Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Bird In Hand







If you want to be a real bird-watcher, you'll need to get up earlier than you want to, strap on a bra for your binoculars, and assume a position favored by the Mercenary Chiropractors of America. If you're an Oregonian plunked into the middle of a forest in West Virginia, prepare also for episodes of insomnia brought on by imaginary ticks. There's really no reason to engage in this pursuit. Except there's birds.

There are an insane number of them at the New River Birding and Nature Festival, and they're festive, all right. Good binoculars and a good trip leader will act like a prism, and splinter those nondescript Little Brown Jobs into rainbow colors. They are suited up, slicked back and strutting like it's Saturday night. The ladies don't stand a chance. The ladies are considerably duller, not to say they've let themselves go. But it's the males we're most likely to see.

They are slathered in bling, or "field marks," as the birders call them: necklaces, crowns, wing bars, tail spots, eyebrows, executioner's hoods, or rump patches (the rump is always the first thing to wear out). Or, in the case of the Magnolia warbler, all of the above. In fact, in the right light, you can just about make out the sequins and propeller beanie on a good Magnolia. Let's just say these boys are something to see. You might not see them unless you pish them off. They're just dots in the treetops most of the time, but in spring they go all West Side Story and zoom in close to see if your ass needs kicking. Once they get a load of your binocular bra, geeky duds and mouth hanging open, they go away again. You're no threat.

In theory, their songs are distinctive. I can't make them out, but accomplished birders can, and the birds are even better at it. Birds are able to distinguish many more notes than we are. If you slow down the recording of a bird song by half or more, you can hear them more clearly: "so I told Bob, I said, dude, I said, dude, I said, oh my gawd, check out the wing linings, dude, I mean totally, totally," when all we can hear at normal speed is "blah, blah, blah."

We also had a bird-banding demonstration from Bill Hilton, Jr., Hummingbird Czar, which was very educational, although watching him gesture with a bird in hand was a little off-putting, especially when he was feeling emphatic. He insists that the birds being trapped and handled feel no stress, because they are not like humans, and do not fret about how to pay the mortgage. Which is true; they're admirably calm about the whole mortgage issue. I would say, however, that we might approach the stress question scientifically, using Bill himself perhaps, scooped up by a giant, waved about, blown on, and stuffed into a tube head first. Then reassess.

You blow on a bird to lift its feathers and reveal details such as its sex and maturity. Turns out birds are totally naked underneath and that whole breast-feather ruse is just a big comb-over. See, I didn't know that until Bill blew his birds.

Bill was also able to feed a held hummingbird so that we could watch its head ripple on top. That rippling would be his tongue forking in the back and sliding up into his skull as he laps nectar. A nice brain massage probably relieves that stress they don't have, too.

Much can be learned by banding birds and tracking their movements, which is why you should always report it if you should accidentally Honda a banded bird. Somebody somewhere wants to know where it got flattened. There are different-size bands for different-size birds. On hawks, you just mark them with a Sharpie. (A little birder humor, there. The rest of you just talk amongst yourselves.)


Birders tend also to be interested in other living things--plants, critters. And this is also a Nature festival. Still, I was taken aback when my friend Debbie pointed straight at me first thing in the morning and announced "You need to go to the bathroom." No one has said those exact words to me since I was three. Was it that obvious? But she was merely alerting me to the night light on the outdoor biffy that attracted some lovely moths every morning for our perusal. And after a couple days, you get used to emerging from the potty into a phalanx of photographers.

I learned a lot. I may never master the category of Variants and Vagrants, defined as birds that show up looking all wrong where they have no business being. But I probably learned a hundred new birds, and if it weren't for the hole in my head I had the foresight to drill with drugs and alcohol in my twenties, I'd still remember them.

Of course, none of them live in Oregon.

21 comments:

  1. You wit is masterful. You captured it all!

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  2. My god, that moth is from a nightmare. No wonder the Japanese made a monster movie about one.

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  3. Elizabeth BrewsterMay 12, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    I think I want to eat that moth.

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  4. It looks like a cotton candy-flavored powdered doughnut. With a hat.

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  5. I was going to blog on my reaction to that banding demo but you've said it all. Maybe our project for the next time should be building a giant cardboard tube.

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  6. When my wife lived in So. California, they heard about a siting of a spotted owl in Arizona. The SoCal birders set off with owl call and parabolic listening device in hand. Upon reaching the designated location they started to call the owl. Shortly the parabolic disk picked up the call-back. The called and listened, called and listened, making their way ever closer to the owl's apparent location until finally they came within view to find... a group of Northern California birders with an owl call and parabolic disk. (true story0

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  7. Of course it's a true story. Somewhere in the middle was a spotted owl thinking, "well, there goes the neighborhood."

