Saturday, January 9, 2016

The First Bird


People are always assuming I'm a birder, but the evidence is circumstantial. For instance, they note that I often make comments about birds on the social media. And I hang out with known birders. Basically, they're profiling. Homeland Security probably has me on a birder watch list, but that does not mean I should be detained. Not at my skill level.

Oh, I'm probably better than a lot of people, but that's only because a lot of people have managed to go through their whole lives without looking up. My neighbor once swore he saw a pheasant in my tree here in the middle of town, and then he described a flicker. I don't know how a person can remain that unaware of a large colorful bird with a red mustache and an ascot and a polka-dot waistcoat that lives in the yard all year long and might even be drilling holes in the house, but I guess there are such people, and compared to them, I'm a birder. I probably learn one or two birds a year, but I'm old, so they're starting to add up.

However, I don't have a few things you really need to be a birder. Like good eyesight, good hearing, and that other thing. You know.

A good memory. And just because you can use a guy with no arms or legs as home plate, that doesn't make him a baseball player.

But this week I was forced to admit that I am in fact a birder, just a really stupid one. It was a cold, sunny, windy day, otherwise unremarkable. Mid-afternoon I suddenly realized it was New Year's Day, an occasion I used to mark with a hangover. And then I remembered that you're supposed to make note of the first bird of the year you see. It's a little birder game. If you want to have more fun, you can take that first bird as a personal portent.

It was late in the day, but I thought back, and was actually able to recall the first bird I'd seen: a gull, struggling mightily against the east wind, and finally giving up and shearing off to the west. So there was my first bird. And the fact that I knew I was supposed to look for my first bird makes me a birder. And the fact that I have no idea what kind of gull it was makes me a stupid one.

Gulls. Bleah. We have a bunch around here because Launie, one block over, puts out doughnuts for them and her house is poorly insulated, so her roof is warm. Gulls love to sit on her roof because they spend the rest of their time with their butts plopped in frigid water like dufuses. Here's the thing. I don't know what kind of gulls they are. I worked at it once. The differences between gulls come down to things like tiny little spots on their beaks or their eye color or leg color and their plumage is all over the map depending on their age and religious affiliation and the time of year. So you might have a winter herring gull on your hands or a third-year California or, you know, a pheasant.

Mmm, doughnuts. Doughnuts and whale.
What sort of portent could my gull be? Gulls can unhinge their jaws and consume really large food items. And gulls have been known to land on surfacing whales and take chunks out of them. Perhaps this is the year I will complete a great work by reducing it to bite-sized pieces. Perhaps this is the year I will, for instance, master the identification of gulls.

I'm going to eat a cheesecake bigger than my head and give it some thought.

52 comments:

  1. People have really gotten away from noticing the natural world to the point where it scares them. A neighbor once told me, an edge of horror in her voice, that she had an opossum in her yard. "Oh?" I said, waiting for her to go on to say what it did that was so scary. Apparently, that was it: it was nature and it was in her yard. I once heard a little boy stage whisper to his mother, "I don't like her house -- there are too many trees. They're scary."

    *Headdesks*

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    1. I imagine if you've NEVER seen a possum, they'd look a little alarming. But at least they're not zippy. We had a few yard opossums for years here and some raccoons too, but I haven't seen either one for a while now. Hmm. I'm blaming the hummingbirds.

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  2. Gulls can unhinge their jaws?? So possibly way back on the evolutionary scale they may be related to snakes. We just have to search far enough back and find which dinosaur could also unhinge its jaws and there we'll have the common denominator from which both species sprang from.

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    1. Good thought, but I'm pretty sure snakes were a going concern well before dinosaurs. Somebody here'll back me up on that so I don't have to look it up, right?

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    2. So perhaps there was a snake that evolved into a dinosaur that then became a bird? Sounds a bit science fantasyish.

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    3. Okay, I looked it up, and snakes came about in the Cretaceous or so, not earlier than the dinosaurs, who evolved from some branch of the reptiles. I would like to point out at this time that The Mighty Salamander predates them all.

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  3. There has been an Ivory Gull in Duluth for a few days bringing birders in from around the region. It probably went by here on its way down there, but I missed it. While the local gulls are often referred to as flying rats they at least keep the garbage picked up.

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    1. Exactly! Rats -- feathered and otherwise -- wouldn't be so prolific if people weren't so wasteful.

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    2. I think she's right about the rats. As for the Ivory Gull--what with global warming and all, I think we can just stay in one spot and eventually see everything.

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  4. Today is my Cornell Feeder Watch day where I count the birds that come to my feeders. It is well above 40F and few will come. Yesterday, a non-counting day, was well below 40F and dozens dropped by. I mess up on many species and like you I consider myself a stupid birder.

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    1. Do you have to count the species or the actual individuals? Because I'd sure lose track of the goldfinches unless I could mark them with a Sharpie.

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    2. It is an individual count at a definative time...all that you can see at that one time...not all that you see during the day. That would be pretty hard.

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    3. You mean like "twelve o'clock?" Huh.

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  5. One can only imagine how many gulls you'd attract with whale-flavored donuts.

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    1. Bet you anything VooDoo Donuts is on it.

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    2. F'gawdssake don't let the the sushi bars read Ahab's comment!

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    3. What? The Japanese only hunt whales for scientific study.

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    4. cough,cough,splutter. (Choked on my dough nut...)

