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A Bird’s Eye View: September 6. 2012

What I See in Birds

When I look at birds I see more than just winged, feathered creatures. I sometimes catch a glimpse of their infinite beauty. It started in the early ’90s when I was looking at some terns on a cloudy Cape Cod beach. Later, perusing a bird identification chart, I began to marvel at the realization that small changes in the color of feathers on similar sized birds in the same bird family sometimes meant there were different species. And there were so many different kinds of birds! I was bedazzled.

One morning a few years ago, I was on a Florida peninsula near a tidal lagoon. There I spent 40 unforgettable minutes watching a reddish egret. The bird had once been hunted to near extinction in the U.S. by the early 20th century. It had almost been eternity’s bird. I was surrounded by bone-white sands, mangroves, some tall bare ash colored trees, a number of which were lying on the ground with their enormous root systems exposed. This landscape served as a theatrical set, enhancing the bird’s beauty.

The reddish was about 35 feet away. I took in every detail of its washed out feathers and its pink and black bill which look like the colors of the Good and Plenty candy box. But the egret’s beauty wasn’t just in its washed out colors. It was in the unwavering burnished yellow eye, surrounded by black. Look at a bird’s eye and you get to know something about its character. This egret looked to me like a survivor for the ages. As I inched ever closer, I didn’t know the point at which the bird would become uncomfortable with me and fly away. I got about 13 feet from it when the bird flew. It was the best bit of birding that I’ve ever done.

Almost two miles from Montauk Town Beach are some sun-baked cliffs, which in the ’90s were home to a colony of bank swallows. These 5.25-inch non-descript, brown birds with slightly notched tails nest in burrows that go back usually between two to three feet into those cliffs. I spent many summer mornings there watching these small birds fly into and out of those holes. I once watched a bird land on a slight protuberance and start to excavate a hole with its tiny feet and bill, hacking away dried earth then scooping it out. There must have been a few hundred such holes there, but finding one being started was exciting. I occasionally saw adults bringing food to chicks that appeared at the holes’ entrance. Seeing the yellow and white of those wide-open hungry chicks’ mouths was like looking at nature’s flashlights. For me those birds and the rugged inhospitable cliffs were meshed, creating their own special beauty.

In mid-April of 1997, walking the Greenbelt Trail, my wife and I heard a loud bird call. We located the bird, a male red-bellied woodpecker, high in a freshly bored hole in a tree. My wife wanted to leave lest we interfere with its attracting a mate. The next day I returned hoping to see the woodpecker, which again made an appearance. I went back repeatedly during a six-week period, setting up my birding scope not far from the tree. I would hang a bottle of water and some snacks in a plastic bag from a branch and wait.

I came to think of the bird as Big Red partly because it had a red cap, which once or twice glowed a fiery orange/red in the sunlight. There was a scruffy area on the black and white pattern on its back that had become worn from him squeezing into and out of the opening. I felt empathy for the bird, which, I assumed, made those trips bearing food for its mate and/or a fledgling. Because I was getting to know the bird, even its scruffiness seemed beautiful.

His mate, unlike Big Red, would cautiously approach the opening by first flying to a nearby tree and remain a while looking around. A few times when I was present she called out loudly, apparently alarmed by my presence. But Big Red never was. Early one morning, hoping to get a picture of the bird, I set up my camera near the tree’s base and waited. After a long time, Red came and in tow was a newly fledged bird. The bird that I often walked two miles each way to see wasn’t afraid of me. Had the youngster’s mother been with it, I doubt that I would have seen the fledgling.

Today the ultimate joy of birding for me still is the infinite beauty of birds. Last winter in Florida I took my birding class to a 30-acre wetlands. There we had a good but not memorable field trip. Toward the end we saw a patient great blue heron, near a fisherman in the water, have a fish “stolen” from it by an aggressive frosty-headed brown pelican. There was a collective sigh of frustration when the pelican made off with the fish. We watched another brown pelican continuously expand its pouch like it was trying to swallow but couldn’t.

Then a sharp-eyed man spotted a little blue heron on a mangrove branch in a tidal pool. The little blue, probably having eaten, was preening itself. Its back was a slate blue, which turned into a dark purple on its head and flowed into a gray bill. In the morning sun the color transitions seemed seamless. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’d seen numerous little blues before but none to match this one. Months later I still recall the feeling I had watching it. Why? The little blue offered what I so prize, a glimpse of the infinite beauty of birds.