Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Sweetest Bird


Isn't that what they call it when a confluence of events gels to create a magical moment?

It's 5:00pm and I arrived home only two hours ago, from a week of "bird camp" at the New River Birding and Nature Festival in Fayette County, West Virginia. It was a week that ran the gamut from excitation to exhaustion to exaltation, a week when emotions and energy ranged from the lowest point in the Kanawha River valley to the crest of Sewell Mountain. I'm hungry and tired and I ache in every muscle and joint of my body. The laundry is piled around me, the cats are demanding my attention, and I really need a hot bath, but I can't rest until I share this tale with you.

I was driving west on I-64 through Kentucky this afternoon, heading home. Less than one mile from exit 137, the one which will take me north to Ohio, I pulled off into the rest stop. Every good birder knows you never pass up a bathroom, especially when it has flush toilets, hot water, and soap. Numb and functioning on auto-pilot, I missed the entrance to the car lot and instead parked in the trucks-and-trailers lot. (Fellow Farmhouse Flockers can tick off yet another instance of KatDoc missing a turn when she is tired and not thinking clearly.)

I pulled under a sweet gum tree and visited the ladies'. As I walked back, I was vaguely aware of the bird songs around me. Robins and starlings predominated, but slowly I began to recognize a different tune. As the repeated notes took shape, I thought to myself, "vireo." Then it struck me. This is not a Red-eyed. Hmmmmm - interesting. But, I am not birding. I'm taking a break. My ears are full and my brain is leaking. The sum total of knowledge I have accumulated this week is percolating up through my scalp and showering about me like dandruff. I am not birding today. I'm done.

As I reached the car, I saw a flash of yellow. Yellow in spring is good. Yellow means warblers and vireos and newly-minted goldfinches. A brief glance and I know this is no finch. Despite all my best intentions, I am compelled to bird. I unpack the binoculars, all capped and cased, yet still traveling beside me in case of a birding emergency. Surely this qualifies.

The bird sings again. I find him with my eyes and raise the bins. Yellow-throated Vireo. It has to be. I follow him with my glass and he meets and greets his young wife, shy and less showy, but still a joy to behold. I'm on the bird. I have him in my sights, and I ache to call out directions in order to share him with the birder beside me. "In the sweet gum tree, near the top, 9 o'clock and slightly in towards the trunk. No, move - you're blocked." Alas, I am alone, just me and the mated pair above me.

Suddenly, the unthinkable happens. He drops down and to the right, fetching up in a maple. Now, he is four feet above my head and twelve feet away. The angle is right, the light is better and I am missing the photo op of my week. I can't help myself. I unpack the camera and switch out to my 70-300mm zoom lens. Let's see, can I get it right? Camera on, lens cap off, Av mode f5.6, continuous drive and auto-focus to servo. Now, where's the bird?

I can see him in the evergreen tree across the road, but he is too high and poorly lit. I pull out the heavy artillery, dialling up "Yellow-throated Vireo" on my iPod and blasting it in his vicinity. It only takes a few repetitions before he shows, and I switch off to avoid harassing him. I start shooting away, "click, click, click," following him with my eyes when I lose him in the viewfinder, and calling him once more when I think he is gone.

Two dozen or more blurry, out of focus, back-lit, leaf in the way, "bird just flew" shots later I am about to give up. Taking a pause to breathe deeply, I hear it. Another male bird is calling across the valley.

My guy is on instant alert for the second intruder. I'm sure he can tell the difference between a Pod-bird and a real one. He freezes for an instant, for once not too high and in good light. "Bam!" I've got him.

I do my own crazy version of a victory dance in the truck-and-trailer parking lot and send mental "Thank You's" to the birding gods. Packing up my gear, I pull out, all the while marvelling at the series of cosmic coincidences that led me to this one moment of pure bliss.

In gratitude, I send my appreciation to all who have molded me into the birder I am today. First, to the uncounted, unnamed and unsung heroes who have been my birding mentors over the years, those who taught me to see and hear and find birds wherever I am.

