I am a good birder. Also, I am a concert pianist and an Olympic athlete. In that I can play concert-level pieces badly and I can walk across a ten-foot plank on the ground without falling off, nine times out of ten.
But I am proud of the fact that I can hear a bird and know it’s somebody new. I don’t know who it is but I do know I don’t know it, which requires at least some familiarity. True, it often turns out to be a Bewick’s wren, but still. You have to know some birds to know what birds you don’t know, so I’m making progress.
Real birders can stand in a forest where everyone and his fuzzy cousin is chirping away like mad, and suddenly stop and yell VEERY! for no apparent reason and then jab a finger at a specific spot in the canopy, and say THERE!…[jab]…THERE! [jab]…THERE! [jab]. Like they have birder Tourette’s. I can’t even hear what they’re pointing at.
The other day I was talking to a neighbor down the street and mentioned I’d heard a hermit thrush in the yard with all the manzanitas in it. I thought it was an impressive statement, something a real birder would say. What I had done was I fired up my Merlin app and my phone told me it was a hermit thrush. But come on. I had to recognize it as different for me to even consult the app.
Unfortunately, I didn’t see it. I saw lots of flitting but the coy little flitster kept inserting itself behind leaves. I never got a real look. Which is a pity because hermit thrush would be a new one for me—a “life bird!”
Maybe. Honestly I don’t know if it would be new or not. I could have seen one lots of times and then forgotten it. I see new birds all the time around here and they’re always Bewick’s wrens. I don’t even know if hermit thrushes are rare. Seems to me a hermit thrush might be hard to spot, or otherwise they’d call it the Gregarious Warbleator.
So I don’t know what to give myself credit for, except this: I told my neighbor up the street that I hadn’t actually seen the bird but wish I had because I’ve never seen one before. (Let’s go ahead and say that’s so.) And then I walked the remaining five blocks home. And just as I was coming up to my house, I saw a small bird in the sidewalk, ten feet away. I stopped. It looked right at me and hopped toward me, which is unusual behavior for birds that are not Studley Windowson.
And of course, because stories should always end this way, you know what it was. Because you should always keep room in your heart for good things to perch, you know just what it was. It was four feet away and stayed put while I crouched down for a photo. We’d just had a massive snowfall and I don’t know how birds find lunch in those conditions. Are you hungry, honey? I asked. Bird didn’t say No.
Thrush. Do thrushes eat seeds? Not so much, I thought, thinking of robins and my beloved varied thrushes. Worms! Hey, bless my crappy-birder bones, I know a little something. “Stay right there, I’ll be right back,” I told my bird. I had mealworms. Aspirational new-Studley mealworms, just biding their time in my fridge. I went inside.
When I came back out, my friend was still nearby. I crouched down and tossed out some worms, and that bright little buttonhead scooped them right up, zip zip zip. I thought if I had more time, I might have been able to coax it close enough to take them from my hand. But I stood up and dumped several dozen worms on the sidewalk and let it be. Bird’s got enough of a job being a journeyman hermit thrush without me bugging it for a song and dance. He’ll probably remember me—they’re better at that than I am. And a mealworm dinner is a bargain price for a full human heart.