One day I'm standing outside looking at a bird soaring in circles in the sky, and I wish that I could figure out how to identify it. Then I mention casually to my neighbor, who is a consummate birder, that I need a hobby that will get me out of the house and is cheap. He gives me my first birding book, and we traipse into the woods. I am an utter neophyte and can't identify even the most common birds (Is that a starling?). Fast forward to some travel -- Los Angeles, in particular -- where I can spy pretty exotic fauna even for the West Coast given the campus' proximity to various landscapes (marsh, cliff, sea, suburban turf). My skills are weak. I spend an hour puzzling over what should be an obvious ID (a group of American Kestrels which I don't identify until I see one fly and the telltale "falcon" wings. Please note, gentle readers that NOTHING looks like a kestrel).
A few seasons pass and I even venture on my own, now easily seeing the common birds and then I find myself at dusk with a group of Audubon birders in a marshy field in the middle of nowhere, listening to the guide trying to flush out a bird in the shrubs with his iPod nano so he can hit it with a spotlight and we can see it. This must be how cults start.
Thursday evening, I paid cash money to attend this outing. We were in search of the American Woodcock, a rarely seen bird except during its mating season in early spring. It's kin to the sandpiper and sticks to its little marshy bogs until it feel compelled to draw out its mate with spectacular aerial acrobatics. It's pretty weird to see a sandpiper like creature in the woods but let me explain its mating dance to those who are still interested enough to be reading (it was the cult comment that got you, right?). After the sun has set, the male woodcock begins to beep in the shrubbery. No, really, it beeps. It sounds like a smoke detector whose batteries are running out (except maybe a little more robot-ey). Then, when the mood strikes it, it begins to beat its wings which make a tremendous noise and it lifts up into the sky, wheeling into wider and wider circles a hundred meters up. I have no idea how the wings make that noise as it flies (and it does so throughout the process), and I lack the metaphoric skills to explain. If you feel so inclined, check out the Cornell Lab where you can hear a recording. Keep in mind that besides the "beeps," all the other noises are from the wings. Then it circles back down rapidly and swoops back to the little patch of land that it is fiercely defending from other males and apparently nosy birders.
The bird we saw that evening flew over our heads to land and it danced around from us after a few spirals (the guide would whisper frantically after it had taken off -- move!! and the group would reposition itself.) We finally got a good look when it was completely dark, and he hit it with the spotlight. Every one trained their binoculars on our prey -- except for me because silly me thought I wouldn't need them at night -- a logical assumption, right? A guy loaned me his so I could get an upclose look which was very nice of him. The light didn't seem to bother the bird but thankfully the light dimmed and we had to leave before we did pester him too much.
I was happy to see it because its behavior is so interesting. I don't know if I will make a habit of going with these groups because I like the peace and quiet of going alone or with only one other person. However, I know that I would never have found this guy without a little assistance of the Pomfret CT Audubon Society.
So ends my tale of adding another bird to my "life list" and it also goes on the list of double-entendre bird names -- the tufted titmouse, the white-breasted nuthatch -- that would make my students laugh.
And I asked about owl walks but apparently fall and winter are the best time to see them. In the spring they just hunker down apparently.