Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Watching a Warbler


Bird watchers are a curious lot. We come in all shapes and sizes and we wear all sorts of funny clothes and drape binoculars over our shoulders. Some of us never leave the confines of our home town while others of us travel the world seeking out new birds. We all keep lists of the birds we've seen whether its a yard list (the species you have seen in your yard) or a county list (all the birds you've seen in, say, Manatee County, Florida) or a state list or even a world list. Every list is made up of a compilaiton of all the times you have spent in the field seeking out every bird you can encounter.

The first bird I ever remember identifying by myself was a Northern Bobwhite at the edge of a farm field in western Wisconsin when I was four years old. I had an old collie named Lassie (surprise!) and whenever my mom looked out the window and could see that dog she knew I wasn't far away. Maybe that is where my incurable case of wanderlust developed.

Regardless at four years old I found a Bobwhite and remember racing home and tearing open a bird book we had sitting on a table and rummaging through it until I found a picture of a bird that matched what I had seen just minutes before in that Dunn County field.

To this day I remember how proud I was of myself having figured out this tiny animal. And the more I looked throught the book the more I realized that there are many more birds out there that I could maybe see some day. Things like Kingfishers and Kingbirds and Flycatchers and Vireos and Sparrows and even brightly colored creatures called Warblers. At four years old I had no idea that all those birds would become an obsession to me and one day I would want to see them all.

In graduate school my plant taxonomy professor asked me one day what was my single greatest goal in life and I told him I wanted to see more species of birds than anyone else on earth. For a farm boy from the wild's of Wisconsin that was a mightly lofty goal especially given our meager existence, my lack of a job, and the fact that at the time I had never even stepped on a plane.

Through graduate school I honed my skills and became a very good birder. I could easily tell a Louisiana Watertrhush from an Ovenbird from a Northern Waterthrush just by the way it held its body and once they sang there was no doubt what species was what.

Working as a professional wildlife biologist with the US government afforded me more opportunities to travel and expose myself to more birds. In fact in 31 years of Federal service I visited each of the 50 states, stepped foot in more than 2,000 of the countries counties and went to 30 foreign countries on official business. And each time I went some where I took my binoculars along with me.

When I first visited the Bahamas for work I remember coming home with something like 30 new species on my list and then in the Turks and Caicos Islands a few more. Then there was a trip to the Dominican Republic followed by Costa Rica and soon the world was just a stage on which I played. If Eastern Airlines or Pan American Airlines flew there then I went there looking for birds.

Something happened in the process however. Despite making my bird list grow in leaps and bounds I lost sight of what was really important to me. It was no longer the enjoyment of watching a Buff-rumped Warbler forage at the edge of a tropical stream or an Apapane calling from a primordial Haiwaiian forest. All the birds became were a number. Another check mark on another list. If I had seen 700 species of birds in North America I wasn't happy that I had seen that many birds. I wasn't awe struck by the fact that the Baltimore Oriole I looked at yesterday may have been dining on a palm tree in Veracruz Mexico the day before and might be building a nest with its mate in northern Ontario in two days time. To me it had become a number. If it could't be number 701 on my life list then what good was it?

I've now traveled to 107 countries around the world and been on each of the inhabited continents. In the process I have identified 5,903 of the world's 9900 species of birds. But what have I missed in the processs. Moussier's Redstart is one of the most beautiful songbirds you'll ever see in Morocco. I know because I've seen them there. Bornean Treepie is one of the most bizarre birds you'll ever see in the forests at the base of Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. I know because I've seen them there just like a African Crowned Crane is likely the most spectacular biird you'll ever see if you are lucky enough to get to South Africa soume day.

I've seen them all but in the process I've lost the ability to see them. My most favorite species of Warbler is Kirtland's Warbler, an endangered species that nests in northern Michigan and winters in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. I spent the first three years of my post-divorce life following them around trying to figure out why their population wouldn't increase. Their plumage consists of the bluest of blues and the most yellow of yellows and their voice is almost like a symphony in the forest. The last one I saw was a couple weeks ago on the coast of Florida when a storm driven bird was stranded on the coast waiting for a tropical storm to die down. I dashed over there, saw the bird, added it to my Palm Beach County list, and then drove home.

I did not care about the bird or the perils it went through to get to Palm Beach County. I did not enjoy its subtle plumage variations or did I care that it was foraging in a patch of coastal vegetation just like it would in a day or so when it found its way to the Bahamas. All I saw was a number to be added to a list.

Right now I am 97 species short of seeing 6,000 species of birds on my life list. However in the grand scheme of things what does that really matter? If I keel over tomorrow those 97 species will still be out there but I wont see them. Does that really matter in the grand scheme of things?

One thing I've recently learned from digging into myself again through the help of a professional is to see the forest and the trees. Look at the subtle beauty of a Kirtland's Warbler not because its a number. Be glad that its there and that it survives and with luck it will make it back to Michigan next summer to recreate itself.

I need to look at the beauty of what is around me and not be distracted by the unimportance of what can't be seen just because its not there.

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