“Birds? Why birds? You never liked birds,” asked an aunt on a recent visit.
It seemed condescending. Hell, it was condescending.
My inner dialogue ranted.
“What are talking about? Do the few weeks we saw each other at Christmas and in Maine over 20 years, or so, you an expert on ME? And so what if you didn’t know I had a thing for birds. I don’t need your approval to become the obsessed bird carving and drawing man that I am now. Dammit!”
The last part is true. I don’t need her approval.
So being the reflective guy that I am I reflected and was more than a little surprised to discover that — on the surface — she was right.
It wasn’t until fairly recently, after I got serious about carving birds, that I began to pore over field guides, antique references and spend time in the field systematically watching birds. I was never a bird watcher, but I did watch birds.
I grew up in a pair of birding paradises. I split my formative years between two different houses in very different environments. When school was in session we lived on the edge of a large and overgrown tract of Indiana hardwood forest. Our house stood on a rare central Indiana hill with a bubbling creek wrapped around the base. Just a few hundred yards upstream was remnant of a field, now in mixed tall grasses and mint. Willow trees and young sycamore lined the creek as it split the pasture.
I spent my summers on a Maine coastal island. The cottage was perched on another, not so rare in Maine hill, a few dozen feet above a secluded cove opening into a large tidal river. This river was over a mile wide where we lived and opened into the Atlantic less than five miles to the south. Behind this little house on the hill was the edge of the great northern forests extending across the Canadian shield and to the tundra. My little corner bedroom had two windows. One opened onto our little cove and the other into the dark spruce and pine forest (I could also look down into the neighbor’s kitchen. Unfortunately the view into the kitchen was limited to late night card games, cigarette smoke and drinking. )
Anyone who has spent any time in the field watching animals knows that margins often the place to be. Animals have related but different requirements for finding food, rearing young, resting, traveling and finding shelter. Both of these locations provided amazing and varied margins. In Indiana birds moved from creek to forest to pond to field. The Maine cottage offered the same mix (but a very different forest) and the addition of salt water.
Even more important than the great locations these homes provided was my own freedom. This was the 1960s and 1970s. It was a safer time, folks were friendlier and it was just a lot less crowded. I was allowed to roam. I spent my days exploring and pretending and playing and studying. I’ve always liked to be alone and I took long walks upstream or downstream or across the uncharted woods. In Maine many of these adventures took to the water in small sailboats, rubber rafts, prams, dinghies and kayaks.
I observed everything that I could take in. It wasn’t just birds. I liked fish. I liked snakes and turtles. I liked frogs. I loved crustaceans (fresh and salt water) and mollusks. I took it all in and (dammit!) I watched birds.
I began to catalog the I’ve-always-liked-birds-(dammit) evidence in my head.
My earliest recollections of bird were around bird feeders. We always had one and I remember sitting in the kitchen and watching birds feed. At some point a small feeder was affixed to my second story bedroom window. It was watching this feeder that I learned that chickadees don’t eat at the feeder. They take one seed at a time and politely retire to a nearby roost to eat. They soon return with a cheery chick-a-dee-dee-dee for another seed.
My grandfathers were both heavy bird feeders. My mother’s parents lived in a heavily wooded neighborhood in suburban Philadelphia. His feeder would attract what seemed like hundreds of birds. I remember standing in the dining room window watching the feeding hoards less than ten feet away. One of the regulars was an all white pigeon. That was some bird!
Often when I hear a blue-jay my mind goes back to that wonderful wooded lot in near Philadelphia. In fact, just yesterday I heard a blue-jay call. It wasn’t the call that identified the bird to me. It was the quick flash, through my mind, of that beloved wooden yard near Philadelphia.
My father’s parents lived just a few miles from us in Indiana. Grandpa Davis was an engineer with very little aesthetic sense. He had survived the great depression and was the original recycler. His bird feeders were cobbled together from cottage cheese containers and onion sacks, bits of foil and coat hangers. He even had a white pipe running from the attic so that condensation from his air conditioner would drip into the birdbath.
A mockingbird would stand atop my grandparents chimney nightly and repeat his repertoire of mimics. The entire show was piped into the family room, via the chimney flue, and would would pause to listen.
There were visit to my father’s grandparents (my great-grandparents) house in Lincoln, Nebraska. From their porch I could hear the peacocks at the nearby zoo. It seems we would visit often. I followed peacocks on meandering paths and talked with trained mynah birds. I’m sure I did the same at the Indianapolis Zoo. The old one in Washington Park.
The penguins at the old zoo were a favorite. Upon entering though the turnstile the penguin enclosure was to the left. Their habitat was split between a white painted antarctic ice field and a glass front tank. It was great fun watching these adorable birds leap in and out of the water.
My first serious bird carvings were penguins. These penguins.
The old Indianapolis zoo had another avian attraction that I remember clearly but can find no one else that does — a basketball playing chicken. The hen was housed in a coin operated Skinneresque box. When the coin was dropped a ping-pong ball popped up in a stream of air. The hen would peck at the ball until it dropped through a hoop, sometimes taking several tries. When the task was completed successfully the air cut off and the ball dropped out of sight. A task inducing treat was then dispensed into a small bin for the hen to consume. I can only hope they switched out hens during the day.
On three or four occasions (two I can find within this blog) I write about waking to the sounds of seagulls and crows on foggy Maine mornings. I would lay in bed, my mind at ease listening to these calls and thinking about the things that I could do on another glorious boundary free day.
In Maine were all interested in birds. We called out every great blue heron sighting shouting, “GBH!”
