Today, the southern suburbs of Denver are beneath 9 inches of snow. Our songbirds are quiet. In my yard, they waited out the winds and cold, taking advantage of the warmest part of the day – only 20 degrees and mostly cloudy – to forage bird and wildflower seed in my yard.
Only a few weeks ago, the world wasn’t like this. The fruits of shrubs and vines didn’t yet show their age. Wasps and flies still found the supple creases in berries, lapping seeps of sugar.
And songbirds hunted tinier insects yet.
Birds of Prey?
It’s difficult to see a songbird as a hunter — and a merciless one at that. The smallest ones — kinglets, nuthatches, bushtits, and chickadees — are not only adorably diminutive. They’re also clownish in flocks. They honk (nuthatches) and dangle upside down (nuthatches and chickadees). Or, as Bushtits do, they move in endless streams of one following the other, as cartoon clowns do when they emerge from a too small car.
But they are merciless indeed, no less so than any bird of prey. It’s just that who they hunt is too small for us to perceive and too alien for us to mourn.
And so it was, a few weeks ago, that I stood underneath a hawthorn tree outside a nondescript office building in Centennial. A noisy flock — is there any other kind? — of Bushtits called me over.
At first, I stood in wonder of how tolerant they were of my presence. But I should have known better. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about me. They were just more committed to their hunt than they were to avoiding me.
The flock was indulging in a meal of mealybug. Phenacoccus dearnessi, to be exact: Hawthorn Mealybug, seen in my photo below.
A Matter of Scale?
Mealybugs are roughly 1/25th the size of the three-inch long Bushtits. Coincidentally, this is about the same ratio as a Bushtit to me — and it leaves me wondering if the scale works out in roughly the same way. I struggled to find the Mealybugs, though I experienced no such difficulty tracking down the Bushtits.
Looking at the Mealybug, I initially thought that it must take a miracle for a flock of Bushtits to find something so small. Or perhaps it was evidence of some avian superpower to locate tiny movements of gray against gray bark.
Or maybe it spoke to the Bushtit’s level of commitment to the hunt, a commitment I could never muster. After all, so much for a Bushtit depends on occasionally pillaging a plant of its pests. I got this blog post for finding the Mealybugs. They got survival.
But perhaps the Bushtits just see the Mealybugs as the same size as I see Bushtits?
I’m sure a little more research could tell me if this is so. But I like to think it is, and that the world appears to a Bushtit to be filled with Bushtit-sized beings no less remarkable than a Bushtit.
What the century-old reports of Denver’s first ornithologists tells us about the birds and changing urban landscape.
In 2015, I became a “patch birder,” focusing my outings near my central Denver apartment. Usually, this meant visiting Cheesman Park and Denver Botanic Gardens next door. In part, I did this to spend less time in my car and more time in the field. But I also did so because at that time, Cheesman and the Gardens were “underbirded,” a term meant to describe locations with relatively few checklists on eBird.
At the start of 2015, fewer than 90 species had been reported to eBird from the two locations. This gave me the opportunity for one of the undisputed thrills of birding: To “discover” species in the middle of an urban center where many had yet to be recorded — in this case, central Denver.
So that spring, I visited both locations regularly — and I was rewarded with “discovery” after discovery. In April and May alone, I added 16 species to the joint Gardens/Cheesman hotspot list on eBird. In fall and winter, I added another 11. With fresh attention to this rather overlooked location, more other birders joined in. By the end of 2015, the hotspot list had grown by one-third, to more than 120 birds. In the years since, birders have boosted the eBird checklist to 150 species.
Among these additions were many “good” birds for urban Denver: Red Crossbill, Common Poorwill, Brown Thrasher and Sage Thrasher. Philadelphia Vireo, a rarity, visited in September 2015, giving good looks to me and Chris Rurik, who identified it. In May 2017, another local birder found Virginia’s and Black-throated Gray warblers, and in April 2018, both Long-eared Owl and Loggerhead Shrike on the same day! Suddenly, a tepid, back-burner destination on Denver’s eBird map was hot.
I learned a couple of valuable lessons birding Cheesman and the Gardens in 2015: eBird is an imperfect guide to the reality of birds in our region, and there is a long history of birding in Colorado still awaiting discovery.
So many of us rely on eBird to lead us to lifers, rarities and “good” birds — and yet, here in central Denver, hidden from eBirders for years, were at least 150 common, uncommon, and rare species.
Digging into the history can help us understand how our present-day finds are often encounters with birds that have long visited our state and its people . . . people like William H. Bergtold, whose century-old footsteps I would soon find myself retracing in Cheesman Park.
Born in 1865, Bergtold lived and birded in central Denver more than a century ago. He came to Colorado, as I had, from the Northeast; we both grew up in upstate New York. For a time, he even worked for my current employer, the University of Denver, teaching in DU’s medical school at the end of the 19th century.
