Now Hear This

Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.
Fine feathered feeders enjoy the low tide buffet.

When I lived in Seattle one of the things I missed most about the East Coast was the musical sound of songbirds.

Some diehard Seattle boosters may insist that Seattle has warblers of its own, and I’m willing to believe it. But in the six years I lived there I never heard one. The signature tune of that misty city is the quark and ratcheting caw of crows.

I’ve got nothing against crows. Although it’s a little spooky how smart they are. I read somewhere that crows can recognize human faces, and it doesn’t take much imagination to take that idea a step further and start to recognize the quirky personalities of the crows themselves.

But getting back to songbirds, the D.C. metropolitan area is serenaded by a variety of local songsters, such as mockingbirds and finches. Mourning doves wail in the shrubbery. Orioles pass through on tour. It’s a harmonious scene. If you grew up around here you could close your eyes and recognize the locale by the spring soundtrack.

On a recent trip to the Florida Gulf I noticed a few familiar bird calls. But Florida’s warmth and water attracts a whole different group of birds, not least of which are the ospreys and pelicans, hunters and clowns, neither of which could be mistaken for a songbird.

Fine feathers feast at low tide.
It’s a moveable feast at low tide.

Yet the birds that speak most eloquently to me when I’m in Florida do it silently. The herons, egrets and ibis, with their impossibly long necks, their graceful ballet moves, and their delicate manners, seem to embody a stillness that pairs well with silence.

I assume they must have vocal chords, though I’ve never heard a peep out of them. But that’s okay by me. Something in the way they move speaks volumes, without making a sound.

I could listen for hours.

Why a Coot?

Coot Force

People admire eagles. They respect hawks. They bill and coo over doves.

Coots don’t get a lot of respect.

Generally speaking, when you hear the word coot, it’s preceded by the qualifiers “crazy old.” This seems unfair to me. At least to the birds.

I’ve been thinking a lot about coots lately. Also short-tailed shearwaters, flammulated owls and Himalayan snowcocks.

Coots I see on a regular basis, as they dip and dive in the still waters of Green Lake. Those other birds … nope. Never seen ’em. Highly unlikely to. Those being the kind of hard-to-find fowl that drive a certain kind of old coot nearly insane with a rare form of bird lust known as A Big Year. There’s a movie out now, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, based on a true story called The Big Year, which follows the obsessive lengths to which three passionate birders went to see the most birds in North America in one calendar year. It hasn’t been causing much of a stir among film critics, though reviews for the book by former journalist Mark Obmascik were unanimous in their praise for the writer’s entertaining style, and his engrossing account of a quirky subject.

I just finished reading it. I could appreciate the brisk writing style and the somewhat self-indulgent comic slant with which Obmascik attempts to keep readers from throwing the book across the room and screaming, “Who cares?”

I do care about birds. And I have always assumed that people who are birders, those who spend hours staring up into the trees in the hope of seeing some brief flash of feathers, or hearing some telling trill of birdsong, were even more passionate about birds than I. But the more I read about these guys who engage in bird watching as a kind of competitive sport – he who sees the most birds gets the glory – the more irritated I became. Well, really it was only two of them that irked me. The two who seemed to have limitless amounts of money and free time to spend, flying all over the country, throwing money around like confetti. It reminded me a little too much of modern political campaigns, where whoever has the deepest pockets can buy the most votes.

What kept me from giving up on the book was the compelling portrait Obmascik drew of the long shot – the guy who maxed his credit cards and worked killer overtime to buy himself the precious time to pursue his passion. And there was more to his story than a mere desire to win bragging rights in the birding world. His was a personal quest, undertaken in a time of personal turmoil and suffering, and for my money, he was the soul of the story.

I don’t usually read this kind of book (okay, I admit, the picture of Owen Wilson on the cover influenced me in the airport bookstore). But I’m glad I read it. Not least because of all the amazing things I learned about the birds of North America.

I might just have to get some binoculars. For the birds. Really.

Cute Coot