Beaker and I were still in the CVS parking lot, freezing our hands off. We had failed in taking good pictures of European Starlings and began walking back to the car. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a large, black bird rocking back and forth. It was clearly a vulture. “VULTURE!” I yelled to Beaker, to direct his attention.
He squinted his eyes. “Yeah, but they’re way too far away.”
I was confused, the vulture I was seeing was alone and not too terribly far away. As it turns out, Beaker was looking at tiny vulture specks floating around, high above. I directed him to the correct bird.
“Oh, yeah,” said Beaker. “It’s a Turkey Vulture, right?”
I looked closer at the bird. It had black on all of its wings, except the tip. And it continually and vigorously flapped them. “No,” I said. “It’s a Black Vulture.” I told Beaker how I could tell.
“Oh, yeah.” Beaker said, “You told me about that the other day.”
Beaker and I had seen a new bird but I also hoped Snowfeather and Hawkeye, who were still in the car, had seen it too. So when we got in the car, I asked them.
“Yeah, we saw it. I pointed it out to Hawkeye,” Snowfeather replied.
We drove out of CVS happy, content and freezing. That first day, I had seen 17 birds. Snowfeather and Hawkeye had seen my same number. Beaker had 15 birds. – Maybe you wonder when we saw the other vulture, the Turkey Vulture? Well, you’ll find out soon.
We had finished our journey at the duck pond and we were freezing our hands off. We shivered our way into the car. Beaker especially was having difficulties. As we stopped at a light near CVS Pharmacy, he was the first to say quite quickly, “Well let’s go home! Enough birds and…”
“Hey look,” I said, “European Starlings.”
Everyone looked around. “Where?”
“Over there on the power lines near CVS”
“I don’t think we should stop for ugly black birds,” Beaker said. Beaker usually has a dislike for black, bald or boring birds.
“But Beaker,” I said, “European Starlings are very colorful and sparkly in the sunlight.”
“And they were introduced here because of their occurrence in Shakespeare .”
“And it’s a new bird.”
“Oh, okay,” he said. Beaker pulled into the CVS Pharmacy parking lot and parked.
Hawkeye shook her head. “You crazy man.” She couldn’t believe we were going out in the cold to get a closer look at ‘ugly birds’.
Beaker and I got out and Beaker started trying to get pictures. A scowl began to form on his face. “What’s the matter, Beaker? This cold bothering you?”
“No.” He answered. “There’s too much back-light.”
I thought about that for a while. “If we went into the road there would be no back-light.”
“Yes,” Beaker said, “but that would be the last picture we would take!”
Okay, so we didn’t get he best pictures, but it was still cool to see the Shakespeare bird.
Northern Shovelers were not the only ducks that were avoiding us. There were also the ring-necked ducks. Ring-necks are diving ducks. They are distinguished from their relatives by a white ring on the bill and the nearly invisible cinnamon neck ring, in which it got its name. Ring-necks are quite shy and never come for bread. This is because they are diving ducks and dive for their food; aquatic plants and aquatic insects.
Another reason they are shy is because they are a very common sport duck and are also hunted for food. Apparently Beaker’s camera looked like a gun. Like the shovelers, they avoided us and swam to the opposite side we were on. We had a plan. Beaker would hide on one of the sides and the rest of us would drive the ducks to him.
We yelled and jumped. We accidentally woke up a turtle. Even the used-to-people Muscovy Duck got annoyed and swam away. Of course it worked on the shy, ring-necked ducks. Beaker got good pictures that were nice and close up but I bet you still can’t see their hidden neck ring.
We got out of the car and decided to take pictures of the two other ducks at the pond we hand not yet got close to. Among them were Northern Shovelers. Northern Shovelers are medium-sized ducks with a green head, rusty underside and very distinctive shovel-like bills. Usually they are found in groups of 5-10, males and females, coming on land and wanting bread. But his time there were only two males on the other side of the pond. So we walked to the other side of the pond.
When we got there it appeared that the shovelers were on the other side of the pond now. Perhaps our eyes were deceiving us. But when we went to the other side, they again were on the opposite side. We walked to where they were a little faster this time. But they swam a little faster and where once again on the other side. This went on once more.
We devised a plan. Hawkeye, Snowfeather and I would go where the ducks were and distract them while Beaker got pictures. It worked. We jumped, yelled and acted like crazy people and drove those ducks straight to an ambush – where Beaker and his camera lied in wait.
As we turned around the corner, on our way back to the pond, Hawkeye yelled, “Bird!” My head swerved just in time to see a black-bellied whistling duck. Only Hawkeye and I saw it. But as we walked around the freezing pond the little whistler came around near us. It was strange to see one walking all alone.
Usually they stay together in groups of twenty, crowding you and whistling for bread. But this one was all alone.
Later, when we got into the car though, twenty more flew in. And it just might not be a coincidence. They say Texas is the best place in the U.S. to see black-bellied whistling ducks, but we have not seen them since that day. Could they be avoiding us? Could these ducks be smarter than we think? Or… could all ducks be smarter than we think?
Maybe not. But it took some brains to figure out how to photograph the next few ducks.
Black sunflower seeds littered a glistening, greasy driveway below the late-model marigold, chrome-trimmed car. Behind the low, rear left tire, a score of house sparrows darted from place to place pecking the ground. Popping the seeds open they quickly gobbled the insides up. I had this bird but I hadn’t had its picture.
“Look, common ground doves.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw there in and among the small little brownish birds, a few larger grayish birds. My focus stayed on adjusting the viewfinder of a camera I was still learning to use. I had that bird, but didn’t have its picture either.
When finally finished with my fumbling, I pointed the camera’s elongated lens toward my seed-eating subjects. They scattered like a frightened flock of birds – which they were of course – but the term means so much more to me now.
I realized then and there that I wouldn’t be able to photograph the birds we see and also narrate our adventures in doing so. “Mimic, would you mind taking over the narrative?”
“Sure,” he said, always ready to help. “But where should I begin?”
“Now is as good a place as any. We just spotted Egyptian Geese and…”
After admiring the Egyptian Geese for a while, we decided to make a turn-a-round and head back to the duck pond. We drove to a turn-a-round, turned around, and on the way back Hawkeye yelled, “DOVE!” When Hawkeye says ‘bird!’ or a bird name, all eyes focus on where she’s pointing.
Snowfeather and I got a good view, since the bird was out our window. Beaker had to get closer to me to see it. But what where we looking at? – A white-winged dove walking on the sidewalk. One of the larger doves, white-wings are distinguished from the others by the white edge on their wings. In flight you mainly see a blur of black and white. Which is what we saw when this skittish dove thought the huge silver beast was too close for comfort.
When we drove away I asked Beaker, “Did you see that white-winged dove?”
He answered, “No.”
I was surprised. “What? You didn’t see that white-winged dove just now?”
His tone of voice changed. “Wait. No, I saw it but I didn’t get a picture of it. That’s what I meant.”
I reassured Beaker. “Don’t worry. White-wings are really common. You’ll get pictures.”
Although Beaker didn’t get pictures of that dove, that day, he did get some of the other birds.
Once around the pond was more than enough. We hurried back into the car, started the engine and turned up the heat. Our shivers lessened. The windshield and our noses slowly began to defrost. We felt the coziness of cloth seats as warm air blew above and below us. I started to feel my fingertips once more. “Well that was fun.” It wasn’t going to be easy to get me to go back out there in that cold wet air. “Maybe we can drive around a bit and see what other birds we can see…”
“From the car!” Hawkeye knew my words and my sentiment.
We discussed where we could go next. Home wasn’t an option. Perhaps there was another way to park and see birds on the opposite side of the pond. “Where does that road go? Turn right here.”
“Which way?” Hawkeye asked.
I smiled and clarified my statement. “Turn right, ‘right’ here, please. I think we might find the backside of the pond this way.”
I was wrong. The only way around the pond was by foot and these two little feet of mine were only now beginning to thaw. It would be awhile before I would ‘warm up to the idea’ of getting back out. For now we’d do some bird watching from our car.
As we turned down a street in the neighborhood behind the duck pond a shout came form the backseat. “Look!” This shout I heard. Hawkeye heard it too and safely slowed the car.
Fifty feet off to the left, in the front yard of a mid-century garden home, stood what looked to me like two faded lawn decorations of short and squatty flamingos. Did they loose their legs? These things happen overtime you know.
“What are they?”
Of course there’s always those neighborhood hoodlums that run around ruining everything. Taking bats to mailboxes wasn’t enough for these goons, now they were attacking lawn decor!
As I was lost in my thoughts, a positive identification was made.”Those are Egyptian Geese! Wow! What in the world are they doing here?”
This ain’t Egypt, I said to myself, ready to give my standard ‘are they lost’ reply. I’d been there, done that, so instead I said, “That is unusual. Isn’t it, Mimic?” As it turned out I was glad I held back the humor.
“Very.” Mimic said, his face shining like the sun on a summer day.
Just like his mother’s always has, now his smile had the warming effect. I wasn’t cold anymore. I learned something, sitting in silence, staring at a rare goose with my wife, daughter and son. No matter how bitter life in this old world becomes, it’s family that keeps us from freezing.
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?”
“Those are the cormorant,” replied Snowfeather.
“Double-crested Cormorant, actually,” Mimic added.
“Are they birds?”
“Snake bird.” Snowfeather said simply.
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