I’m a bird watcher, a birder.
All my life, as much of it as I can remember, I have liked to see, to watch birds. Mother and Dad taught me the names of the common birds. When we saw a bird they didn’t know, Mother would help me find a picture of it in a big book, “Birds of America,” and read the name to me.
I’m a lister too, a bird lister. With Mother’s help, and Dad’s, from the time I learned to read and write I’ve made lists of the nanes of the birds I saw.
I don’t write down the name of every bird I see. But I make note mentally.
This morning, for example, as I ate breakfast, sitting at the dining room table, I looked out the window by the table and watched the birds flying in and out to bird feeders outside the window. There were black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, blue jays and goldfinches. There were two red-bellied woodpeckers and two downy woodpeckers. There were house sparrows, a ruby-throated hummingbird and a catbird.
My daughter had the day off from work and after we’d eaten breakfast we went for a drive in the country and we looked for birds. We saw more red-winged blackbirds. We saw starlings, crows and turkey vultures. Most of the vultures were flying. We saw a killdeer and a meadowlark, three kingbirds, an indigo bunting and a kestrel. We saw a great blue heron, flying, and a small flock of Canada geese, also flying.
We hoped to see sandhill cranes. A pair nested in our pasture this spring and had two young ones. We saw the cranes, adults and young, several times but now the cranes have gone. We didn’t see them this morning and haven’t see them for several days. They’ve probably moved to the lake north of us.
Bird watchers make lists for special occasions. A prescribed day near Christmas all dedicated birders spend the day looking for birds, list the names of the birds they see and send copies of their lists to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology or some other collection point and together these lists are called the Christmas Bird Count.
In spring and summer birders make lists of nests they spot, revisit the nests and list the number of eggs in each nest, the number of eggs that hatch and the number of fledglings that leave each nest.
We make trip lists, usually mental, of species of birds we see when we’re traveling. We make special note, usually written, of the first time we see a species and when we see a rare species. On my recent visit to Kankakee Sands, I saw two rare birds, dickcissel and a Henslow’s sparrow. Neither was a bird I’d never seen before, a lifer as we birders call them, but both were birds I hadn’t seen in several years. I named both of those birds in the article I wrote about Kankakee Sands.
A rare bird may be one that is few in number, like the Henslow’s sparrow we saw at Kankakee Sands, or a bird that is out of its normal range, like the dickcissel at Kankakee Sands.
A rare bird, a yellow-headed blackbird, rare because it was out of its normal range, once turned up in the marsh by our pasture. Yellow-headed blackbirds are common in wetlands farther west. They were common around lakes and marshes in northwest Iowa where I lived as a boy. I saw them whenever I went fishing with Dad at a lake near our home when I was young.
I called birders I knew, and the birders I called, called even more birders and for several days the road past our house, and marsh, was lined with cars and birders.