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.


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

Of Competition And Transcendence

Bird-a-thonThe weekend of May 15-17, my family and I took part in the annual Massachusetts Audubon Society Bird-a-thon, covering our corner of western Mass for team Moose Hill. The event is presented as part fundraiser and part competition, but is really just an excuse to devote 24 hours to birding—and, apart from occasionally sleeping and eating, nothing else. From 6:00 PM Friday to 6:00 PM Saturday, teams representing all 57 Mass Audubon sanctuaries spread out across the state searching for birds, each one hoping to end the day having seen, heard, or otherwise encountered the greatest number of species—ideally without running off the road or collapsing in the field from sheer exhaustion—thereby ensuring victory and securing possession of the coveted Brewster Cup.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Our search began at home—under the feeders, to be precise—where we spotted one of the target species for the count: a beautiful White-crowned Sparrow, pale gray with bold white and black stripes down the length of its head. This species is only found in the northeast during migration, and never in large numbers—and when it does show up, it can be difficult to see. However, a few visit our yard for a week or so each spring and fall, so we were reasonably confident. This one showed up at the beginning of May and stuck around just long enough to take part in the bird-a-thon before moving on. We spent a few minutes in the company of the sparrow, then set off on a walk around the neighborhood. I had a particular destination in mind where I hoped to catch up with another, more elusive, target bird: I was looking for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and I had a good idea where we’d find one.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Sure enough, the bird was right where I expected. After a brief search, we heard its nasally call coming from deep within a stand of conifers—an unmistakable sound. The nuthatch called several times, and though we never put our eyes on it, we did spend some time with a beautiful and inquisitive Catbird who allowed us some very nice looks and a few photos before heading into the woods. A short walk farther on brought us to a brush-lined field where we found, among others, a beautiful male Indigo Bunting, a very vocal Field Sparrow, and a surprise flyover by a trio of Common Nighthawks, sounding off as they went.

Finished with our loop through the field, we headed off to our second stop: Winsor Dam, part of the Quabbin Reservoir’s great accidental wilderness, and a spot that’s been graced by some truly remarkable species—among them Golden Eagle, Pine Grosbeak, Parasitic Jaeger, Sooty Tern, and White-tailed Tropicbird. Though we didn’t find anything quite that rare, we were able to pick out a pair of Bald Eagles and a lone Spotted Sandpiper along the shore. As the last light began to fade, we heard a Woodcock’s sharp peenting, and the soft, distant call of a Whipporwill. With the day drawing to a close, we headed home to prepare for the next morning and what promised to be a spectacular birding adventure.

Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Saturday broke cool and early. After a quick check of the feeders (and a fortuitous Pine Siskin flyby) we returned to the Quabbin for a walk down through an area known simply as Gate 5—a designation that, though accurate, belies the avian bounty lying within. We’ve been coming here for years, and it always produces something wonderful, but during spring migration, it can be truly astounding. Today was no exception: a stunning pair of Blackburnian Warblers greeted us just beyond the gate, while farther along we encountered several of their cousins, including Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white, and Blue-winged Warblers. We were also treated to great looks at a couple of usually secretive Wood Thrushes, and a single Veery—another local thrush that’s also typically shy and retiring. But there was one bird we were really looking for here, a bird that, outside our area, would be nearly impossible to find—and even within, it wouldn’t be easy. It’s far more often heard than seen, and if you’re not paying attention, you can easily miss it. We were looking for a Ruffed Grouse, and Gate 5 was our best chance.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Again, Gate 5 delivered. While we were searching for a Black-throated Green Warbler calling somewhere around us, we heard it: a low, nearly infrasonic thump-thump-thump, accelerating in tempo like a classic Harley starting up. It rattled our bones for a moment, paused as if for breath, and then resumed. After three repetitions, the grouse went silent, having said all he needed to for the time being. We listened for a bit longer, in case he had anything to add. Hearing no further comment and considering the matter closed, we continued on our way.

