In The Company Of Birds

Tufted Titmouse

If you’ve been following along at all, you’ve discovered that I spend a lot of time with birds. I get out with them whenever I can, even if that means just sitting on the patio and seeing who’s hanging out in the yard. You can learn a lot by watching these yard birds. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees are notorious skulkers, staying at the edges and kick-feeding in the underbrush, leaving the feeders to the more adventurous Chickadees, Titmice, and Goldfinches. Of the woodpeckers, Downies are the boldest, often landing on the feeder pole and watching as I set out the morning’s repast. Red-bellieds are regular visitors, but will flush at the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat. However, if left to their own devices, they’ll aggressively defend the suet, chasing off others who might dare try for a bite. Flickers—the largest of our regular woodpecker visitors—show up sporadically, and are even more skittish: breathe in their direction and they’ll beat a hasty retreat.

You also start to notice differences between individual birds. If I should need to step into the back yard (God forbid!), most of the Chipping Sparrows will flee to the safety of the trees, but one or two will stay on the feeders and watch as I pass. The female of our Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair is similarly inclined, holding her post while the male heads for the hills; so too with the Hairy Woodpeckers, the female largely undaunted by my intrusions—putting paid to the notion of the weaker sex.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Though I love our yard birds, and have spent many hours in their company, I’ll also take any opportunity I can to visit one of my favorite local haunts—Quabbin Park’s gate five or the Fort River refuge, perhaps—or travel farther afield (New York’s Central Park, the Connecticut shore, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, and Cape May, New Jersey are regular birding fixtures). No matter where I’m headed, though—even if it’s just out to the supermarket—I always bring two items with me: a pair of binoculars and a camera. You never know what’s out there waiting to be found, and I believe in being prepared. More often than not, it’s paid off. And more importantly, on the few instances when I’ve left one or both behind, I’ve regretted it (ask me about the Great Gray Owl sometime).

Now I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, and I consider myself fortunate if I come away with any good images at all. It’s far more important to me to get a good look at a bird than a photo of one. Still, I enjoy the challenge of photography and the joy in success. When you’re trying to photograph a bird, you also have to look at it differently. Light and shadow come into play a bit more, you have to pay special attention to behavior to anticipate its next move (it’s often too late to photograph a bird where you first see it), and you have to try to position yourself in just the right spot—clear of obstructions (as much as possible anyway), and a respectful distance from the bird so that you can keep your impact to an absolute minimum while still capturing a good image. This last is paramount, and any ethical photographer—professional or otherwise—will always place the needs of the bird first.

American Goldfinch

There’s something more, though. It’s not just the self-satisfaction of taking a good photograph. As someone who loves nature—and birds in particular—I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve seen, give others a window into the wonders of the world around us, and, with luck, inspire at least some of them to care. It’s the same reason I write about them—to bring people with me as I explore the lives of the birds, and to hopefully illuminate a bit of the magic that lies just outside our doors.

Over the last few years, I’ve been introduced to many wonderful photographers—some who’ve become good friends—and they all share this same desire, to open a bit more of our world to us, and inspire us with its pageantry, its mystery, and its splendor. People like Melissa Groo, Keith Carver, Joe Oliverio, Ann Pacheco, Shawn Carey, Ashleigh Scully, Mia McPherson, Eric Curtis Cummings, Christopher Ciccone, Marina Scarr, Dorian Anderson, Denise Ippolito—artists all, and far more accomplished than I—produce images of stunning beauty, capturing moments of transcendent glory, heartbreaking intimacy, deep sorrow, and profound tenderness among our non-human brethren, revealing aspects of their world that many of us may never see yet are critically important for us to understand. I am consistently awed by their work, and often moved beyond words.

Or maybe there’s a darker side to this drive. Perhaps we’re documenting a great decline, recording these creatures for history before they slide into oblivion. Perhaps, like those who kept account of the last days of the Great Auk, Giant Moa, and Passenger Pigeon, we’re bearing witness to catastrophe and chronicling these lives that they may not be lost to time and confined to the realm of myth and legend.

Perhaps.

Myself, I hold to hope, and I suspect that many of my peers would as well—the hope that my work has an impact, that it drives people to care, to take action, to not remain on the sidelines and watch the great tragedy unfold. That I, through images and words, can help others understand the vision I have for our Earth, reach others who will be moved to make a difference, and awaken in others an appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of our world, the inherent value in all life, great and small, and the urgent need to protect and nurture all creatures whose lives fall, for better or for worse, into our hands. We are the only species that regularly drives others into extinction, but we are also the only species that can keep them from it.

Chipping Sparrow

Why do I do what I do? Why do I spend so much time in the company of birds? Because I must. Because it is right and proper that I do so. Because to be human is to care for more than just the human. Because for all the ugliness and destruction in the world, I can find beauty in the simplicity and grace of a sparrow. Because I cannot envision a world empty of the birds that surround us. And because I refuse to accept that as our inevitable course.

But for that to be true, it’s up to each of us as individuals to do what we can, however we can. It’s up to me, and it’s up to you. Start in your back yard, see what’s there. Go for a walk in your neighborhood, visit a state park or national wildlife refuge. Take that first step out your door, then take the next, and the next. Who knows where you’ll end up, and who knows what you might find? There’s life there waiting to be discovered, so get out and find it. Learn about it. Care.

