safe for the whole family to embarrass themselves with, was introduced to the U.S. in 1981 at Tulsa’s Oktoberfest by the German Heilbronn Band. They wanted to perform it in duck costumes, but couldn’t lay their hands on any, so a local TV station donated a chicken costume, hatching the new name.

4. 1990s: “I Believe I Can Fly” — R. Kelly
Featured on the soundtrack of 1996’s “Space Jam” and forever linked to NBA superman Michael Jordan, the song gained universal fame when used as a wake-up call for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and, later, on Oct. 13, 2012, as Endeavour’s theme song when the space shuttle program was ceremoniously retired. Given that birds first piqued humankind’s aspiration for flight, this fits even though birds aren’t mentioned (but images of a hawk are overlaid with images of a young basketball player in the official music video, and there were plenty of animated birds in the movie, like Daffy Duck).

Beirne Lowry's eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

Beirne Lowry’s eagle used in the opening titles of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.”

5. 2000s: “Where the Stars & Stripes & the Eagle Fly” — Aaron Tippin
Hard to pick just one country song mentioning eagles. Released Sept. 10, 2002, this hit embodies post-9/11 patriotism and the allusion that the eagle and the mystical phoenix are synonymous with the American spirit that continually arises from the ashes.

6. 2010s: “I Like Birds” — The Eels
With childlike awe, this ditty reflects a gentle sensibility and hipster evolution of our love of birds — as understated as a Facebook “like.”

But no song can rival the calming magic of actual birdsong. Happy exploring!

Bird was not always the word

The etymology of “bird” is fraught with mystery and/or typos. In Old English, the word for bird was “fugol,” while “bridd” applied to all nestlings. In Middle English, “byrde” applied to all young animals, even humans, with “burd” targeting “young, maiden women.” In modern-day Britain, the slang “bird” retains that “sweet young thing” meaning.

0864c_3031018903_b0d754d862Giving someone the bird.

The middle-finger reference seems to arise from 1860 vaudeville, when catcalling or hissing at a performer in rejection was likened to a goose’s hissing.

6 of the funniest species names (to me)

1. Bananaquit (national bird of the U.S. Virgin Islands)

2. Rufous-vented Chacalaca (national bird of Tobago)

3. Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (national bird of Peru)

4. Imperial shag

5. Grey Go-away-bird

6. Long-wattled Umbrellabird

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A long-wattled Umbrellabird, found in a relatively narrow belt along the Pacific slopes of the Chocó of western Colombia and Ecuador, sayeth Wikipedia.

Top 5 references to birds in the Bible

Writers of the Bible had a limited grasp of diversity, but some species get regular mentions.

1. Noah’s ark: Raven vs. dove. “So it came to pass, at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made. Then he sent out a raven, which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth. He also sent out from himself a dove, to see if the waters had receded from the face of the ground.” Genesis 8:6–8. And you know the end of that story. In Christianity, the raven appears in 12 Bible verses. The dove? At least double that.

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Picasso’s dove sketch

2. Nesting. Psalm 84:3: Yea, the sparrow hath found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars …” Deuteronomy 22:5-7: “If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young.” Psalm 104:17: “Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.” Isaiah 34:15: “There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.”

3. Hunting/evading capture (a smattering; hunting is quite popular, biblically speaking).
Proverbs 1:17: “Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.” Proverbs 6:4-6: “Deliver thyself as a roe from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler.” Proverbs 7:23: “Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.”

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4. Birdsong (a sampling). Ecclesiastes 10:20: “Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.” Ecclesiastes 12:4: “And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low.” Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” Turtle?

5. Start of an ancient life list. Leviticus 11:16-17: “And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl.” Psalm 102:6: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.”

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Birding is a bit like hitting the lottery

As folks in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands scramble for a piece of tonight’s record $550 million Powerball jackpot — that’s a half-billion dollars — I can’t help but consider the odds: 1 in 175 million.

Kinda like bird-watching, amiright?

Honestly, what are the odds, on any given day, in any given instant, I might glance out my window to spy a bluebird on the wing? What odds would you give me on spotting three? AND YET …

I had never seen a live bluebird outside of aviaries or protected conservation areas in my life, and even then only glimpses, like a distant flip of a sparkling SOS signal.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a sophomore participant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch program is that timing and luck are everything. A bird might grace your yard for just 5 to 11 seconds in its lifetime, because, especially in winter, it may be only passing through. The planets must be aligned just right — first, the rare bird has to wander into the exact global coordinates of your bit of earth, then you have to be near a window, have enough clarity to notice it, enough knowledge to recognize what you’re seeing and BAM! Your life is instantly richer.

Like the other day, Nov. 14 at 11:18:27 EST (all good Powerball picks), when I absentmindedly walked downstairs and opened the front door to see how cold it was, thinking I might get the mail or take a walk, and saw something new perched on the curved iron pole holding the feeders. It sat a little cocky, like a house finch, but it was bigger, rounder and an odd shade of … gray? It bobbed delicately, vogued this way and that, just to show me it was something I’d never ever seen, not in a million years. Not gray, no! Blue! Oh!!! It darted down to our semi-circle of sod destined to be a future English garden, joining two others like it, one bluer than anything I’d known in nature. That one, the obvious male, hopped to the corner near the stoop, showed off its orange and white breast while I tried not to blink or breathe, before I squealed, that high-pitched, teeth-gritted-in-the-dentist-chair kind: “CAMERA!” Whirrrrrrrrrrrr.

By the time I had the camera raised and was switching it on, the three Eastern bluebirds wove a Disney dance, loop-de-loop in the air, sayonara, chica, harp glissando … and they’d vanished, magic.