An 1899 note in the journal Science reported that Bergtold was the first president of what may have been the first bird-related organization in the state, the Colorado Ornithological Association. Over the first three decades of the 20th century, he published numerous reports, articles, and books on Colorado’s birds. Those writings led me to Bergtold. Yes, while looking for Cheesman’s birds, I found one of the park’s first birders.
Bergtold wrote one of the state’s first books for birding, A Guide to Colorado’s Birds. Through his articles, he did something further — he told stories of the times. In a 1921 article about the “English Sparrow” (now House Sparrow) and the rise of motor vehicles, Bergtold speculated that the transition to automobiles from horses in urban centers might reduce the population of a despised non-native bird. Not only would fewer horses mean fewer horse droppings (road apples?!) for starving sparrows to comb for morsels, it would “probably also (make) the species’ street life so hazardous and fatal as to drive it largely out of the business area” of downtown Denver.
Many of Bergtold’s reports focused on birds in Denver and surrounding cities. He publicized other birders’ accounts of uncommon and rare birds. Noteworthy was a pair of Northern Cardinals that apparently nested in Littleton for several years. Reading Bergtold’s reports today, I can’t help but marvel at the city of a century ago — its natural and human-made landscapes, the birds that populated them, and the people who watched those birds.
“The Birds of Denver: An Annotated List,” Bergtold’s 1917 essay in The Wilson Bulletin, is riveting for what it tells us about bird diversity in Cheesman Park and around the city. Some species we take for granted today were far less numerous in Bergtold’s time — and others that were common here in his day are scarcer now.
Writing about the American Crow, Bergtold noticed one “flying over Eleventh Avenue and Corona Street, December 7, 1913.” Another Crow was “seen in Cheesman Park, May 1, 1917.” Where he once noticed a single bird, I have watched hundreds of crows fill the park, which seems to be a staging ground for overnight roosting in late autumn and winter. Spotted Towhee, a rather ubiquitous backyard sparrow these days, was even scarcer. On Jan. 1, 1913, Bergtold wrote, “One detected in Montclair,” a Denver neighborhood 3 miles east of Cheesman. Black-capped Chickadees (in those days called Long-tailed Chickadees) hadn’t even begun nesting in Denver but instead were “regular winter visitors,” he said.
His reports also reflect what the city has lost to human alteration of once-natural landscapes. Pine Siskin was once a common spring nester in Denver, the bulk arriving “early in March, and many linger till June . . . probably going to higher altitudes to nest a second time.” Bergtold tells us Black-headed Grosbeak and Bullock’s Oriole were common breeders throughout the city a century ago. Although less common, Lazuli Bunting and Northern Mockingbird both were regular summer breeders in the city, too. Although Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas II lists them all as breeders in Denver County, none seems as common in the city as Bergtold suggests they once were.
One bird I’m particularly fond of roosts in the midst of these losses and gains. According to Bergtold, Common Poorwill was an infrequent migrant through Cheesman Park — and it still is today.
Having stalked through Cheesman a century after Bergtold, I like to think there was a connection between the poorwills we both encountered. I imagine that through decades and generations of humans and birds — then, now, and after us — the poorwills come and go, only occasionally resting in places like Cheesman where birders decide to look.
To read more about Bergtold, consider these articles:
What the trajectory of Common Nighthawks tells us about the suburban landscape.
I’m an agnostic in all things but nighthawks, for with the bullbatI hold this belief: one cannot pursue the bird directly; rather, one can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross theirs.
My faith in the bird was born amid their southward migration through Denver, Colorado, in September 2015. I’d gone looking for nighthawks in a place where and at a time when I thought it likely I might see one. Common Nighthawks are (mostly) crepuscular; they hunt for flying insects through dawn and dusk. Walking around central Denver’s Cheesman Park after sunset, eyes aimed upward, I found only brown bats. I sat a while, awaiting night, and watched these other things with wings. Then, I left.
In truth, I just readied to leave. I sat in my car and, though it was a Sunday and though it was evening, I compulsively checked my email. A (lengthy) message from my department chair at the University of Denver greeted me. Compulsively, I read it, though I believe one should neither mix time off with work nor birds with the same. Dusk gave way to night. The bats gave way to a still park.
At the end of the email, nighthawks.
A trio, emerging from the nearby neighborhood, furiously pursued insects under the park’s streetlights. I left my car and followed them. Nighthawks, like swallows, feed on the wing, catching insects as they fly. They are strong, agile fliers. I have seen them cut upward, leaning backward as they do, in pursuit of prey. They make micro-adjustments that give them a “tipsy” appearance, as Pete Dunne puts it in his Field Guide Companion. To me, they appear confident in the air. Untouchable, even. Nighthawks always seem to be beyond their human-observer, even when approaching them—a twist of angles always cutting away. Unlike songbirds, which rarely fly directly at people, this trio chased their prey wherever it went, even if it meant flying directly at me.
An arm’s length away, a nighthawk.
