Sunday, January 12, 2014

Five years the wiser

Why am I here?
This is no ordinary delve into existentialism; I am wondering why, specifically, I am at Brier Lane.
I am exiting the car at my Christmas Bird Count turf in Lemon Heights. Ah, CBC season! Those hectic weeks centered on the holidays drain birders. We neglect sleep and personal hygiene to prowl our territories, wringing every bird out of the shrubbery. Once the rush is over, we sigh, slumber, and don’t return to our territory until the next December.

Yet here I am, walking up steep-as-hell Brier Lane on January 12. Count season is long over. I didn’t make it home for the count this year, so I just want to see what’s around…what I would have seen.

Audubon’s Warblers and House Finches skip through the knackered eucalyptus trees lining the road. “Damn butchers!” I mutter, bemoaning the excessive tree trimming that compromises the potential of my territory. Cresting the hill, I peer down to see if I can find the customary scrub-jay or mockingbird in the cactus patch. Nope! I can’t—but that’s because the whole patch is GONE, leaving a swathe of dirt that eagerly awaits the next rainfall so it can slide down and befoul the neighbor’s pool.

Good habitat is ephemeral in these neighborhoods. Shaggy yards eventually attract the ire of neighbors, to the misfortune of overwintering birds.

Why are you here? Again I ponder my motives as I watch Yellow-rumped Warblers silhouetted against the picture windows of rich people. Meanwhile, my cynicism and optimism duel. No way. It’s dead. There is NO way it is back. “Shuttup, will you? I can always hope.”

It, in this case, refers to the “Western” Flycatcher I first pished out a thicket in 2009. It subsequently returned in 2010…and 2011…and 2012…

I had started believing it would winter indefinitely. It, ten grams of fluff, would pace my annual return. You idiot, it’s just a bird. Your life expectancy is probably forty times longer. At some point, it needs to die. “But come on, not yet!”

I stop before the appointed yard and spray the jungle with an aggressive pish sequence. Within two seconds, a wide-eyed olive bird squeaks and flits to a twig six feet in front of my face. “Hah. It’s back.” Cynicism doesn’t respond.

When the bird darts back into cover, I turn and plod downhill. While I walk, I  try to imagine where it nests. Breeding Pacific-slope Flycatchers have infiltrated old developments such as this one; it is possible that it never leaves. Or, if it is a Cordilleran, it might come from a Ponderosa Pine forest in Colorado. Or, even it is a Pacific-slope, maybe it travels to this unkempt backyard from a rainforest in British Columbia.

I reach the car, pause. “Good-bye…until next year.”  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Last bird, first bird

            Yesterday and today are the same. It is winter. The sun has set and risen, just like it has for millennia, just like it will for years more. But, since today inaugurates the new calendar that you bought half-priced after Christmas or received for free in the mail, it is a big deal to us humans. Time—we live in it, but can’t quite grasp it, and anything we can’t grasp is fascinating.
            The birding world is not immune to the turn of the year.
            In fact, birders are more excited than the average citizen about each New Year. No, we don’t party late and spend January 1st with a hangover. Rather, we turn in at 9:00PM in preparation for our early alarm to start the fresh year list…
            Yes, the year list, that mortal list among the immortal county, state, birds-seen-while-peeing lists. Every year, the clock is reset. Every birder’s year list goes back to zero. Lots of birders keep meticulous tally of their year lists.
            I’ve kept my share. In fact, I was so excited by the idea when I first learned of it that I started my year list right then and there, on September 17th, 200?. Eventually, I switched to the kosher start date.
            The zenith of my year-listing was 2009. I rabidly kept a Bigby list—a specialized year list that only allows birds seen while walking or biking from home. A year of collecting 283 species, only to lose them all when December changed to January…
            When a birder obsesses over his year list, it becomes a Big Year. The birding community reveres those who have taken the quest to monumental proportions. Kenn Kaufman in Kingbird Highway, Sandy Komito in The Big Year—the Herculean efforts of these superstars inspire a fresh crop of year list junkies annually. It can be a Big Year (ABA area), a Big Year in a state, a Big County Year, or…
            Or a Big Year of birds seen by bike.
            Anyway— each year, whether it is a Big Year or a Normal Year or a year without a year list, is always kicked off by one bird, the first bird. “What was your first bird of the year?” birders ask each other. It is the topic of many forum threads and Facebook posts.
            I reflected on this tradition as I wrote in my journal on New Year’s Eve. Hunched in my chair, I tried to write but ended up nibbling my fingernails. First bird—what will it be tomorrow morning?
            Then I heard the pattern: __-_-__---______-_______
            No, it couldn’t be—the window was shut. I set my journal on the desk and listened. There it was again!
            I reached forward, slid the window open. Sat in silence.
            Ah, a Great Horned Owl. I glanced up and saw my reflection smiling at me in the window. A good way to end the year. I sat and listened to the owl’s serenade. A second owl joined in. They sang their throaty duet, an old married couple getting friendly in preparation for another breeding season. I winked at my glassy twin, wrote a few lines, and then crawled into bed.
            It was 2014 when I emerged. I stumbled to the same window, cracked it open, and strained my sleepy ears. The first sound to reach my ear was a warbling House Finch.
            Another year. I won’t have a list, but I still had a first bird.