What May Come

As my final May at Woodberry ticks down, I must say that I've been especially aware of the need to get outside and see it up close one last time. It helps that getting outside is actually part of my job, what with my status as a faculty supervisor of the Rapidan program, which teaches students about rock-climbing, kayaking, hiking, and various other aspects of outdoor education. This spring those aspects have included skiing (EARLY in the season), geocacheing, and yes, birding. I've taken the guys out with binoculars and helped them spot everything from the locally common birds (starlings, grackles, robins) to the less common locals (Bald Eagle, PIleated Woodpecker, Belted Kingfisher) to newly-arrived migrants (Eastern Meadowlark, Spotted Sandpiper, Eastern Kingbird) and even a few true oddities (Horned Grebe).

Even when we haven't been birding as a group, I've certainly been birding myself. When Rapidan took a hike up White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park, I made sure my binoculars came with me, and man am I glad I did. I spotted the year's first American Redstarts, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Red-eyed Vireos, for one thing. Better still, I was able to spot the distinctive caramel-and-olive coloration (and head stripes) of a pair of Worm-eating Warblers--only the second time I'd ever laid eyes on the species. And last Saturday, when I was assigned to walk along the river to make sure students were not doing Inappropriate Things, I found a far larger population of birds than students, and their behavior was entirely appropriate. The trip began with the unmistakeable "queerp?" of the Great Crested Flycatcher, and in the course of my circuit I was treated to a number of other delights: the startlingly visible white "pocket-handkerchief" mark of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, the brilliant orange of the male Baltimore Oriole, and along the edge of the pasture of Brampton Farm, a chunky bird hopping from limb to limb and firing off vireo-like calls.

There was a reason for that: it was a Yellow-throated Vireo. My first ever.

Needless to say, that only encouraged me to grab my binoculars and hit the trails around the campus at every opportunity. And when I woke up for no good reason at 2:30 this morning, I decided that I should do the one thing I hadn't done yet this spring: bird during the Dawn Chorus. Birds are active all day, but the best time to see them is early in the morning, often before the sun has officially hit the sky, when they're usually awake, moving, feeding, and calling. When the sun rose at 6:09, I was out in the morning mist, walking trails still a little damp from last night's rains. Everything with feathers was making noise, I believe, most notably the main spring migrant I was still hoping to see: the Wood Thrush, whose fluting call is one of the most welcome signs of winter's end. Sure enough, I could both hear them in the trees and see a couple of them walking rapidly away from me on the path. The light was dim enough that I needed them to cooperate a bit, which they did periodically by turning back toward me and exposing their black-spotted white bellies, then spinning back around to show the rufous tops of their heads.

That color was essentially the same one as the river water; the Rapidan was high and fast, completely opaque and well out of the safe-to-kayak range, but the birds on its banks were unfazed. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Tufted Titmice were everywhere, taking acrobatic turns on the thinnest branches to get at the insects there. The black mask of the year's first Common Yellowthroat popped up, and soon after I was treated to a call-and-response session involving its "witchety witchety witchety" and the "teakettle teakettle teakettle" of a Carolina Wren up the path. A burred call from above led me to look into the highest branches, where I was treated to the sight of one of my favorite birds: the male Scarlet Tanager, a perfect combination of brilliant red body and jet-black wings. American Redstarts darted through the branches of a hackberry tree, and a pair of male Indigo Buntings set up a loud argument over which side of the path belonged to whom. It was an all but perfect morning.

Why not perfect? Well, I'm picky about my birding. I don't put a species down on my list for the year until I've actually laid eyes on it. That's partly a side effect of my less-than-accomplished skills with bird calls, but it's also just a prejudice: I don't feel as though I've really experienced a bird's presence when I've only heard it. In other words, if I want to log the Eastern Wood-pewee I heard calling its name, or the Acadian Flycatcher whose distinctive hiccup accompanied me along much of the trail, I'm going to have to see one.

Darn. I guess that means I have to pick up my binoculars and go out again. To that briar patch.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on May 7, 2015 8:47 AM.

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