Reaching the water’s edge, we scoped a few surprise birds: five Common Mergansers, a Double-crested Cormorant, and a small group of White-winged Scoters floating lazily on the lake—an uncommon sight this time of year and so far from the coast, and a very nice addition to our team’s tally. Once again, Gate 5 held to its reputation. We were thrilled: every bird we encountered was a delight, and we could easily have spent most our time here. This was a competition, though, and we had several more places to visit before the day was out. So bidding the scoters farewell, we headed back to the car and on into the day.

Over the next three stops, we saw some incredible birds: Great-crested and Willow Flycatchers; Orchard Oriole; Canada, Worm-eating, and Blackpoll Warblers; Louisiana Waterthrush; Warbling, Blue-headed, and Yellow-throated Vireos; and many others. It was a spectacular day all around, but in Skinner State Park, near the summit of Mount Holyoke, we came upon something truly extraordinary.

Cerulean Warbler © Felipe Pimentel

Cerulean Warbler © Felipe Pimentel

We’d set out for Skinner looking for a ghost. Every year, a bird breeds on the mountain that’s so scarce and revered among birders its status approaches the mythic, to be spoken of in hushed tones and with great solemnity. Somewhere within Skinner’s 400 acres, Cerulean Warblers were nesting. And come hell or high water, we were going to find one.

Of course, we knew it was a long shot. Cerulean Warblers are small, few in number, and in steep decline. Searching one out in such an expanse of forest recalls a familiar scenario involving needles and hay. A singing bird would be a little easier to locate, but we were approaching the summit, and though we’d heard many birds on our way up—several warblers included—Ceruleans were conspicuously absent. Though we tried to stay positive, it wasn’t looking good: Without a sound to betray them, our already slim chance was evaporating.

We’d just turned around and started down the mountain when we spotted movement to our right—two birds flying together, small and flitting through the oaks. One disappeared deep into the woods, but the trailing bird landed nearby and began hopping around in the branches. Could it be? We dared to hope. Still, none of us said a word as we raised our binoculars and each put our eyes on the bird.

Female Cerulean Warbler © Deborah Tracy-Kral

Female Cerulean Warbler © Deborah Tracy-Kral

And there she was. Decked in aquamarine and white, we’d stumbled upon a beautiful female Cerulean Warbler, active, visible—and in the middle of constructing a nest. At first, we didn’t speak, just took long looks to confirm in our minds what our eyes were reporting. There was no doubt, though, and we watched her in awe, entranced by the story of life unfolding before us.

At that moment, nothing else mattered—not just the bird-a-thon, or the fact of our collective exhaustion and hunger, but nothing beyond the scope of this little warbler busy with her nest. Amidst all of the grim news, despite the encroaching press of humanity and our repeated assaults on the environment—thoughtless habitat consumption, oil spills that have become routine, gluttonous devouring of resources, our blatant disregard of the impending climate crisis and our frightening actions hastening its arrival—she carried on preparing a safe haven for her eggs and the chicks that would, in time, emerge and, with luck, give rise to yet another generation. Watching her pulled us out of the world of narrow human concerns and desires, and placed us, however briefly, in a larger reality in which we and the bird shared a connection—to each other, and indeed to all life inhabiting this blue marble we call home. On this great mothership of life spinning in the vastness of space, none of us is alone.

Building her nest was a hopeful act, in a time when hope is in short supply, and it made me feel that, though our situation is dire, all is not yet lost. There is light, however faint, in the darkness, and if we care enough to pay attention, it may illuminate a path out of oblivion.

Our way forward is cast in the shadows of the unknown, but it does not lead inevitably to destruction. In crises past, we as a people have joined together and overcome terrible challenges. We have shown resilience, resourcefulness, strength, and compassion, and in so doing have given testimony to the expanse of the human spirit and our capacity for true greatness. Now, we must do so again, for the need is strong and the challenge supreme. At stake is the survival of life as we know it—not just for the birds, but for the great panorama of all life, ours included. Whitman was right, the powerful play does go on, and we each may contribute a verse. It may tell a story of despair and destruction, or one of hope and renewal. But whatever verse we choose, and how the play goes on, is up to us.