Sunday, March 14, 2010

Boys of Spring

How far would you drive to see a particular bird? Tonight, just before dusk, I put on my red tassel cap, tossed my binoculars into the car, and drove about 6 miles hoping to catch the courtship display of the male American Woodcock. I know it sounds nerdy, but conditions were perfect:  Both the wind and rain had stopped, and the sky was white with cloud cover. I arrived at my destination cold...muddy...but full of hope. Lover-boy did not disappoint.

I am a birdwatcher. I can't help it. Watching birds is fascinating. They are amazing creatures. Some travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, twice a year, no matter what. Some feast on early berries for the long flight south, some feast on later berries when they arrive famished and exhausted. And finding a particular species is not as random as I once thought it was. If you had bluebirds in your yard last year, you will probably have bluebirds again this year and next.  Barn swallows? They return every year, probably the same birds or their offspring. A couple of years ago, one particular barn swallow--we call him Bebo--decided that our porch is much nicer and less crowded than the barn, so he found a mate and built a nest. Our guests enjoyed watching the babies fledge one by one and seeing the whole family roosting all in a row at night.

There are times, however, when a storm will blow a bird off-course or something goes wrong with its navigation system, or it passes through just briefly, and we get to see an uncommon bird in our local habitat before it perishes, as is sometimes the case, or moves on. Last Christmas we were lucky to have a visit by a Snowy Owl. He stayed until May.  Once word is out, generally via a posting by someone in the Cayuga Bird Club, people drive good distances to see the birds in the local habitat. You know you have found it when you turn the corner, and there are a dozen cars and giant camera lenses poking out from the windows. You walk over to the first person you see, they ask "Are you here to see the 'fill in the blank'?" and then they point. There it is. We all stand in silence and awe, saluting with binoculars raised. 

Back to the American Woodcock who is, by the way, one of the first spring arrivals.  It's a funny looking bird, brown spots and long bill and a waddle when it walks.  But when attracting a mate, this birds goes all out. I heard the peent...peent...peent and I waited. I was hearing at least two different birds. Without warning, he flew out from the brush in a diagonal trajectory making fast chirping sounds. He climbed higher and higher, spiraling with wings fluttering rapidly. The chirping continued until he was just a speck against the sky. Just as quickly, he dove towards the ground, spinning and zig-zagging nose first, a more melodious chirping marking his descent. Then silence, followed by peent....peent...peent.  I kept watching and listening as he repeated this sky dance three times before the darkness made further seeing impossible. Wow. I can't believe I finally saw it. Funny thing?  Lover-boy will keep doing this even after he's got the girl! 

(photo credit Michael J. Hopiak/CLO) 

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