The cold began to bite a little more fiercely. Hands, warmed briefly in coat pockets, cupped sniffling frostbit noses as breath mist flowed through our fingers. Frequent gusts carried sprays of water from the fountain at the center of the pond downwind, in our direction. Like an unwelcome admirer, the wind matched our course and followed us wherever we went. I was beginning to think this birding thing was ‘for the birds’.
“Are those snakes?” Curvy black creatures stretched up from the surface of the water like snakes charmed from a billowing basket. “What are those things out there in the center of the pond?”
Mimic helped to fill in the details. “Cormorants are called snake birds because their long necks, sometimes the only part of their bodies seen above water, are mistaken as snakes.”
Having these charming snake, bird and snake-bird experts around did much to warm my heart but not a whole lot to warm my freezing hands. I didn’t know what I’d snap first, a picture of the cormorants or the five little icicles I used to call fingers. – Click
Through rolled up windows everyone watched the rustle and bustle, the flapping and fluttering of our feathered friends as they flocked on the duck pond outside our car.
It was but a quick retreat from the cold for Mimic and Snowfeather. Feeling much warmer, they were ready to return to the wild, to get back out there and spot a new bird. More than ducks inhabited this duck pond. “I think the rain has let up a bit,” Hawkeye said. “Let’s all get out this time.”
I agreed. “But what if it starts to rain? I don’t want my camera to get wet.”
“I can hold the umbrella for you.”
“That’s nice of you, Mimic. But I don’t think I’ll be shooting from that low of an angle. Besides your a good spotter. You need to be free to spot.”
Mimic, always ready to help, was halfway out the door when Hawkeye promised to provide an umbrella shelter from a higher altitude. If the need be.
I strolled to the left, watching the pond as I went. A bright and sleekly shaped figure, gracefully gliding over the water, captured my attention. It was as white as a swan and as thin as a rail. If it were a duck, the poor thing would be starved. Emaciated duck or not, I knew I needed its picture. “What is that skinny white thing that keeps flying back and forth?”
“That’s a Snowy Egret.”
“Is it lost?” I asked. “There ain’t no snow around here.”
Mimic replied straightforwardly. “It’s called ‘snowy’ because of its color not its habitat. Egrets of all sorts are fairly common here.”
Still, at this particular duck pond, at this particular time, the only egret within eyesight was the sleek and shiny, snowy one. Snow itself hadn’t been seen in years. Although it certainly felt cold enough.
An empty plastic bag dangled from his hand, the last moistened morsel fell to the ground and was readily consumed by a long yellow bill. Their appetites remained insatiable. Each quack seemed to say ‘Feed us more. Quack, more. Quack more!’
Mimic hurried back into the car, his shoes met the floor mat with a muddying squish. Snowfeather followed soon after and quickly closed the door. “My hands are freezing,” she said.
“Would you like to borrow my gloves?” replied Hawkeye.
My camera, untrained upon the waddling beasts outside, clicked once more. The captured image displayed briefly. “I’m having trouble focusing.”
“Too may ducks? Too much commotion?” Mimic asked.
“No, I just don’t know how to use this camera. It takes a long time to focus. I think I’m going to have to do this manually.” I flipped a switch on the side the lens and quickly refocused on a brown and white bird. “What kind of duck is that?”
“That’s a mallard.”
“The one right there? I thought mallards had a bright green head.”
“They do.” Mimic spotted the same duck. “It’s a pekin.”
“It’s peeking at what?”
“Not peeking,” Mimic continued matter-of-factly. “It’s a pekin duck.”
“Peking Duck? I thought that was a Chinese dish?”
Mimic could take no more mindless chatter and at last spoke plainly. “A pekin is a breed of mallard.”
“The white ones are called pekins,” Snowfeather said softly.
“What are the ones with the green head called?”
I sensed this was going to take a little more dissection of terms, perhaps some etymology was in order. I decided to begin again, this time with a simple, single question. And this time I addressed Hawkeye, the word expert. “What’s a mallard?”