Not quite that way, it was a little more dramatic. I floated on air the rest of the day, feeling touched by angels. A zip-a-dee-doo-dah day!

When I mentioned to workmate Tom how birding was like the lottery, with probably 1 in 175 million odds of seeing the birds I’ve seen, he begged to differ. “No — 1 in 175 million odds would be when you look out the window and see a 14-karat-gold ostrich wearing a diamond-studded bra crocheting on your lawn.”

Party pooper.

Well, I know money can’t buy happiness. I’ll take a bluebird … or a yellow-bellied sapsucker … any day.

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Circle of life: Hawk preys on fallen starling

Starling-on-starling violence: A dead starling in its winter coat -- proof it is hardly a “black” bird. This darling died over the course of two hours after a vicious fight with another starling at my feeder in December 2011. The next day, I recorded it getting picked apart by a juvenile Cooper’s hawk. See video, below. Sorry it's so long, but this PC-based video-editing software didn't let me edit the music, so I just filled up the time. The starling's last gasps for breath occur around 2:38, and there are some nice follow-up moments with the cardinal near 14:40, at end.

A starling gets its 15 minutes of fame. Co-starring: a female cardinal as Florence Nightingale.

The orchestral work I used as accompaniment for this backyard drama, shot on a cold December day, is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” (1914), inspired by this poem by George Meredith. Also long. And I call myself an “editor.”
HE rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide, 5
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one, 10
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs, 15
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air 20
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill 25
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he, 30
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright 35
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical, 40
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fullness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives 45
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime, 50
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin, 55
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes, 60
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.
For singing till his heaven fills, 65
’T is love of earth that he instills,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes: 70
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins; 75
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe, 80
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say 85
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood, 90
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns 95
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.
Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here, 100
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new, 105
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward, 110
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains, 115
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home, 120
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Bye-bye, blackbird profiling

(Un)Common Grackle gets his hackles up in my front yard. (April 18, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

My podmate at work expresses pure disdain for the grackle, the starling and, most vociferously, the parasitic cowbird, lumping them all into a generic “filthy blackbird” category. I wouldn’t call him bigoted. Just unenlightened.

A male brown-headed cowbird flits from the feeder, spilling some seed. (April 4, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

I feel compelled to speak up for a class of birds widely scorned just because they fill a niche of avariciousness, through no fault of their own. Like the harsh misnomer for “black” humans, avian color is relative. These birds aren’t black; they are iridescent and richly hued.

Technically, a European starling is not even in the blackbird family — it’s like a maligned stepchild, an immigrant, no less. And, surprisingly, such prized specimens as orioles, meadowlarks and bobolinks are blackbirds. Close cousins, anyway. Don’t even talk to me about crows; they’re members of the Corvidae family — think Mob rule.

As ubiquitous as blackish birds are, so too are the musical tributes to them: The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (notably off The White Album) has been covered untold times. The jazz standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” is about as familiar as the patter of “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?

DUCK! A grackle launches from the fence straight for me. (April 24, 2011, photo by Terry Byrne)

Familiarity sure breeds contempt — shame on us for proposing to make pies of these winged wonders. I want nothing to do with the “Bye-bye, blackbird” mantra.

I recall the ominous serial outbreaks of red-winged blackbirds falling from the sky in Arkansas ringing in both 2011 and 2012 — eventually blamed on man’s fireworks fetish — and those shocking reports that the USDA is behind mysterious bird die-offs. Who are the villains here, Master Hitchcock? We all know you glued the crows’ feet to the roof of the schoolhouse to make them more menacing.

The only horror here is an act of man … that authorities would ever endorse shooting down innocent birds, as if the biosphere were our personal arcade. One Kentucky town opted for non-fatal cannon shoots as a more humane solution to controlling its avian explosion. “Humane.” Wonder how “human” came to occupy that word. I propose a new term: “Aviane.”

OK, I get the idea of too much of a good thing, but who can watch a murmuration and not be awestruck?

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, Nove...

A flock of red winged blackbirds, Kansas, November 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I love about blackbirds, and birds in general: They never disappoint.

Consistent in its behavior, a cowbird predictably will poach another nest by sneaking in her oddball eggs, perhaps freeing her from the perceived drudgery and responsibility of parenthood — much like Mayzie in Horton Hears a Who. Talk about a wild chick.

But we mustn’t judge. They’re just being cowbirds, the only way they know to be and what has proven successful for the species’ survival. Think of them as the 1%, hiring cheap labor as nannies. On second thought, that could breed more contempt.

Think of them, instead, as an energy-saving alarm clock. I thrill waking to the shrill, steady peals and squeals of grackles, like gleeful children grabbing the squeaky swings in our backyard playground.

Microraptor, covered in iridescent plumage. Art courtesy of Jason Brougham/University of Texas.

Birds, after all, help stem humanity’s loneliness. Even in tight times, when I can’t afford to refill the premium seed that has made my yard a five-starling oasis, “my birdies” rouse me each blessed morning in cheerful chitchat, a chorus of hope, like the Whos of Whoville who, even without presents, know you can’t keep Christmas from coming, nor the dawn from breaking.

Turns out, the most ancient birds looked a lot like grackles — the microraptor, a dinosaur bird with iridescent plumage and those same beady yellow eyes.

So have some respect for your elder species. Jesus, by the way, was also black. Black is the beginning and the end of the universe. Black is the color of my true love’s hair. Black is beautiful.

Here’s my humble tribute to these colorful black birds — especially the grackles — as viewed in my yard and that of my mother-in-law in Kentucky: