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.
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.