“Nothing,“ she said smiling. “What’s a matter with you?”
A cold drizzle fell as we walked out of the restaurant. The weather wasn’t getting any better. The air bit a bit more bitterly. We huddled into the car, turned on the windshield wipers and turned up the heat. Hawkeye put the car in reverse. Would we go home and call it quits? Was it too cold to continue?
“Let’s go birding!”
Mimic’s words inspired us to press on despite the inclemency. The car was put in drive and our birding adventure shifted into high gear. We were headed for the nearby neighborhood duck pond. Ducks have no problem with rain and apparently the cold doesn’t faze them much either. “It’s like water off a ducks back.” Mimic said.
“Well it’s still too cold for me. Beaker, darling, you can take our little ducklings out for a stroll around the pond. I’ll wait here in the nice warm car.”
“I’d love to my dearest Hawkeye, but there’s no way I’m taking this camera out in that wet mess. We can keep an eye on them from here and I can get the pictures through the window.”
Young as they are, Mimic and Snowfeather ventured into the miserableness – braving the cold us ‘old people’ feared or were too sensible to endure – to feed our fine feathered friends the stale bread we had saved in our freezer.
“Look! They’re attacking him.” The ducks swarmed to Mimic at the first sign of the half thawed old squishy stuff. They were relentless and looked starved. “Quick, get a picture!”
“Okay, but I really don’t want pictures of birds behaving badly. Where are their manners? You always see ducks walk in straight lines all nice and neat. But these birds are on a feeding frenzy! – What kind of ducks are these anyway?”
The family’s ‘bird knowledge base’ follows this hierarchy: Mimic is our ‘go to guy’ whenever anything aviary is needed to be known. Snowfeather follows secondly as Mimics understudy of sorts, ready to fill in at a moment’s notice. Hawkeye is third and can identify most common birds with ease. I follow lastly, recognizing only a few birds here and there. I’m better with faces than with names.
These ducks looked familiar, I’d seen them before. Hawkeye provided the help. “Those ugly ones with the red thing on their heads, those are Muscovy.” Conversations lose some birding merit when the experts are out. The facts may not be so factual, but we get by.
“Oh, yeah. Those are the ducks that peck and chase little children at duck ponds all over the world. Hurry, roll down the window. Let’s get a picture!”
Hawkeye drove so that I could ride shotgun, camera in hand, telephoto in place, ready to shoot any bird that crossed our path. Snowfeather and Mimic sat in the backseat, peering out their respective car windows, wide-eyed and ever alert to the slightest bird-like movement. As we passed the neighborhood mailbox I heard a shout from behind. “A cardinal!” I think the intent was to shout but the delivery was poor.
Snowfeather’s ‘shouts’ register as whispers on a decibel meter so unfortunately for us nobody heard, or at the least fully understood her words until we had passed that little bird by.
No worries though, cardinals are fairly common and we were certain we’d see another soon enough.
We’ve learned to bird wherever we are. So when we needed to visit the nearby Wal-Mart to supplement Mimic’s winter gear with gloves, it wasn’t a problem. It was another opportunity!
As we pulled around the back entrance, Hawkeye shouted, “bird!” and promptly hit the brakes. The usual “Where? What was it? Which way did it go?” questions flew out as she circled the car back around and parked next to the curb. All eyes darted about the wooded landscape behind the store. “Is it a female cardinal?” Hawkeye asked.
“I don’t believe it!” Mimic said gleefully. “It’s a Black-crested Titmouse!”
I didn’t believe it either. I wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was, but it sounded rare and I knew I’d need a picture to prove we spotted it. I fumbled about for a minute or two. New cameras need some braking in.
“It’s right there.” Fumble, fumble.
“It’s on that tree.” Fumble.
“The small one, next to the bigger one.” Fumble, fumble, fumble.
Fingers pointed in the general direction of a grove of small trees. Some had a few leaves barely hanging on. There was a plastic bag stuck on a branch, but nothing that looked like a bird.
