Sunday, March 12, 2006

Unplanned birding

When I heard that we’d be going camping in Oklahoma during my first weekend of spring break, I didn’t think much of it. As we neared the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, however, and my little brothers strained in their seats to see the buffalo and longhorns, I was glad I had accepted Fjord’s offer to lend me his pair of binoculars.

The campout was a youth retreat (“youth” meaning anyone from the ages of 14 to 30), with plenty of other families thrown in, so birding opportunities were limited. We did have some free time, though, and I used mine to wander through the marshy brush and look for birds. Among the abundant titmice and chickadees and phoebes and Canada Geese, I found four life birds.

While we were setting up camp, I saw the familiar flight of a woodpecker. I didn’t have binoculars handy, so I crept as quietly as I could. The bird had the patterns of a Downy Woodpecker, but it just looked different. I remembered what Bolt had said about the obvious differences between a Downy and a Hairy, and I guessed Hairy, verifying it later when Mr. Holzapful gave me a bird checklist for the area.

The next day we had a break in the schedule to do our individual quiet times. As I was searching for a secluded spot, I caught sight of bright red. Another woodpecker. This one was very clean, it’s colors – red, black, white, black – all unmixed. A Red-headed Woodpecker.

On Sunday morning, we had nothing scheduled until 8, so I spent an hour birding. I climbed through branches and thorns chasing after birds for a while, but with no luck. The many ducks on the water were nothing but dark blurs. As for the land birds, I saw plenty of chickadees and titmice, but nothing I was unfamiliar with.

I was beginning to lose hope when I saw a shore bird standing in the nearby shallow water. I noticed long yellow legs, a gray, speckled back, and a light breast and belly. Soon, it gave a funny call and flew away, revealing a white tail. I grabbed my Sibley. Only two birds looked like the one I had seen: Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs. The checklist provided little help, telling me only that both of the birds were “occasional” for spring. Because of the descriptions in Sibley, the funny call, and the fact that it didn’t really look 14 inches, I guessed that it was a Lesser, but I’m still not absolutely sure.

Then I saw a flash of red through the shrubs. I got my binocs on the bird and made a few notes before he flew away – a black and white back, a black head, and a red breast. Unfortunately, my look had been too brief and the brambles too thick for me to be sure. Later that day, however, I was able to observe plenty of his kin as I wandered an Oklahoma mountain. This time, I noticed that his breast wasn’t completely red and that his tail was lined in white. After flipping through my Sibley for a while, I found the match: Spotted Towhee.

On the drive back, I showed Chelsea Raine and my sister Kelsey pictures of the nine types of woodpeckers I’ve seen. They were surprised: “Wow, you’ve seen that?” “I didn’t know there were different types of woodpeckers!” Watch out, girls.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

"The sun’s gettin’ shinery, to spotlight the finery …

... spring, spring, spring"

My mind has been often frequented by this cheesy song from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers of late. Spring does indeed seem to have finished with the teasing game it plays here each winter and finally decided to stay.

The false garlic and spring beauties I learned to love so much last spring once again dot the reviving grass. The magnolia blooms, turned brown by the recent frost, are now concealed by tiny new leaves. One especially warm day, the pear blossoms flared from their shells. I won't mind leaving them this week though, for the neighborhood will greet me with a row of white trees, and in our backyard, a pear tree I helped plant ten years ago will be waiting.

The other trees needn't worry about still being half naked. Each morning, the blackbirds do a fine job of covering the branches. My ears can scarcely take in all the clattering; of course, the nearby flocks of grackles add to the chaos. The mockingbirds don't mind, though. They perch in the bushes and sing as if they had been holding their carol in all winter. And I can't help smiling as I pass under a tree and look up to see two cardinal pairs, the males in playful chase of the females.

Each afternoon, I rush from class to take a long detour by the pond. I roll up my sleeves and pants and let the wind and sun and dust stain my arms and legs while I enjoy springtime. I study the flowers and listen to the birds. I run and I sing. Sometimes, my feet want sand, so I go to the volleyball courts to shuffle around for a few minutes. Of course, homework is inevitable, and eventually I must return to my computer, shaking off the springtime radiance in a room that seems much too small for it. But I delay that moment for as long as I possibly can.