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.
Aw! That warmed the cockles of my heart! Even brought tears to my eyes. You have a real way with birds, Murr. Thank you for telling us about this.
Such a little buttonhead. It’s so easy to fall in love.
The little dear, come to visit you! Wonderful! Here in northern Maryland we had no snow at all the entire winter (so far) so I assume the foraging is pretty good. A couple of days ago, I saw a flock of robins all hopping about on the lawn out front where the sun has warmed up the ground. It was nightmare time for worms. The robins were yanking them out of the ground like knitting come undone.
Now that’s vivid.
Just hearing a bird is ok. Really. Don’t let your eyes be more important than your ears (unless Dave is whispering into the latter about how sparkly are the former). There’s plenty on my list that are just from calls. Jeez, I’ve heard umpteen Quail, but never clapped eyes on one.
Too bad! Quail definitely come in umpteens, in breeding season. One big one and a whole ellipsis of fuzzy dots.
😊 That would be fun to see, I agree. Sadly, they’re a very rare breeder here in Orkney, so my chances are slim to zero.
My favorite winter visitor is a hermit thrush. I’ve seen him eat sunflower seeds, but he probably wishes I’d put out mealworms. Still – he comes every winter to stay chez moi, and for that I am profoundly grateful.
I didn’t really see the reddish tail on this one but I am assured that is the only thrush he could be.
I am in southern California right now, on a Palm Springs vacation. We spent the day at Joshua Tree National Park on Tuesday and I saw my first scrub jay. Gorgeous blue! And there are Northern Mockingbirds all over the place; something I never see at home. Also, in the Tahquitz Canyon parking lot, I saw my first roadrunner!
Well I’d kill for a roadrunner. (In fact, got a coyote handy by, but I don’t want to kill that. So it’s just an expression.) Scrub jays we have in quantityy.
A couple of years ago I rescued a roadrunner who had gotten trapped in our horse trough. Fortunately, the water level was quite low so with the help of a shovel I was able to lift it up to the rim. I was amazed at how heavy that bird was. What a thrill to be that close. Equally amazing was how fast that sucker was – zero to sixty in two seconds!
I’m surprised that a brand-new-to-you bird stayed right there as you asked him to. I’m glad he did.
Okay, here’s a confession. I was floored that the bird came toward me even though he was already close. Well, when you take a photo with an iPhone, you get that itty bitty video? I had not even noticed, but in two photos you could see he in fact was getting his own worms off our sidewalk–teeny tiny ones–and came toward me because he was after a worm. Didn’t even see it In Real Life!
Glad you made a new friend.
I find Merlin to be mildly entertaining but mostly just maddening.
Its incredible just how wrong it can be and people report the results to ebird.
Recently we had what must have been a snow bird here for a winter vacation and the Merlin id’d birds she submitted were insane. Birds I have never heard of , from other continents no less!
Do you feed JZ’s suet? Its thrush approved at our house.
I haven’t made any. I just buy hot pepper suet cakes from the local Backyard Bird Shop and jam them in my wire feeder. I’m trying to keep the squirrels off my bird food.
Delightful post, Murr! Hermit Thrushes overwinter down here in the central coast of CA – love their plaintive flute-like songs and their perky little bodies, bright button eyes. One comes regularly to bathe in my fountain – what a delight to watch.
I’ll bet now that I’m awake around hermit thrushes I’ll see them more often.
Listening to one of those meditative-type songs yesterday, there was a bird call tucked in with the music and DH and I said in unison, “That’s one of OUR hawks!” (the kind that make you wonder how they ever eat since they can’t seem to hush up anytime they’re flying.)
Our Brown Thrushes are back and the change-over from winter to summer birds has begun. DH says it’s cheap/cheep entertainment and that by that expression he means him watching me.
I love watching the molts. My friend just reported she thought the American goldfinches were back, and she didn’t realize they’d been here all winter–but they yellow up bit by bit!
I’d post a link to this poem I love, but couldn’t find a link, so here’s the whole thing.
“Birding by Ear”
by Susan Cohen
First Prize, 2012 Literal Latte Poetry Award.
We’re mostly couples of that age when people start
to wonder what they’ve missed,
and set out to find it evenings
at Adult School. Our teacher’s slim, blonde, single,
fine at snatching birdsong from air.
not to mention younger, and I notice how men
gaze at her, intense as Sharp-shinned hawks,
and consider their life lists.
What’s the harm? My husband and I met so many
birds ago, when he came fresh
from the Southern California orchard
bearing the exotic names of cherries
(Bings, Vans, Jubilees, Lamberts,
Tartarians, Black Republicans),
his childhood of droughts and floods
rich in one way: His father paid him
to shoot those birds that ate the crop.
In their taxonomy, the avian kingdom
divided neatly into damned Cherry Eaters
and birds allowed to live.
A Cherry Eater chirped, and he ran to the orchard.
He plugged thousands at a nickel apiece,
bounty hunter, .22 slung
where now he hefts a spotting scope and aims
at nothing more than magnification.
No wonder he impresses her, birding
by ear, until that day when he admits his crimes.
She begins to list some species, faltering
when she reaches her favorite — Not
Western Tanagers? He nods, my George Washington
who couldn’t tell a lie. My Audubon
who slaughtered anything it took
to paint a more perfect feather. Audubon
could be forgiven because of the beauty
he made visible,
the way I see beauty in my husband’s need
to tell a sometimes awkward truth.
Our teacher, though,
responds with silence, and her eyes dart
to her feet, as if someone’s dropped
a sack of a tiny corpses.
Nice. Incidentally we’re on the way to eliminating the Audubon from the Audubon Society.
I just heard on NPR that Audubon in addition to being a slave owner was also in phrenology, another racist theory.
I didn’t know. That’s bad news indeed.
Have you heard any proposals for a new name? I could go for Roger Tory Peterson or David Allen Sibley!
Now that is a What Would Zick Do moment! Or it could even have been a What Would Zick Dough moment… xoxo jz
I guess now that I can cook I should try some, huh? Can you put hot peppers in it?
The evening after I read this post, I read this passage in The Stubborn Light of Things, by Melissa Harrison (which, btw, I highly recommend): “For me, learning to recognise birds and their songs is about making the world richer: spring, now, isn’t just about generalised birdsong, but particular birds in particular spots. Each year I learn to recognise a couple more; each year my local streets and parks become more interesting places. It’s like a magic trick.” So in learning the hermit thrush’s song you were making magic, even before you saw the little guy.
The word is out!
You are ‘The Mealworm Lady’ when birds gather to gossip.