Life continues under voluntary lockdown, making me more grateful every day that I have some hobbies to get me out of the house – gardening, walking, and bike riding.
Which brings me to a topic that has surfaced in the news quite a bit lately – bird watching. I used to be an avid birder, keeping all kinds of lifelists and spending every available morning hour out hunting for sightings. It all started when I was about 14 and my mother moved us to a new house. She asked me to build a feeder out in the back corner of our small yard. The angry old guy who lived behind us hated the birds and used to storm over and scare them off the feeder. But they persevered and the feeder became established.
One day, I looked out and saw a pretty big bird sitting in the feeder. I grabbed my cheap binoculars and looked – it had a smaller bird crushed in its talons, and I had a nice sighting of it before it flew away. I checked in the field guide and found it immediately – Cooper’s Hawk. From that moment forward I was hooked, and the hobby served me well in the backyards of all the houses I lived in across the country. And, being a portable hobby, I extended it to business trips and vacations.
My dedication took off here in New Mexico. The state has one of the longest state lists of regular and visiting species, extending as it does from the Chihuahuan Desert in the south to the high peaks in the north. Plus a lot of “migrant traps,” little oases that birds use on their north and southbound migrations. I became quite obsessive about visiting these places when MLW would go out of town, hiking some very sketchy places along the Mexican border in search of some little birds that don’t regularly occur in the US. And then one day I was bitten by the road cycling bug and birding lost its hold on my early morning hours. Today, I still love looking at them, but my days of stalking are mostly over.
Two weeks ago Nicholas Cannariato, a freelance journalist, wrote an inspiring piece for the Sunday New York Times about how he had picked up birding after speaking with a woman at Pt. Reyes. He was there to see the giant Elephant Seals, she was there to watch in-shore Albatrosses. He’d never even noticed the birds, being drawn there by the big mammalian attraction. He carried the hobby home and found now that in quarantine, it provided a safe and easy escape from the rigors of being locked inside. Every home has windows, and every window has birds. You can read it here:
This morning, the New York Times Opinion page had a nice primer about birding from David Sibley, the young man who assumed the mantle of Dean of American Bird Artists with the passing of Roger Tory Peterson. Some nice points about how to get started:
We had a few birding encounters this week, starting with a visit back to the baby Great Horned Owls. They’ve moved out of the nest cavity and up the tree, no doubt too large for their birthplace. As usual, there was a little group of people present when we arrived, but this time the conversation was less about owl lore and more about what concerts two of the visitors had seen here in Albuquerque in the early 1970s. The birds are now assuming more of their adult appearance, and one even politely stretched his wings so I could see his developing flight feathers. They’re coming along nicely.
Yesterday we had an interesting natural experience while feeding the horses. MLW was just wrapping up and carrying a couple of hay flakes over to the arena gate for lunch. She called me over and asked, “Is that one of our quail?” There was a colorful, chicken-sized bird running madly back and forth along one of the fences, scared to death of us and trying to escape. It took a second to register and realizing what we had, I ran to get my camera – it was a Chukar, a game bird, native to central Asia and stocked here in the US for hunting. It does have an established range here, due to breeding escapees, but the closest wild bird to our backyard is somewhere over in far northwestern Arizona. This one must have run away from some local breeder.
Hating to see it going crazy, we shooed it into our bigger arena and spent some time trying to chase it into the woods beyond, out of the prying eyes of the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk that would be far more interested in feeding it to its nestlings than enjoying its presence. After a lot of false starts and walking back and forth, we finally got it through the gate and into the safety of the trees.
And finally, springtime brings us the return of the Western Tanager from its wintering range in southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Bright yellow, red, and black, it looks more like it belongs at home in the canopy of some Central American rainforest, and not in our desert front yard. But they’re here, and they loved to visit our suet feeders, providing a crazy flash of colors as they dart in and out of our bushes. It’s common to see them in big groups – I first saw many dozens of them on a front lawn in Boulder many years ago. They leave their winter homes in mid-January, arriving here in late April and early May before spreading out across all the western states and extending as far as boreal forests of the Yukon. Quite a trip and quite a range.