ONCE I SAW AN ALBATROSS SOAR
By Evelyn Minch
Birders are not really a breed apart, but we do spend a lot of time looking up at the sky and trees. It’s not a particularly dangerous hobby, unless it is done while driving. What is most positive about this hobby is that it can be a continuous activity from young to old, or it can begin in later years when one has the time to appreciate the beauty of nature.
The long and short walks, where I looked up have so often revealed the magnificent eagle above, gliding herons over the Chesapeake shore or an avocet off in the field in northwest Canada. I have never regretted the moment taken for the reward that was received in return. In fact, I have often been amazed that a moment sitting on the sofa was the exact moment needed to cross paths with a hooded merganser and its mate, or a rare loon heading north or south on its migration. A few minutes earlier or later, and I might have missed the sighting completely.
The albatross sighting was on my first visit to Oahu. Majestically it rose, floating and circling high up in the bluest of skies. I had no idea what it was. I always travel with a bird book or two, usually two, because if I am unsure of shape or coloring, the second book has different perspectives. It can help me draw a conclusion from a sighting, as it did for the albatross, or reveal that I have found a bird so elusive it must remain a mystery.
The albatross surprised me. I was new to the process of identification so had not studied beforehand what birds might be seen around the islands. This is a serious tip if you want to be a serious birder. Plan your visits to new areas by making a list of probable common sightings, and browse for the more rare possible sightings as well. The rewards of a sighting are pretty high, if you stay the course and keep looking.
Before our last trip to the Orlando area, I did check beforehand for sightings of new species. With three days to ourselves we planned to drive to Kissimmee and bird Lake Tohopekaliga. My heart was set on two birds of prey, the swallowtail kite, unmistakable with his coloring, and the snail kite, formerly known as the Everglade kite.
We had taken the train down from D.C. and a rental car agent met us at the wonderfully quaint station in Kissimmee to go to pick up our car. He seemed quite surprised at my sudden outburst when I yelled, “It’s the swallowtail and we’re only 15 minutes into the vacation!” We spotted another fly over near the Epcot Center later in the week.
STALKING THE SNAIL KITE
The snail kite was only a bit more difficult to find. The book said to look for a pile of empty snail shells under a tree limb. We birded around the northern edge of Lake Tohopekaliga and spotted a marsh area across the road from the lake with picnic table and trees and a pull-in area to park. My husband went off to explore, while I sat with the binocs and rechecked the bird book. Within minutes he had returned with a handful of empty snail shells he had retrieved from under a nearby tree. Sure enough we had only a few minutes to wait before a snail kite flew overhead, followed by several circling about in the distance.
Since the snail kite is a more tropical bird and only eats a particular kind of snail, it is considered endangered and uncommon. We had been lucky to see both as they were two on my “most wanted” list for this trip.
One does not need to plan a vacation around birding. You can bird wherever you go. You do not need to take every vacation to the wildest areas or to the Guatemalan highlands, unless you want to take a chance on spotting the long-tailed quetzal. That one is still on my “want” list. But you can do fantastic birding in New York City in Central Park or look for Pale Male, the famous red-tailed hawk and his mate, Lima, with their nest on a Fifth Avenue apartment building. Once I spotted a common yellowthroat near the Hirschhorn Museum in D.C. And in Tokyo I found a pair of mandarin ducks floating about in a pond on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.
Many birds are like the mandarins, which float quietly, make little sound to attract you and shy away from noisy areas. Stealth is a second tip to making good finds in birding. Quiet steps, soft voices or none, and a keen awareness of your surroundings are necessary for good sightings and pleasant surprises. Once while birding at Piney Run Park right here in Maryland, I encountered a young beaver. Less than three feet from where I stood hidden by the branches, he began munching away on a branch that arched over the water’s edge. What a treat! Birding and animal watching go hand in hand, and birding also includes watching flowers bloom, trees bud and brooks meander.
BIRDING IS FOREVER
I probably learned to bird while walking with my mother when I was only three or four. She’d point out every bird to keep me going on a daily one-mile walk for fresh bread and groceries. The more I was interested in something else, the less likely it would be that I would ask to be carried. She would point out her favorites that soon became mine: the wild canaries (goldfinches), the cardinals and blue jays or the kingfisher over the stream as we walked across the singing bridge into town. Years later my father fed the birds and took great pleasure from watching their behavior. A teenager then, I had no time to think about his pursuits, and only grew to appreciate it later. It was a great treasure to pass along to me.
And birding was a treasure to pass along to my sons. I fondly remember when the boys played Frisbee near Bar Harbor, Maine, where I spotted my first common yellowthroat. Jason, the eldest, promptly named him the lone warbler for his black mask. When Steve insisted on living on a boat during his college years at St. Mary’s College, he called and told me excitedly that his nearest neighbor was an osprey.
Years later, Steve’s wife would laughingly recount how she found him jumping up and down while looking out the bedroom window. “I’ve waited my whole life to see this and it’s in my backyard!” It was the pileated woodpecker.
Recently, Jason’s wife left a message from Idaho, “Just calling to give you today’s birding report. I saw a mountain bluebird and a western tanager today.” I was pleased to know the treasures of my father and mother had been passed to a third generation, and I feel confident it will pass on to the fourth and beyond. Birding, singly or with your family, is an adventure not to be missed.
Evelyn Minch works at Maryland Institute College of Art and lives in Annapolis with her husband and their cat, Fred. She dotes on her five grandchildren in Idaho and Annapolis and watches birds every chance she gets. She can be reached at email@example.com
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
ACTVITIES, EVENTS AND GROUPS:
http://mddc.audubon.org Maryland and D.C. National Audubon Society
www.mdbirds.org Maryland Ornithological Society