Great blue herons were not nearly as plentiful in those days and did warrant a shout. In those days we never saw them in Indiana.
Once when driving across the tiny bridge to the island where we lived my parents each spotted a common puffin — on either side of the car! I never saw either, but to this day I’ve not heard of anyone seeing puffins on the mainland. From that time on we never crossed that bridge without looking for puffins. Heck, If I crossed that bridge next week I’d look for puffins. (I did see mine years later on Little Egg Rock — way off shore.)
One of favorite Maine pastimes was spending the day on a small coastal island. There were more than a dozen uninhabited islands within an easy row, paddle or sail from our dock. We often went as a large group of friends and family and later we would go alone — sometime spending the night.
It was on one of these trips that we crossed to the seaward end of the island and stumbled across a seagull rookery scattered on the rocky ledges. My memory — through the lens of an excited and prone to exaggerate 13 year old — is that we were dive bombed and attacked. I suspect the reality is that these large aggressive birds made a pretty big and intimidating fuss to drive us off.
I’ve other seagull memories. Before visiting Pemaquid Point Lighthouse — the most beautiful place on earth — we would each buy a bag of cheap bread. We would stand on the ledges below the light and hold slices of bread skyward. The gulls would swoop down and pluck them right from our hands. It was at picnics at Pemaquid that I learned that all gulls were aggressive, but the black-backs were the worst. (I just remembered that I knew the Latin names for both gulls. I was a fan of binominal nomenclature and went about learning the names of the animals that interested me the most.
Gulls were a problem in town. They would line up, wing-to-wing across the roofs of the fish plant, the blueberry locker and tthe nearby Catholic church. Their weight caused some serious damage and wires were strong along the ridges to deter roosting and streaks of poop down the sides of the church roof.
My maritime adventures put me nose to beak with more sea birds. I spent some time in kayaks (long before they were hip!) and discovered that I could approach animals and get pretty close before they spooked. I learned to stow my paddle and let the wind and current carry me into their territory slowly. In this manner I could get quite close to harbor seals. It seemed they were just as curious about me. It was not unusual to hear a loud gasp and splash right behind my back. I would spin around but see nothing but growing rings in the water where a seal had been watching me.
Female eider ducks with their ducklings were another attraction for my stealthy observations. The males were never around in the summer (I never saw a male eider until I traveled to Maine in the autumn as an adult.) and the females were left with the babes. They would spend their days foraging among the rockweed that fringes the entire coast. Eiders are diving ducks. When they noticed that I was about the ducklings would quickly skitter in every direction and dive. They would them re-surface and group around mama. I would worry that one would skitter the wrong direction and never make it back. It never happened.
Double crested cormorants were amazing to observe. They have little oil in their feathers and float very low in the water. This lack of buoyancy makes them champion divers. We would sit on the porch and marvel at the time spent under water and the distances traveled. Following a time in the water, cormorants must dry their feathers. The birds stand on outcrops and logs, turn to the sun and spread their wings. They look like some sort of ancient dragon or dinosaur. Their flight is beautiful. Upon taking to the air their wingtips gently tap the water on each beat. On a mirror still morning — the flying bird mirrored upside down — these wingtaps would produce a series growing rings on the water. Cormorants never seemed to fly more than a foot above water, often in small groups in perfect v-formations.
One evening, right at dusk, I was in a small rowboat. I was going about my business and sitting in the very bow. I would stretch out with my face right at the water’s surface watching the crabs and small fish below. On this particular night I was doing just this and pulling the boat hand-over-hand through some overhanging trees. I looked up and found myself just a few feet from one of the strangest bird I had ever seen. It had long legs and long beak. It had a white and grey body. From it’s black topped head a pair of white plumes jutted over its back. I had never seen anything like it. The next day we were visiting a friends and I told an elderly gentleman about this bird. He walked over to the bookcase and pulled down a field guide and showed my the black-crowned night-heron. That was it! That was some bird.
Our forest edged home in Indiana didn’t offer anything as exotic as a black-crowned night-heron but there were birds every day. Great birds. The kinds of birds that we took for granted and don’t seem to see as much today.
Redheaded woodpeckers and Baltimore orioles were seen almost daily. Great horned owls would roost in our huge trees. Bobwhites could be heard from the adjoining woodlot.
Once, walking along the high bank of the creek below our house I spotted a woodcock nestled in the dead leaves across the creek. I went to the house and brough back my mother. It was still there and remained there until I forgot about it and went about our adventures.
The large wooded tract to our east, Gould’s Woods, was forbidden to me. The elderly owner was friendly with my mother and made it clear that she didn’t want kids back there. We would step across the fallen fence and take short walks. On two occasions I mounted serious expeditions. The first of these trips was with my Philadelphia grandfather. It was Thanksgiving Day and we were stuffed with Turkey. The ground was dusted with a trace of snow. We walked to the heart of Gould’s woods. We walked in silence. I discovered that there was a pond surrounded by spruce and pine.
I went back to the pond sometime in the next year, alone. I was convinced there would be ducks on the pond. I loaded my camera (a 110 Instamatic) and walked though pathless scrub and brambles to get to the pond. I crept between the trees and peaked through and saw half a dozen wood ducks on the pond. I did manage to get a shot or two before they flew. I remember the prints of these photos — blurry shots of a nice pond. They were too blurry and too grainy to show anything like a few tiny ducks. I know I’d seen them.
I wasn’t a birdwatcher, but I watched birds. Not much has changed.
(I once took a neighborhood friend out into the woods to hunt snipe. We didn’t see any birds that night!)
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