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Archive for June 1st, 2011

It’s just shy of 5 a.m., and I’m standing in the far corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot.  The leaves are still dripping from an all-night shower.  In exactly two minutes Nancy and Jean will pull in to meet me, we’ll check our gear and get into my car, then drive half an hour to our first designated stop.  For the next five or six hours we will be official volunteer employees of the US Geologic Service (Patuxent Wildlife Research Facility), joining about 3,000 others in US and Canada to complete the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey.

This is my seventeenth consecutive year counting Route 63027, “Copeland.”  There are fifty stops a half-mile apart, starting in Yadkin County on Old Rockford Road and ending all they way into Wilkes County.  At each stop I identify every bird I can hear or see within three minutes – Nancy is my timer and scribe, Jean counts cars and records “excess noise,” but only one person is permitted to count.  Nancy and Jean aren’t even allowed to point. From late May to the end of June, individuals and teams in all fifty states and Canada are counting along similar pre-mapped routes.  This “citizen scientist” data has allowed groups like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify continent-wide trends in wild bird populations, such as the major crash in the House Finch population about fifteen years ago (eventually discovered to be due to an epizootic of chlamydia).

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Our first stop is a gravel drive just past Double Creek.  It’s misty, still dark, and the frogs are way louder than the birds this morning.  (I’m no expert on frog calls, but I hear tree frogs, leopard frogs (I think), a bullfrog, and an American Toad.)  A Northern Cardinal across the road is so persistent it’s hard to concentrate, but there’s an Eastern Phoebe near the creek, a Pine Warbler, and now, yes, across the field, the first one starts singing – Indigo Bunting.

Every year, as I transmit the data to the USGS, I keep my own personal tally of the number of species and number of individuals.  On a sunny day on any stretch of North Carolina piedmont roadside, an Indigo will be singing.  Constantly.  They like to perch on a wire or dead limb where they can be seen, and they are tirelessly vocal – so easy to count.  Every year Indigo Bunting is the number one most numerous individual, even when there are flocks of twenty Cedar Waxwings or thirty European Starlings.  This year, though, it is overcast right up to our forty-fifth stop, and I just don’t feel like I’m hearing many Indigos. Oh, we’ve seen quite a few, and some are singing, but I’m afraid this will be the first year they don’t “win.”

Why do I love these tiny dark cavaliers?  I remember the first one I ever saw, on Fodderstack Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway, singing, of course, in the tip top of a dead tree.  And when the sun struck him OW! the iridescence and electricity of that little body.  When I drive down any country road in the summer with my windows down, I find myself muttering every minute or so: “Indigo . . . Indigo . . . Indigo.”  They thrive at forest’s edge, and since we’ve sliced up so much woodland into scattered chunks it just leaves more prime bunting habitat.  So how about this cool counting day when birds that usually steal away in the heat are active right up until our finish?  Will they overtake my Indigos?  Total up the hash marks on the tally sheet.  Here it comes: Chipping Sparrows – 35; American Robins – 46; and (the envelope, please) . . . Indigo Buntings – 57.

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Bird Watching
John Ciardi

Every time we put crumbs out and sunflower
seeds something comes.  Most often sparrows.
Frequently a jay.  Now and then a junco or
a cardinal.  And once – immediately and never
again, but as commonly as any miracle while it
is happening, and then instantly incredible for-
ever – the tiniest (was it?) yellow warbler
as nearly as I could thumb through the bird
book for it, or was it an escaped canary? or
simply the one impossible bright bird that is
always there during a miracle, and then never?

I, certainly, do not know all that comes to us
at times.  A bird is a bird as long as it is
there.  Then it is a miracle our crumbs and
sunflower seeds caught and let go.  Is there
a book to look through for the identity
of a miracle?  No bird that is there is
miracle enough.  Every bird that has been is
entirely one.  And if some miracles are rarer
than others, every incredible bird has crumbs
and seeds in common with every other.  Let there
be bread and seed in time: all else will follow.

.     .     .     .     .

[John Ciardi, 1916-1986, was the long-time poetry editor of Saturday Review and directed the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.  His book How Does a Poem Mean? was the first instruction I ever read on how to write and appreciate poetry, and for many years was a standard.  He was also a renowned etymologist; I remember him from his NPR program on word histories.  This poem is collected in Bright Wings, 2010 Columbia University Press, edited by Billy Collins.]

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USGS Breeding Bird Survey, Route 63027
May 28, 2011

Canada Goose   –   19
Green Heron   –   1
Black Vulture   –   2
Turkey Vulture   –   1
Red-shouldered Hawk   –   2
Red-tailed Hawk   –   1
Killdeer   –   3
Mourning Dove   –   37
Chimney Swift   –   29
Red-bellied Woodpecker   –   6
Downy Woodpecker   –   2
Yellow-shafted Flicker   –   1
Pileated Woodpecker   –   2
Eastern Wood Pewee   –   2
Eastern Phoebe   –   6
Great Crested Flycatcher   –   3
Eastern Kingbird   –   2
Red-eyed Vireo   –   8
Blue Jay   –   10
American Crow   –   35
Northern Rough-winged Swallow   –   2
Barn Swallow   –   15
Carolina Chickadee   –   5
Tufted Titmouse   –   17
White-breasted Nuthatch   –   2
Carolina Wren   –   24
House Wren   –   1
Eastern Bluebird   –   24
Wood Thrush   –   4
American Robin   –   46
Gray Catbird   –   6
Northern Mockingbird   –   21
Brown Thrasher   –   7
European Starling   –   29
Cedar Waxwing   –   13
Pine Warbler   –   6
Common Yellowthroat   –   10
Scarlet Tanager   –   1
Eastern Towhee   –   16
Chipping Sparrow   –   35
Field Sparrow   –   11
Song Sparrow   –   10
Northern Cardinal   –   33
Blue Grosbeak   –   2
Indigo Bunting   –   57
Red-winged Blackbird   –   2
Eastern Meadowlark   –   5
Common Grackle   –   39
Brown-headed Cowbird   –   7
House Finch   –   5
American Goldfinch   –   8
House Sparrow   –   7
White-throated Sparrow   –   2 (non-breeding)
53 species

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