Posted in Birding, Finches, Passeriformes

House Sparrow

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.

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Snowfeather’s Cardianal

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.

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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!”

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Mimic’s 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.

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Mimic turned to me in the checkout line, “Did you see that House Sparrow?”

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Mimic’s 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.

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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.”

Posted in Birding, Mockingbirds, Passeriformes

Northern Mockingbird

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.”

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A Cold Northern.

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.

Posted in Birding, Grackles, Passeriformes

Great-tailed Grackle

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?”

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Great-tails?

“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.

Posted in Birding, Columbiformes, Doves

Common Ground Dove

9:02 a.m.

The rapping of a ‘shave and a haircut’ knock on my bedroom door ended my late morning slumber. I knew its source and I knew its intent. It was meant as a call to action, a reveille, the bugle call at sunrise. Wake up it’s the first day of a very Big Year!

I cracked a window blind, preparing a reply to the request for departure I was sure to hear. The pane felt cold. Tiny water droplets rolled down the outside of the glass. Fog lingered in the creek bed at the other side of the cul-de-sac. I expected it wouldn’t be the best weather for spotting birds, freezing rain had been the overnight forecast, so seeing the fog was a welcomed relief. For birders, cold drizzle isn’t the ‘end all’ and light rain is like ‘water off a ducks back’.

Mimic stood ready on the other side of the door, binocular around his neck and fully outfitted for his birding adventure. “Come on, Beaker. Hurry! I’ve already seen two birds out my window.”

The flock of Great-tailed Grackle appeared as flakes of pepper huddling atop the furthest telephone pole in sight. “There’s a dove out there too.”

“Really?” I replied, readying my binocular.

“I’m not sure what kind though. At this distance it’s too hard to tell. Could be a Mourning Dove, could be a Common Ground Dove, I really don’t know.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said. “I’m going to get my camera.” Still a bit groggy, I wasn’t sure I would know the difference if the birds were two feet away. Always ready to provide the identifications and helpful facts, I was glad to have Mimic at my side.

Snowfeather had joined Mimic when I returned. Quiet as usual, she didn’t say a word. Mimic introduced her to the birds, as I prepared my telephoto lens. Birds are his passion and he was ready to throw on his coat and go chasing after these ‘new’ but often seen birds. Snowfeather and I weren’t quite so anxious and Hawkeye had yet to emerge from her nice, warm nest. So for now, we’d wait for the birds to come to us.

After a minute or two, the three of us made our way downstairs. Wishing a fine-feathered-friend would fly in for a closer view, we scouted the backyard. A moment later Snowfeather spoke. “There,” she said.

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Snowfeather’s Dove.

“Where?” asked Mimic.

“There on the cliffs.”

Terraced limestone walls stretch across the backyards of our community. They’re only about twelve feet high, but we call them ‘the cliffs’. The bird was in our neighbor’s yard on the second step of the cliff, pecking the ground for insects. A bug breakfast, no doubt. Mimic and I raced upstairs!

The window on the landing faced the neighbor’s yard and it would be the perfect viewing spot. There, halfway up the stairs, we sighted and clearly identified the first bird we’d count. It wasn’t a rarity perched on a tree or a majestic bird of prey soaring the sky high above. The first bird of our big year was a simple bird; small, peaceful and unassuming. Watching this little guy I was reminded of the small birds mentioned in the Bible, birds often overlooked by humans, but birds having great value in the eyes of God.

The Common Ground Dove may sound like a creature that might be considered insignificant, but not for us. To my family and I, this grayish-brown bird with small black spots on its wings was the best bird to begin our Big Year. Like the many birds that were sure to follow, seeing this bird was a priceless gift from the maker of heaven and earth.

Posted in Birding

Roadrunner

For most of the year the Roadrunner, a bird native to Texas and very common to the area, had eluded us completely. After repeated trips to the nearby state park, arriving early each time and driving slowly down the road, we finally saw that evasive little bird! It wasn’t ‘running’ though, it was just standing there on the side of the road…

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That is until I grabbed for my camera. ‘BEEP-BEEP!’ – in a flash it was gone! The elusive Roadrunner had eluded us once again.

(note: Roadrunners don’t actually make the ‘beep-beep’ sound – but they are very fast.)