In the end, my three fellow birders saw it, identified it and counted it. I didn’t. And that was the second bird that got away. The next was soon to follow.
Mimic turned to me in the checkout line, “Did you see that House Sparrow?”
“Where outside, before we came in?”
“No, back there. Up high in those big-beam-things, above the fish and bird-seed-area.”
“That sounds like the ideal spot for a bird. You sure it wasn’t a Store Sparrow though?”
“Pretty sure,” Mimic replied, “since there’s no such thing as store sparrows.” He smiled, I smiled back. It was a proud father and ‘chip of the old block’ son moment.
Soon it was time for lunch. When we pulled into the parking lot of our favorite Thai restaurant, Hawkeye shouted, “bird!” (There’s a reason she’s called ‘Hawkeye’. She’s got eyes like a hawk.) I looked around feverishly not wanting to miss another. “In the bush next to the rail on that landing above the stairs. See it?” – I saw it!
As a group we had seen, four birds, three species and countless pairs of gloves. This however was the first bird I had seen and identified since leaving the house. There in the shadow of shopping center shrubbery was a little brown House Sparrow. “I think he’s following us.”
A while ago Mimic had suggested we get out there, brave the cold and chase some birds. I was beginning to agree with him. Of course we’d have to bundle up in layers, take an umbrella with us and eat breakfast before we go. Nonetheless, we knew an adventure await us if we could just get ourselves in the car and out the door. “I’m going to see if Hawkeye needs some help. Let me know if you see anything else.”
Snowfeather and Mimic had continued to survey the neighborhood from the upstairs window, so I wasn’t surprised that upon my return I found them both with binocular pressed against their eyes and fixed on a spot across the street behind our house. “There’s another,” said Snowfeather. “On Bird Tree.”
“Bird Tree?” I asked.
“Mimic spotted it. It’s perched high on the tree, up among the dead branches.”
“Mimic.” I looked him in the eye. “What is she talking about?”
“The bird on the tree over there, the really tall one. Not the one with the leaves, the other one next to that one. The one with the dead branches at the top. Well not the tippity-top but just below there. That’s where the bird is.”
Apparently I was the only one in the conversation that didn’t know that ‘bird tree’ was the seasonal densely leaved and comparably very tall tree across the street, where in times past birds have come to roost, nest, raise their young and do whatever else birds do.
At last, I spotted it too. “Is that a Mockingbird?”
“Yes,” said Mimic. “A Northern Mockingbird.”
“He looks cold. All fluffed out like that.”
Snowfeather agreed. “I guess we’d be cold too if we were out there.”
And we would soon find out how cold being out in the cold would be.
From the window on the second floor we searched the rooftops and telephone poles behind our home once more. “Whoa! What was that?” I said loudly.
Mimic briefly let his eyes leave his notes. “What? Where?”
“I don’t know. I saw something black fly by. – Whoa, there’s another one!”
“Black?” asked Mimic. He answered his own question, jotting his words as he spoke. “Probably a Great-tailed Grackle. They’re not really black though.”
“Oh. Well they have a great tail though, right?” I asked jokingly.
He dismissed my question and answered his. “Yes, that’s what they were. See over there. They’re on that telephone line above that house.”
“Yes, I see them. Have you ever seen a ‘not so great’ tailed grackle?”
“No.” My joke fell flat. “But some male grackles lose part of their tail when fighting other males.” He continued. “See there’s a female next to him, she’s a little smaller and browner.”
The birds had come closer. With my telephoto lens in hand, I zoomed in. The morning sky was a bluish grey. You could almost see the air outside; still, cold and wet. I framed my shot, hoping for a Kodak moment.
Click – I took the shot. Click – I took another.
The first bird of the year to be photographed was none other than the Great-tailed Grackle. The birds that had resembled pepper flakes, just moments ago while much further away, had now been clearly identified, captured on camera and counted.