Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chickenscratch Musings on the Science, Art and Joy of Birding

Do you ne’er think what wondrous beings these?”

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Nothing beats stealing away to a favorite birding haunt in the Bay Area’s meta-urban forests, creeksides and meadows. Places where birds congregate copiously. Places where you can observe an infinite variety of amazing stealth creatures operating in their natural habitats, whether foraging, feeding, frolicking, mating, hunting, or otherwise highly engaged in some unique activity or singular behavior. Places like that little stretch of “hidden” Wildcat Creek, or that sweet spot atop the knoll near Wildcat Peak thirteen stories above sea level. Places like the aviaries of the Albany Bulb, the reclaimed spit of land jutting into the Bay. Anywhere anyplace anytime Briones, or the nearby “in plain sight” yet secretive San Pablo Creek. The other day trolling about there in idyll leisure, I spotted two unable-to-identify warblers, along with a pair of cute nuthatches, a White- and Red-breasted. Places like “taken for granted” Live Oak and Codornices Parks in North Berkeley, my veritable backyard, where the latter harbors an overgrown, little traversed upper area, a perfect spot to warm up in sunny splotches of grassy wild-onion smelling splendor, spotting Cassin’s Vireos, Yellow and Townsend’s Warblers, Bewick's Wrens, Spotted Towhees, Wood and Hermit Thrushes, Northern Flickers, Black Phoebes, Anna's Hummingbirds, Crows, Jays and Juncos, unnamed varieties of Sparrows, Red-Tailed Hawks, and Turkey Vultures.
Scrub Jay
I love birdwatching because always, invariably during these outings, I’m confronted with the irreducible mystery of things, reminded of the magnificent fact of our ignorance of a world that exists and operates right under our noses, yet is beyond our understanding and knowing, outside the purlieus of our apperceptory capacities. . unless you stop, look and listen! By paying close attention, the world comes to your senses, influences your realm of experiential interspecies connection. . .even though, of course, birds are paying you not one whit of attention. True? False! Birds, keen individuals, are doubtlessly tuned in to your presence, wouldn’t you think?

Northern Flickers
I love watching birds because it tests, challenges and confounds me owing to a seeming intractability / inability to get things right in the ID department. Thus I am humbled. Whether it’s a futile endeavor to recognize and distinguish among highly subtle and nuanced song patterns, or a frustrating fumbling over the finer points of wing designs and parts, it seems that no matter how hard I try, I will spot a bird that I swear looks like a warbler or a wren, but it more often than not will remain unidentified and unidentifiable. (How can that be? And is it that the same thing?) Yes, I proclaim my utter ignorance, mostly, when it comes to the finer points of field ornithology, such as identification skills, avian calls, anatomy, migration patterns, quirks and habits – in short, just about everything one needs to know about birds to make sense of them. Birds, plainly and simply, operate in a higher, hidden realm.

Birding connects me more deeply to Nature's intimate workings – easy to pay no mind to - the oft’ unseen and hidden world, tho’ busy busy busy with the comings and goings of 
Turkey Vulture
hundreds if not thousands of birds. Their activity is of paramount importance to Earth’s ecological balance. Birds sublimely manifest Mother Nature’s harmonic intertwining of energies in an age-old world evolved and removed from human pretense and folly. Which is why it’s so hard to pin them down. (Not that I’d ever want to actually pin one down!)

You’re humbled, or should be, as a member of a supposed paragon species – Homo saps – by birds’ infinite capacities and multifarious talents. Miracles of being, agents of highly evolved creation, adapted to every possible niche on the planet, birds are capable of performing seemingly impossible aerodynamic feats of athleticism and astounding displays of short burst and long stamina endurance. But sadly, birds are also highly vulnerable beings, stalked and maimed by feral and domestic cats, victims of illegal hunting and trade in southeast and central Europe (where songbirds are smuggled to Malta and Italy and consumed as delicacies). Birds are killed en masse in wind turbine engines, and they die painful deaths at sea and ashore from ingesting plastic detritus mistaken for food and from ingesting “vermin” poisoned by horrendously toxic rodenticides. 

The more time I spend birding, the more attuned I become to my more meditative self, my more reflective being. It takes an unlearning of our normal hectic approach to life; a shedding off of our day’s mental distractions in order to focus, concentrate and attentively observe birds, but even then, as Smithsonian editor Ted Floyd writes, “to the novice, it often seems more like wizardry.” The great part about the 
Northern Mockingbird
activity (hobby?) (pastime?) (obsession) – is that I don't have to leave my house to enjoy birds’ joyful presence and interesting activities. From my front porch I’m able to daily take in a bonanza of birds! Just now, I look up to see Townsend's Warbler dipping into a bush after a good drenching to snatch up tasty larvae. Descending on the road just now is a murder of crows. A pair of Mourning Doves is perched on a high wire. Ms. Hummingbird comes in for a suckling sample of nectar. All right here in my urban neighborhood. How can you not love that.

The real fun part about birding is you’ll never know when or where another bird will be added to your Life List of First Sightings. What bird is that that just alighted in the magnolia tree? Who, my tiny friend, are you, appearing out of nowhere for a most delightful encounter. For the life of me, I should be able to ID both of these visitors, but cannot. Turning to my field guide, I’m able to correctly conclude that the magnolia tree bird is a Mockingbird! A Mockingbird! It’s one of those inexplicable things, where you think, Oh, a Mockingbird, a common ol’ Mimus polyglottos, resident of many large U.S. cities, so you surely must have seen one of the gray, lanky and long-tailed guys before. Hasn’t everyone seen a Mockingbird? Well, I hadn’t, until now, or maybe I had, but just hadn’t noticed, like with most things in life (regarding birds!)

Hermit Thrush

While on the subject of Mockingbirds, who can say why are they called Mockingbirds? Seems obvious, but my brain was stumped at first. Floyd explains: “. . .high-fidelity mimic, single birds recognizably incorporate songs of 25+ species into seemingly endless song.” And so, there you have it, the low-down on a seemingly common but heretofore largely and completely unseen “pre-adapted” species (meaning capable of expanding into varied eco-niches by adopting a survival strategy of exotic omnivorism.) The second sighting mentioned above happened to be a Ruby-crowned Kinglet! One of the smallest songbirds in North America, weighing just five to seven grams, this precious bird landed in my front garden and poked around in underbrush for several minutes before I lost sight of him. The whole time his red crown was exposed, which is awesome because it’s usually kept concealed. The adult male was so tiny and stubby, but inordinately beautiful. Seeing this rare creature, and so close-up, was like spotting a gold nugget in the creek and just leaving it there, admiring its intrinsic beauty, a precious, priceless thing to behold but not own or control or even know very well at all.

Photos belong to the WikiCommons. Thank you Universe for their usage! (Scrub Jay & Turkey Vulture soaring are the blog's author.)