Earlier this month word spread of a rare bird showing up at a residence in the town of Leeds, N. D. It had been years since someone had seen a boreal chickadee (poecile hudsonicus) in North Dakota so it was with more than just casual interest that I read the report.
For whatever reason, there is a specific bird call that, when heard, will stop me in my tracks every time, and I’m not entirely sure why. It echoes, it haunts, it transfixes, it seems to reach into my very being, and it represents wildness like little else will. It certainly had an influence on Edgar Allan Poe (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary …”). I’m speaking of the husky throaty croak of the common raven (Corvus corax).
Back in the era of Baird, Wilson and Audubon, it took a skilled marksman to study birds. Getting feathered carcasses in hand – via the barrel of a gun – was the accepted practice of the day for science. It wasn’t until quality viewing optics became available to the general public that the world drifted away from carrying firearms into the field and replaced them with binoculars and field guides. A similar change is taking place today.
Bird watching during February in the Red River Valley is not a crowded hobby. After the Christmas Bird Count is finished, the number of people actually leaving the warmth of their homes to bird is limited during midwinter. I can’t blame them really. It can be an uncomfortable experience at times. It won’t be until that March thaw, when the meadowlarks and waterfowl begin to appear, that the bulk of birders begin to venture forth again.
It sounds as though 175 square miles constitute a sizable chunk of terra firma in which to census birds in a 24-hour period. Yet that is precisely what each of over 2,200 volunteer groups is tasked with every year during the holiday season as part of the largest and longest-running citizen science project in the world. Since its humble beginning in 1900, Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has been a steady and growing tradition for many bird watchers during this early winter period.
The email arrived in my inbox late in the day Jan. 7. The sender’s address was immediately recognizable as that of friend and fellow bird watcher, Moorhead’s Matt Mecklenburg. But, it was the tenor and tone of the subject line that caught my attention. There, for all addressees to see, was the hastily scribbled, anxious words of a desperate person. It read: “Ivory Gull … I can’t take it anymore.” Thus, his plea had gone out and the game – to borrow from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character – was afoot.
To this very day, I have never seen a cinnamon teal (Anas cyanoptera) in Cass County. Mind you, it’s not for lack of looking. Every spring and summer for the past many years, I stop at likely locations and carefully observe any small dark duck in hopes of finding this western U.S. species. Several years ago, I came tantalizingly close; you might even say I got halfway there.
There exists a small, grayish, toy-like bird with penguin-esque habits not in a fairytale, but in and around rushing streams of the far north and in montane and canyon zones of the west. It eagerly and readily hops about creekside from stone to stone, disappearing in a flash for extended moments beneath fast-moving water one expects would speedily whisk it away, only to amazingly pop up – like a cork – back upon a rock, where it repeats the feat over and over.
Most of us who grew up in this area, I would imagine, are possessed of vivid memories of being around the kitchen when our mother or grandmother would spend countless hot, humid and sweaty hours in front of the stove canning various vegetables and other foods for future consumption. It was a summer-into-fall ritual that never seemed to end. The result, of course, was usually a pantry neatly stacked with sealed jars containing pickles, jellies, beets, beans, tomato sauce, fish, chicken; sustenance for months to come.
The movement of birds in the fashion you and I know as migration has been a personal source of fascination for just about as long as I can remember. The relative quiet of winter gives way to a loud summer chorus of singing birds before silence becomes the rule again in late fall. It's an age-old cycle repeated every year across the globe. I'm not the only one, of course, who is beguiled by this phenomenon. Nor am I the first.