To Denese, who I met at the New River festival in 2007 and who introduced me to the iPod, the Stokes birding CDs and to birdJam software. And to Charlie, who helped me fix my iPod when I accidentally erased all the bird songs while trying to add my own music, making it even better than it was before.

To Paul Shaw, one of this week's trip leaders, who showed me the power of the iPod to call in birds, even those you only think might be there. To the incomparable Jeff Gordon, who helped me understand and learn to predict when and how a bird would respond, and where he would appear when he did. To Connie Toops, who reminded me to always use the Force for good, and to respect the birds when you wield that power. (It'll be OK, Connie. I don't think anybody ever Podded that bird
before, and I doubt they ever will again.)

To my good friend and soul sister, the lovely, talented, and generous Nina, who graciously shared her photos tips this week and patiently coached me in the use of my new Canon Rebel. Without your help. I would
never have gotten this shot.

Finally, and most especially, I send my thanks to Yellow-throated Vireo #137, for his cooperation and for bringing back my birding spark. You're on the 'Net, dude!

For all you do, this bird's for you.

Yellow-throated Vireo
Vireo flavifrons

(For the record, I birded the rest of the way home.)


Julie Zickefoose said...

What a beautifully written, thoughtful piece, and the photo is a piece of art, and well worth waiting for. A good birding festival can change lives. MBWAH! to you from us and Chet Baker.

T.R. said...

What a stunning piece all around - photo and writing and sentiments. You deftly portray the spirit I think we all left with from "birding and blogging' camp. What a pleasure and what a treasure to have been a part of it with you. Your joy is infectious and inspiring. I found myself birding from the gate - through the window looking out at the tarmac and I once home sat for an hour on the front porch, surrounded by luggage, computer on lap - "podding" what I was certain was a fall-out worm-eating warbler in the neighborhood zinging away. Seems I've got the fever. It was awesome being with you for a week - thanks for taking me under your "wing".


KatDoc said...

Look out, TR - It sounds like you've caught the fever, and it's contagious. Glad you had fun. Thanks for the comment and I'll be strolling over to your blog when I wake up (which I hope will be sometime this week.)


Lynne said...

This is sweet, sweet, sweet Kathi.
Don't tell anyone, but I was birding in the backyard this evening.

Mary said...

I also fed the birds this afternoon and watched them...

jalynn01 said...

I was dying to see who I was checking each blog... Nice post. A birding festival..(my first) will do that to you. Barb and I were birding all the way home too! It was so nice to meet you. What a fun time we had!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Way to go, Kathi!
Your hard work and patience bring you both birds and a great picture to remember him by.
I can't thank you enough for your efforts and patience with me, too--the beginning birder who still struggles to follow the bird flitting through the trees--but feels that inaudible gasp when I find him and see him singing--a perfectly lovely little bird on a branch.

Irene with no blog...yet said...

Your post rocks!
You articulated exactly how I felt on my way home from "birding camp" at New River Birding and Nature Festival! Saul and I birded as we drove along and saw at least 100 "crows"!
It was so nice to meet you and we will see you in the field!
Irene and Saul (Flushing, Queens, NY)

KatDoc said...

Irene with no blog:

Thanks so much for commenting and I really enjoyed meeting and talking with you and Saul. Watch this space: I have pics of you both. (You DID sign the release forms, didn't you?)

Sorry I was so rude on Sunday morning when we were leaving. It was notable that I didn't even turn around when you offered to show us the Pileated Woodpecker excavating her nest. Ordinarily, I would have knocked you down and snatched the binoculars from your hands to see that. I was that tired of birding that I didn't even care about a cavity-nesting bird. Maybe next time...

~Kathi with an "i"

Lisa said...

I think you left off two of the most important: Lindley Vickers and Clifton Banks. :)


Anonymous said...

Great post, Kathy. I didn't see anything but the usual turnpike birds, but I think I'll start traveling with my bins and pay a little more attention as I drive along.