Thursday, April 23, 2009

Strange Birds

In early March I went bird-watching in the valley here with some Audubon Society folks. Birdwatchers are gentle people, people who take time chase after small creatures. So it was a nice day.

We saw sandhill cranes, lots of gulls, some swans, geese, and other birds that I've forgotten already. Most of these birds were just passing through on their way to Canada or Alaska or the Arctic for the summer.

Here's a picture of some of my Audubon friends looking out into a field at a falcon perched on an irrigation pipe. I was driving one of the "getaway" cars. We had a route mapped out and we followed it very slowly, until someone spotted something of interest. Then we'd pull over and all pile out with our binoculars and scopes. It's a good thing there wasn't any other traffic on the roads.

These are swans we saw walking around in a farmer's field. I think it's the first time I've seen swans out of the water. It's not their prettiest pose, I suppose.

Birdwatching involves standing still for long periods of time. You're an observer in foreign territory, which is a cool thing to be, especially for people like me who always have to be doing something. There's no reward in birdwatching other than the outdoors and the fun of looking for and finding beauty, diversity, and whimsy in the wild bird population. It's not physically challenging which is probably why old people do it (so I guess I must be an old person now?).

One thing is sure -- if I'm going to take pictures of birds I'll need some better equipment. They're small and usually far away too. So you may need to click on the picture and enlarge it to really get a good look at them.

I have managed to attract plenty of birds to my yard through the Winter. The starlings are in and out of the garage, which doesn't have an enclosed soffit in the back. I can hear a nest of babies chirping somewhere in there too. The starlings are also nesting under (or in) the eaves of my house. I can hear them rustling around overhead when I wake up in the morning.

I went to an Audubon Society dinner last week. Lots of university professors and their wives were there, 150 people altogether. They were celebrating the signing of an agreement between the society, The Nature Conservancy, and Rocky Mountain Power Company. The Audubon Society received a conservation easement from Rocky Moutnain Power for 500 acres of bottom land next to the Bear River -- they will manage it as a wildlife habitat and as a natural plantlife biofilter to protect the river from pollution from farm chemical runoff. Here's a photo of the area. All the subtle colors and differences in texture are interesting, aren't they?

These "riparian" (riverside) zones are among the most diverse biological systems on earth. They perform services that human effort and technology can't do as well. So this is an important project, and it's an example of how the people here just go ahead and do whatever needs to be done. That goes for snow removal and wildlife refuges.

The keynote speaker at the Audubon banquet was a woman from Hawkwatch International. That organization pays people to camp out on mountain tops and watch for (and count) birds. I want that to be my next job!

The day I went birdwatching with the Auduboners, we saw some sandhill cranes. They are made for the job of foraging in the unplowed fields -- notice how they blend right in. If you weren't looking for them, you'd drive by the field every day and never notice them.

Here you can see the cranes a little better against a contrasting background. But their color seems to mimic this environment too. Some are doing their crazy dances.

I saw a strange blackbird crossing the street on my way to work the last week. It was a yellow-headed blackbird (something unique to the West). Its head and breast is really orange, though. They hang out in the tall cattails, as you can see. But when they're waking across the street, they look like they have safety vests and superhero capes on all at once.

Here are some nice Pelicans that have been drifting around the sloughs nearby.

My favorite bird photo so far is this one of Cattle Egrets (I think) foraging on a big manure pile down the road. The farmer cleaned out the barns just in time for the birds' arrival. I wonder if he planned it that way.

It's kind of awful - these white birds with long silky feathers standing on a dung heap all day. I had to hold my breath to get the picture.

When people forage, there usually seems to be some sense of shame. But these birds act like they are kings of this mountain. In Dayton, I remember the way the alley pickers used to keep their heads down and eyes averted when they went through our garbage. After you watch migrating birds for a while, it seems like foraging is a natural way of meeting needs, like people shopping at the second hand store. Rich people may not want their old shoes. But poor people sure can use them. The little birds can eat what the pigs and cows are too big to notice. Of course, foragers are at the bottom of the food chain, or the social hierarchy, in the case of humans.

I felt a kinship with the white birds on the dung heap. I know I have to pick through a big pile of poop to find something of value, something to sustain me -- on television and the internet, in churches, schools, jobs, movies, and even in the fancy grocery store...

One thing I know for sure is that I'd much rather watch the strange delicate dancing flying swimming birds than the stock market, the demise of my 401K, or even this computer screen. They fly and swim and dance and do their best to avoid us humans. Birdwatching, like whale watching or the job of a night watchman, is healthy exercise. It requires alertness, patience, vision, a good book, fresh air, diligence, and a little bit of plain old luck.

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