Sunday, January 04, 2009

New Year's Birding

For those of us who have gone a step or two beyond 'casual' birdwatching, the turn of the year brings an extra pleasure.  Many of us keep a 'year' list, a list of all the species of birds that we've seen in a particular calendar year.  This would not be quite as personal or meaningful as the 'life' list, but it provides a way of freshening the sporting aspect of it with every new year. For instance, every day as I walk down my front steps to my car, there's a house sparrow perched on the gutters, chirping. This is usually a commonplace observation, essentially unnoticed.  But on January 1st, this is the first house sparrow of the year, and possibly the first bird, period, of the year (if I haven't been woken up by crows or blue jays).  

I usually make a point to go out to do some birding on New Year's Day, and in general often do a lot of birding the entire month.  Not only is winter birding great here in coastal New England, but I enjoy the fun of building up my list again at the beginning of the year, when the birds come quick and easy.  First Robin!  First Red-tailed!  First Chickadee!  

Of course there's some artifice to this, like there is to any new year's type resolution.  The birds are the same December 31st as they are January 1st.  And listing can turn towards an obsession, though a relatively harmless one (some birders have January lists, holiday lists, lists of birds seen on television, etc).  But birds are a phenomenon of nature, and they are extraordinarily tied to the clockwork of the seasons, and so the year list can take on greater meaning and interest than just the sport of measuring yourself.  The first magnolia warbler that I see in high spring is not just another bird to put on my list but a new arrival fresh from the tropics, one of millions upon millions of little reminders that our great planetary system is still moving along, still working.  

I did go out on New Year's Day, but it was mighty cold and I went to a nearby park where most of the activity was well shuttered by the snow.  A stiff band of bluebirds and a jittery woodpecker were my best sightings, and I would say that I enjoyed myself until my toes froze. Today I had more success; I went up to a state park on the north side of the Merrimack River's mouth that is known for seabirds, owls and winter finches.  My best birds were four white-winged crossbills and extensive looks at a flock of lapland longspurs (lifers for me) foraging in the grass.  Longspurs are beautiful birds, with complicated faces of gray and rust and vigorously streaked backsides.  

The most exciting moment of the day came when I spotted a merlin cruising through a grove of scattered pines.  It came to rest at the top of a tree and after sitting there for a couple of minutes a flock of small finches came by.  They must not have had their eyes open. They began to land in the bare branches of a tree right next to the merlin's and he shot like a cannonball into the midst of the flock, scattering them and plunging to the ground and out of sight. Merlins have a certain way about them; they hunt and fly with breathtaking confidence and power and with a little experience you can identify them just from their attitude.  

Though I stuck around to catch the sunset I missed the short-eared owls that usually haunt the park in the late afternoon.  At the end of the day I found myself standing at the side of the road, gazing over the marshes to the west, watching the deepening colors of the sky and keeping an eye out for the distinctively floppy flight of the owl.  None popped out before the dark set in but just before I retired to my car something gave a series of calls from a dense stand of shrubs right in front of me.  I listened and I watched as long as I could,  but eventually the calls stopped, leaving me none the wiser for what they were.  Coyote? Owl?  Hell, I don't know.  

1 comment:

Brad Kenney said...

Bri -- seems like there's a lesson in there somewhere -- as the year changes, constantly looking at even the most routine aspects of one's life as special and worthy of note.

Here's hoping for fresh eyes in 2009 ...