    LittleOrangeGuy: nuh-uh. Get to work. I want to see what you have to say, too.

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  8. I was once crammed into a series of concrete tubes for a confined space rescue class at work.
    Crawling thru the first one was mildly stressfull and the secomd smaller one at once was more stressfull especially when I got stuck-my hips being larger than the tube.
    Luckily one of my colleagues decided to poke my tail feathers which caused me to become unstuck and quickly back out.
    Glad they didn't have a way to band me!

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  9. Murr, you're the best. You've shown how something like this festival is so weird but so much fun. I mean, we found entertainment on the outside of the potty door!

    I found it difficult to watch the hummingbird bandings. That's because I'm not very scientific. I heard a little female cry and it broke my heart.

    Oh, well.

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  10. Best post yet. And that's saying a lot! "Insomnia brought on by imaginary ticks"...been there, done that! Keep on writing.

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  11. "If you want to be a real bird-watcher..."

    I got that far into this post and then sort of drifted off. Was it good? Should I go back and try again?

    Also, and I don't mean to be rude here, but I sort of enjoy being blown on.

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  12. Having been on many a birding trek, this had me rolling! I want to go! And I don't mean to the bathroom, though if there were cool moths there, I'd be tempted.

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  13. If an expert bird bander's mantra while subjecting wild birds to odd, boisterous and lengthy periods of handling is "Don't get emotionally involved," well, then, that might explain why I am never to be found at banding demonstrations. I can be found elsewhere, hunkered down in the lotus position muttering my own mantra, which is quite the opposite.

    I am for getting emotionally involved with birds and nature. Getting emotionally involved helps stop mountaintop removal mining, for one thing. Getting emotionally involved is necessary if you're going to take a month out of your life to syringe-feed an orphaned mourning dove. Yes, I know there are lots of mourning doves, and one more or less doesn't really matter, but it matters to this dove, and to me, and to my kids, and to everyone who's held her in their hand.

    Murr, I think it's time to submit a couple of these essays, or an amalgam thereof, to a certain birdwatching digest I could name. It's time, dear, that your take on birdwatching reach a highly appreciative print audience. I am just saying this.

    xoxoxoxo

    j.

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  14. MikeWJ, there's one more birding post, and then you have to remain on full alert. Julie. One of my favorite things about you, and they're all way up there, is your emotional involvement. You are the UnBill. (Not your Bill.) I'm just happy to have gotten involved with your involvement.

    Hmm. I do know how to spiff up a piece or several pieces and edit out the naughty bits and match a word count...hmm.

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  15. Hee heee..you crackith me up!

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  16. Just to stand up for the rest of the world's banders....they aren't all like THAT. It can be done with gentleness. The birds don't HAVE to be waved about like napkins and they DON'T need to be kept in the hand that long. And warning against emotional involvement is a cop out on the part of a certain someone. If you don't give a damn about each and every bird you lay your hands on, at least a little bit, then you have no business banding ANY.
    I know some people are very against banding, but I've experienced enough of it to know good banding versus head-up-own-ass banding.

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  17. I would get stressed if someone grabbed me and swung me around and stuck me in a tube. Well...maybe not so stressed if a female...I've just become kinky in my old age!

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  18. If an expert bird bander's mantra while subjecting wild birds to odd, boisterous and lengthy periods of handling is "Don't get emotionally involved," well, then, that might explain why I am never to be found at banding demonstrations. I can be found elsewhere, hunkered down in the lotus position muttering my own mantra, which is quite the opposite.

    I am for getting emotionally involved with birds and nature. Getting emotionally involved helps stop mountaintop removal mining, for one thing. Getting emotionally involved is necessary if you're going to take a month out of your life to syringe-feed an orphaned mourning dove. Yes, I know there are lots of mourning doves, and one more or less doesn't really matter, but it matters to this dove, and to me, and to my kids, and to everyone who's held her in their hand.

    Murr, I think it's time to submit a couple of these essays, or an amalgam thereof, to a certain birdwatching digest I could name. It's time, dear, that your take on birdwatching reach a highly appreciative print audience. I am just saying this.

    xoxoxoxo

    j.

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  19. Best post yet. And that's saying a lot! "Insomnia brought on by imaginary ticks"...been there, done that! Keep on writing.

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