And then inspire others.

At the end of it all, that’s what I work for.

 

You can find links to the photographers who inspire me below:

Melissa Groo

Keith Carver

Ann Pacheco

Joe Oliverio

Ashleigh Scully

Shawn Carey

Dorian Anderson

Mia McPherson

Eric Curtis Cummings

Christopher Ciccone

Marina Scarr

Denise Ippolito

Change The World By A Yard

Cactus Ground Finch, Galapagos Islands

Cactus Ground Finch, Galápagos Islands

I do a fair bit of birding away from home. Most of the time I stick to the northeast, as there is a wondrous array of hotspots within easy reach of my western Massachusetts address. Two to three times a year, I’ll head farther south to the mid-Atlantic, usually Cape May or Delaware during spring or fall migration—still drivable, but it requires a bit more planning. If I’m lucky, maybe once a year I’ll travel farther afield—Florida, Arizona, south Texas, or somewhere on the West Coast perhaps. And once in awhile, I’ll bird some exotic place beyond our borders—most recently Costa Rica, mainland Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands. Naturally, these are life-changing experiences. After all, how often does one get to the Andes or the Amazon rainforest, or stand in Darwin’s footsteps on the sands of the Galápagos, among the finches that inspired the greatest creative work in the history of natural science? Such places illuminate the glory and spectacle of Nature, and paint indelible marks that alter your perception of the world.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

Fork-tailed Flycatcher, CT

I don’t need to travel far to be confronted with the magnificent, though. Every place I visit has something to offer, some gift to bestow. Last year, I spent several hours with Keith Carver—a good friend and outstanding photographer—in the company of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher—a bird of foreign, tropical domains that nevertheless makes occasional appearances in the eastern US and Canada. This absolutely stunning individual emerged with little fanfare in Hadlyme, Connecticut. Its almost accidental discovery by a local photographer caused a great stir among avian aficionados, and it spent the next several weeks delighting scores of birders as it hunted sometimes mere feet above our heads, to all appearances completely unconcerned by our presence. In November of 2012, a Gyrfalcon appeared like a ghost over the farm fields of Hadley, Massachusetts—a sight so rare that it drew people from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and nearly doubled the human population of this small town well into the new year. This winter, my son and I photographed a Barnacle Goose on a farm in central Massachusetts, far out of its frozen Arctic range and feeding very contentedly with a large group of Canada Geese. And every year, the UMass campus pond—about 15 minutes from home—plays host to a variety of rare waterfowl, all similarly drawn to this tiny oasis at the heart of a thriving and kinetic university. If you’re craving an encounter with a rare goose, this is the place to go.

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Evening Grosbeaks, home

Frequently, though, the greatest surprises lie closest to home. I make new discoveries just by going out the back door—and sometimes, all it takes is a well-timed look out the window. We live on about a third of an acre, one side bordered by spruce and forsythia, a few lilac bushes on the other, and a smattering of other trees and bushes scattered about—a very pleasant yard, but not, in terms of habitat, anything out of the ordinary. And yet we’ve been graced by some truly wonderful birds. Over the years, more than a dozen species of warbler have visited us, including a pair of Nashvilles who stayed for a week; Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins feast at our feeders throughout the winter; last year, a Brown Thrasher brought her two young to glean insects and seeds from the grass; Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks make regular appearances in the yard; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sip nectar from blue Iris and Rose of Sharon; Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, Robins, Tree Swallows, and Mockingbirds have all nested here; for 15 minutes the day after tropical storm Sandy, a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descended upon us to decimate our feeders before continuing south; and just this year, an Indigo Bunting and eight Baltimore Orioles, as vibrant as the citrus we fed them, bedazzled us with luminance and color.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

Sharp-shinned Hawk, home

I could easily go on, but my point is this: There’s beauty to be found everywhere, even in your own back yard. The trick is to be present and receptive to it. Once we open ourselves up to the wonders around us, we can begin to see the magical in the everyday, and awaken in us a sense of the possible. Take that first look, see what’s out there. You may not find anything at first, but I can promise you this: Keep looking, and you will.

I can make you another promise as well: if you truly open yourself to it, the experience will change you. You’ll find something that moves you, something that inspires you to learn more. Perhaps it will be a bird, perhaps not. Regardless, you’ll start to care about it, you won’t be able to imagine a world without it. Without realizing it, you’ll have forged a connection to a part of nature, to the world outside humanity. And you’ll want to protect it. You’ll tell others, get them inspired to take their first looks and make their own connections. Get them to care, understand, and protect.

Indigo Bunting, home

Indigo Bunting, home

This, for me, is what it’s all about. For me, hell is a world without birds. I can’t imagine the seashore without the sound of gulls, a forest devoid of its songbird chorus, or an October sky without the circumnavigation of raptors. I can’t envision a lake empty of waterfowl or bear the thought of spring’s voice silenced. And sadly, I can’t create change through riches or political power. All I have are my love of birds, the words to convey it, and the hope that they make a difference.

But maybe that’s enough. Perhaps through my words, I can inspire more people to care, to love, to conserve what we have left, and to encourage others to do the same. And perhaps together, we’ll get just a little closer to changing the world. If so, then maybe there’s cause to hope after all.

Maybe.

It all starts with a first look.

Take it.

Baltimore Orioles, home