English Class Was “For the Birds”

by Daniel Murray | Aug 1, 2022 | 0 comments

Spring Migration Bird Contest Grand Prize

It is a typical Monday morning at work in mid-May. The weather has finally dried out following the wettest April on record, and the sun is trying to peak through the clouds. I am trimming and cabling a large Bloodgood maple in an attempt to save it from damage caused by a late spring snowstorm.

The grounds surround a stately, three-story house with a southern feel—yellow with white gingerbreading, stained-glass windows, and an herb garden surrounded with red brick and wrought-iron work. To the east is a fifteen-acre cow pasture, to the west a mature Bigleaf maple forest dropping away to a creek in the bottom. The floor is a lush growth of sword fern and shrubbery.

As I work in the dappled shade on the edge of this forest, I have in one earbud, listening to a newly discovered favorite podcast entitled “Songbirding.” As I listen, I begin to realize that I am hearing more birds with my open ear than through my earbud. I remove my headphones and begin to drink in the surrounding chorus. A half-dozen robins are calling and singing all around me, and the “yank yank” of a Red-breasted Nuthatch comes from deeper in the woods.

I begin to think of the Nature Friend twenty-four-hour birding contest and wish I had the opportunity to actually put in a full day of just birding. Then the thought crosses my mind, Why not twenty-four hours of birding at work? Why not start right now?

I pull out my phone, and, a few taps later, I have an e-bird checklist up and running. Although my binoculars are always in my truck, since I am busy working, I am mostly birding by ear. The harsh, scolding call of a Steller’s Jay, the soft coo of a Mourning Dove, and the familiar song of the Song Sparrow all greet my listening ears. I hear the Dark-eyed Junco whose partially-fledged baby I found hopping around the lawn in the rain last week unable to fly, while his vexed parents called loudly. I wonder if he survived?

As I continue pruning, my mind begins to wander into the past—nearly two decades ago when we first started getting this little half-sized magazine called Nature Friend. Phrases of my intended story begin to form in my head, word pictures of the sights and sounds that surrounded me.

Wait! Stop! Am I losing my mind? Twenty years ago, my most hated homeschool assignment was writing, often in the form of stories for reader’s issues and story contests. What have I become!?

My thoughts are interrupted by the deep, harsh croaks of a pair of ravens circling overhead in their synchronous flight. A couple of Spotted Towhees mew from the leaf litter, and the drumming of a large woodpecker echoes through the timber. Most likely it’s a Northern Flicker, but Pileated is not uncommon either. A flash of dull yellow catches my eye as it disappears into a maple, possibly an Orange-crowned Warbler, but I don’t get another look. The Black-capped Chickadees continue their cheerful twitter, and the “zzzzzzip” of a couple of Pine Siskins joins in.

It is now almost lunch time, and this job is nearly finished. I glance up as a lone duck beats its rapid flight high overhead. Swallows and starlings crisscross the noon sky. It is time for the next scene in my saga.

Over lunch, I need to make a stop at the bank in the next town. I add Red-tailed Hawk and Evening Grosbeak on the drive. While I am nearby, I pull in to make a quick stop at another client’s house, this one with several hundred feet of frontage on the Lewis River. As soon as I climb out of the truck, I can hear the Red-winged Blackbird’s cheery whistle and see Barn and Violet-green Swallows cruising over the water.

Male Red-winged Blackbird flying over marsh
Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo © Kevin Shank.

I head around the corner of the house, and—splash!—two nutria vanish into the river, only to crawl back out a few minutes later and fall to mowing down the lush green along shore. A Great Egret flaps his lazy way downstream. A few moments later, from around the bend, come a pair of Common Mergansers heading the opposite direction in a great hurry. He wears a dapper black and white suit, she a soft rusty red.

This is usually a good place for a Belted Kingfisher, but I neither see his cocky self nor hear the little chucklehead. A pair of Canada Geese graze peacefully on the shore minus their trail of fluffy yellow balls I saw here last week. I wonder where they are? A blur of brilliant yellow and black, as an American Goldfinch flies by, contrasts nicely with a Great Blue Heron.

It is time for me to move along. As I pull out of the driveway, a couple of Turkey Vultures in the distance are catching the updraft against the opposite hillside. Just in front of me a Red-tailed Hawk is trying to keep his cool while being pestered by a mob of crows.

On the drive back, I get a House Sparrow while stopped at a red light, and a Rock Pigeon perched on a bridge girder. Soon I arrive at another beautiful estate. This one has a Northwest lodge flavor, with redwood shake siding and natural flagstone floors. The paths wind past dozens of large rhododendrons just beginning to flower, gnarled trunks of flowering cherries, and shapely evergreens of many varieties. The view from the bluff takes in 180° of the mighty Columbia River, and thousands of acres of the adjoining wildlife refuge spread out below.

In the hour I spend here, I see many repeat birds, including another Red-tailed nearly at eye level as he surfs the wind coming up the bluff. The unmistakable sound of a Killdeer crying his name comes from somewhere nearby, and a Northern Flicker joins him in creating a ruckus.

As I prepare to head on my way once again, my ear catches a faint sound. What was that? A far cry from the deep tones of the raven, this is a crack-the-glass high note, with almost dog-whistle qualities. Cedar Waxwing comes to mind, but it has been quite a while since I’ve heard one, and since I can’t see the songster, I have to leave this one with a question mark.

As the list grows longer, the opportunities for new species are dwindling, and it’s just as well, because I end up spending most of the rest of the afternoon under a welding helmet where the only flying things are sparks and time. I
do manage to pick up House Finch and California Scrub-Jay at the end of the day.

Then it’s home for dinner and a quick peek at the mamma Black-capped Chickadee sitting on seven eggs in a nest box I made a while ago with my little daughter. We mounted it on our back patio, and this is the second year the chickadees have used it.

The robins sing us to sleep as the sun is sinking. Tomorrow morning will bring both birds and sun back to us soon enough.

Morning dawns, and 7:15 finds me out loading up for the day’s work. Another sunny day, and still a couple hours remain of my twenty-four.

Hey! What was that? Once again there comes that high-frequency note. Sure enough, there sitting in my neighbors’ tree are a half-dozen Cedar Waxwings. Now I can add them to my list for sure. They fly down to inspect an ivy-covered tree nearby. “Sorry fellas, a day late and a dollar short—a flock of robins stripped it of every single berry in just a few minutes during a wild feeding frenzy over a month ago.”

Oh, bummer! I left the accessory switch on in my truck overnight, and the battery is completely drained. So much for hitting the road in good season. While it charges, I take advantage of the time to do some much-neglected work in my own yard and add a brilliant male Western Tanager to my list.

At last I am off, this time to a number of stops in a lakeside golf course neighborhood. At my first stop, I am hoping to see a Chestnut-backed Chickadee I know is nesting in a box nailed to a large redwood tree. He doesn’t disappoint. Soon he arrives with his mouth full of goodies, either for his nesting mate or perhaps a few extra hungry mouths. As I don’t hear a chorus of, “Feed me! Feed me!” I suspect they are still penned up in their calcium prisons. A couple of Anna’s Hummingbirds are visiting a feeder along with a possible female Rufous.

All too soon the clock says my twenty-four hours are up and my adventure must come to a close. Now to ask a valedictorian English major I know to proofread this for me: my former teacher, assigner of torturous writing homework…and mother. Perhaps in a few months when my two- and four-year-old daughters snuggle in for their nightly Nature Friend story, I will open it and read them this one, and they will have no idea that it has been twenty years in the making.

Anna's Hummingbird drinking from pink flowers
Anna’s Hummingbird. Photo © G. Allen Gustafson.

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