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  6. I don't consider myself a birder, but I keep four bird feeders, a bird bell and two suet feeders full all winter. I should be able to claim the birds on my income tax - perhaps if I named them the IRS wouldn't question... yes they would. Winters are tough here in western Maine so I don't even bother to keep the squirrels away - I find that if I put a quart of seeds on the ground they leave the feeders alone. Crap - I'm old. Maybe this is what old people do. I probably would have eaten the birds when I was younger.
    the Ol'Buzzard

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  7. I couldn't see my first bird of the year which was definitely a song bird that had missed its flight to Florida. My first sighting was a crow. Maybe this is my year to become a less stupid birder by learning their voices. I adore gulls, especially the various stages and colors of the younguns. Gulls are such misunderstood birds largely because seeing them out of context makes them look so unappealing. Along the coast, they are gorgeous. An individual pigeon is a pretty a bird as most in the north whereas a kit is often overwhelming disgusting.

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    1. Oh my, I'd forgotten that Advanced Birders' first bird of the year might be an audial. Naaah. I don't think that should count. Unless it's a loon. I'd totally count that. I think gulls are just fine. I just wish they were easier to identify. At least I'm enough of a birder to not call them seagulls.

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    2. I only learned that there is no such bird as a seagull last year. Maybe I'm almost a birder.

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    3. I'm pretty sure audio or visual counts as a first if it can be identified. The way I'm learning gulls is picking one, i.e., ring-billed, and practicing identifying 1st, 2nd, 3rd winter, and adults. I can do this with a few of the most common east coast gulls. At least gulls are easier than all the pipers and plovers and the like because they're so much bigger.

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  8. My eyes aren't sharp enough to pick out anything in the sky beyong a SEAgull (see, right there you know where I'm coming from), a crow, or a bald eagle. I can tell chickadees and starlings from their song, or whatever you call the noise they make. And I can generally tell a hummingbird from a large bee, but not always. Yeah. I'll just slink toward the exit now.

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  9. Not a birder here either. An enthusiastic and appreciative amateur. River is right though. Birds do show their dinosaur heritage often. In the 'you have your many times multiple great grandfathers feet' kind of way.

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  10. And back to basic concepts: How do you eat a whale? Same way you eat an elephant.

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  11. Once upon a time I considered myself a runner, because I owned running shoes and tried to run for about five minutes a day. Now I consider myself a birder just because we have feeders and I learned a couple of dozen kinds. I could even tell a hairy woodpecker from a downy woodpecker. But I've forgotten most of what I knew, and my eyesight is not reliable, and that other thing...oh yeah, my memory keeps failing me. Still, I love birds so therefore I have decided to keep "birder" as part of my identity for a while longer.

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    1. Well, I will if you will. After all, a crappy birder is a birder too.

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  12. Not very good at it, but I do get excited when I spot a new bird. My mom always had a copy of "Birds of North America" handy and another book for waterfowl. They are well worn books.

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    1. If you're anything like me, you've spotted the same new bird dozens of times.

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  13. ...and your photo with Julie Zickefoose too! Birder extraordinaire!

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    1. Yes, my life list of famous birders is at least as long as my life list of birds.

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  14. Alas, not a birder...though am an appreciator of certain 'birds', such as ducks, grouse, etc. So instead of a thoughtful comment, here's an old joke, you've no doubt heard it.

    Three docs in a duck blind waiting for a flock of ducks to fly over to shoot. The first flight arrives, the family practice doc stands and shoots. "Looked like a duck" he said.
    Another flight comes over. The internist stands and shoots. "Looked like a duck, sounded like a duck."
    Yet another flight zooms in, the surgeon stands and shoots. "Was that a duck?" he asked.

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    1. Thoughtful comment? We don't demand those. Oh by the way I know an actual surgeon and she gon' cut you up.

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  15. Speaking of marking birds with Sharpies - the day my 6-yr old came home from school with GIRLS' NAMES written on his arms. What are those, sez I. He said, "That's nothing! Look at this!" and he yanked up his shirt. GIRLS NAMES, written all over his chest and stomach. In INK! Makes one wonder, Where was the Teacher during all this???

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    1. Oh, we're going to need a whole lot more information than that. I assume you were able to pry out some?

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    2. I did mention it in passing, and he does not remember it at all! I'm attributing it to a clear case of dissociation...

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  16. I live in central southern NH - we have inland seagulls whose ancestors were probably blown in by a Nor'easter and they never left - the Merrimack River is their large body of water now - sad. We don't have lots of birds in the city, but we do get moose! I can spot and identify a moose - birds, not so much.

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    1. I've got mooses down, my own self. I think regular meese are worth a fair bunch of birds. Wildest thing we have around here is the coyote. And they do roam the city streets. They can have all our squirrels.

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  17. I was just looking at flicker feeders yesterday morning. Apparently then need a prop for their tails, and they prefer suet to seed.
    I told this to the flicker on the seedfeeder outside my window, not 24" from where I sat on the couch, but he chose not to believe the WDFW website. I showed him the pictures, and asked if he wouldn't like the suet hanging not 12" from his head any better, but he didn't reply. My husband walked in just then, and he sure had a reply for me. The flicker didn't like the challenge to my sanity and flew off.
    He's been hanging out on the windowsill a lot. I think I'll build him a tail prop and see what he thinks.

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    1. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT BUILD HIM A TAIL PROP ON YOUR HOUSE. Please consult Trousering Your Weasel for details.

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    2. Well, right after we finished painting the house this summer, a downy woodpecker started drilling holes. We built him a house and that put a stop to the noise. Sure, we could have tried your proposed sperm plug fix, but a birdhouse is a lot easier way to get wood raised up that high. Faster, too :)

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    3. There were always a lot of problems associated with the sperm plug fix, I'm sorry to report. Now, if you want to get wood, that's a whole other thread.

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