Are You a Birder?

When we went to Nebraska City last weekend, I didn’t just run away and have fun while Brenda was in class. (See previous post.) There was an early morning class on birding taught by an ornithologist and a biologist and it involved going out into the field to look at birds. I decided to participate in that class. Immediately after sitting down at the table, the woman across from me – who looked like she belonged in a comedy about the odd people who watch birds, complete with a 60s style blond flip hairdo, funky glasses, and a stocking cap with big pompoms hanging from it – asked me if I was a birder.

It was a hard question to answer. Compared to what? I like birds, but I’m not an avid field person. I gave her some lame answer about enjoying birding but being a layman.

After a half hour lecture (which was actually pretty interesting) we headed out to our first stop, the hazelnut grove, to look for birds. We found all the usual suspects: juncos, cardinals, blue jays, and sparrows.

Sparrows …

… that’s where I discovered I’m a mere poser when it comes to birding.

Sparrow sitting in a hazelnut bush

See the white spot on it's neck and the epaulets on it's wings? This means it's either one of about four species of sparrow or an Airman First Class in the Air Force. A real birder can probably tell you which.

We spent a half hour, maybe forty minutes staring at sparrows sitting in the conference center’s hazelnut grove with our binoculars. It turns out there were a half dozen woodland species of sparrows common in the area. (And that doesn’t include the grassland sparrows nor the invasive sparrows.) Some of them had white spots on their throats. Some had epaulets on their wings. Some had crowns of different colors, which were mostly brown at the moment because they were in their migration plumage rather than their mating plumage. (“See that bird with a brown stripe on its head? A few months ago it was yellow.” Wow! That was a helpful piece of identifying information!)

I tried to stay close to the retired ornithologist. He now lives in Nebraska City, and as we walked through the woods he rambled on about the history of the area, the geology of the stream, etc., etc. He was a fascinating old guy and his stories made the morning well worth it, even though I never managed to become an expert birder.

Eastern Bluebird

This is not only a bluebird, it's an Eastern Bluebird sitting in a Jonathon Apple tree. (I'm not only a budding birder, I'm a budding appler!

When we emerged from the woods, we were beside a new apple orchard that had been planted just this spring. The ornithologist had put up bluebird cages throughout the orchard and we spent another half hour looking at bluebirds. That really was interesting (for about 10 minutes, then us non-birders began getting restless).

I must confess that I spent much of my time watching the birders instead of the birds. They were an interesting and sometimes eccentric lot.

The Unabirder

My wife, Brenda. She's not only a birder, she's the Unabirder.

Later that day, after the event was over, Brenda and I drove south to Indian Caves State Park to poke around. (More about that in another post.) While we were there I was thrilled to see a flock of snow geese taking off. Snow geese are among my favorite birds. They are, in my humble opinion, far more fun to watch than Sand Hill Cranes. On a few occasions I have seen them fly overhead in the dead of night, their white wings twinkling in the moonlight and the haunting call floating down to earth. It is one of the great bird sights of all time. And today I got to see them in broad daylight.

But then I got home and studied my photographs. To my chagrin my beloved snow geese weren’t geese at all, unless they happened to be the very rare long-billed, Barbra Streisand subspecies.

Pelicans on migration

A flock of white water birds with black-tipped wings ... must be snow geese!

Pelicans in flight

Some people call the "long-billed barbra" subspecies of snow geese, "white pelicans."

So, if I may once again answer the question with which this essay started: Yes, I enjoy looking at birds, but I’m obviously no birder.

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