One can only seek a trajectory that may someday cross the trajectory of a nighthawk. I spent this past summer seeking just that. I let my dogs lead me. I indulged every detour and delay. We turned home when they wanted to. We inspected dead ends. We doubled back on trails. We lingered when the dogs wanted to linger. We sat together in fields and on curbs. I suppressed my better judgement of where and when the birds would appear. By maintaining the appearance of not seeking nighthawks, I hoped I could fool serendipity into delivering them.
I did so to try to document the bird’s presence in Centennial, a southern suburb of Denver, during the bird’s nesting season. A mid-June sighting gave me hope. My dogs and I sought the birds above a buggy marsh at a local open space. The setting sun inspired the complex chorus of catbirds, blackbirds, and sparrows. But I missed a simpler sound: the buzz of the bird I sought, the distinct, nasal “peent” of a nighthawk. As dusk deepened, my dogs decided it was time to head back to our car. (One dog is afraid of the dark and what it means in Colorado: wild canids. The other is simply not much for walking.) I obliged, though I wanted to keep seeking.
Nearer to the car, the dogs changed their minds, insisting I let them chase each other around me. Though leashed, the dogs sprinted circles. To keep myself from their tangle, I spun with them. Once, twice, then—and only because the dogs had chosen when to turn back and when to stop for play and when to turn me in the right direction—a nighthawk.
I seek the nighthawk’s trajectory because I measure the world by this bird. They arrive in Colorado late in spring migration, just as that season tips toward summer. They leave before autumn begins whispering of winter. But the bird isn’t just a sign of the seasons. Their presence speaks of the complexity of our climate, the non-human world, and the human/non-human nexus. Obligate feeders on flying insects, the Common Nighthawk’s steep population decline over the past half-century may relate to broader declines in their prey, owing to pesticide use, the warming planet, and other factors. Nighthawks are losing habitat, too. Some of that habitat is their wild habitat of grasslands and forests. But they’re also losing built habitats in urban and suburban environments. Nighthawks use the flat, gravel-covered roofs of many urban buildings as nesting sites. Unfortunately for the birds, most new development forgoes gravel for other materials, such as rubber. (Patches of gravel, installed on flat roofs, are a potential compromise that may support nesting nighthawks. New Hampshire’s “Project Nighthawk” is experimenting with this.)
The fate of Common Nighthawks is tethered to us, in ways that the fates of many non-human animals are. But it isn’t easy to observe our entangled destinies. Nighthawks are not like the chickadees that visit our feeders, the finches and phoebes that nest on nooks around our houses, the corvids that seem more at home around our homes than we do, or the hawks that hunt on our highways. Nighthawks nest on our skylines. They migrate at incredible heights, and the vast majority of these birds pass over our summer and fall activities without being noticed. By day, they disappear into trees, grasses, and rocks. Their cryptic feathering renders them invisible. If you’ve ever lucked into a sighting of a nighthawk on a tree, you know how easy it would be to overlook the bird. You also know that nighthawks don’t care that you’ve found them. Their faith in their camouflage, their use of difficult to access perches, and the fact that they have no need for daytime activity allows them to tolerate proximity to us.
Ultimately, my trajectory and the Common Nighthawk’s did not intersect during their nesting season. Perhaps this is a sign of the species’ decline or of my neighborhood’s hostility, with our grassy lawns and dependence on pesticides, to the birds and their prey. Perhaps it is only that I have not yet found our shared trajectory.
But I have learned something else from this effort. Pursue this uncommon bird, during the uncommon hours of dawn and dusk, and you will find the trajectory of other uncommon creatures. Those brown bats, one of which dropped me to my knees by hunting at the brim of my hat. A raccoon, ambling down a drainage ditch. A coyote, patrolling an undeveloped field. Fox kits, playfully hunting along a neighborhood path. Great Horned Owls, perched in suburban parking lots and cemeteries. A Mule Deer pair, cautiously watching the human animals who ride bikes, and toss baseballs, and walk dogs while seeking nighthawks in fields near riparian corridors.
Spring migration is upon us. Here’s to the unique joys of slow birding.
Among the first lessons new birdwatchers learn has nothing to do with birds and everything to do with the people who watch them. Those who are serious about watching birds call themselves “birders,” eschewing the more generally familiar “bird-watcher” label.
I don’t remember when or how I learned this lesson. Certainly, it wasn’t from my field guide. Sibley uses the two words interchangeably, though he seems to prefer “birding.” Dictionaries, too, don’t much distinguish between the two words. Merriam-Webster defines one term by the other — to “bird-watch” is, simply, to bird.
I suspect I learned of the differences from other birders, whether from those I encountered in the field or those that write about birding online. Just google the distinction and you’ll find blogs, essays, and articles expounding on differences that are undetectable in the dictionary definitions of the two.
So what’s the difference? A New Yorker review of the film adaptation of Denver birder and writer Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year distinguished the two in this way: “Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them.” Yes, but I think the differences are deeper. Writing last year for National Audubon, Freya McGregordescribed how she often hears birdwatching defined as a more relaxed, leisurely appreciation, while birding focuses on chasing and listing birds, often in a competitive way. Frequently, birdwatching is considered more amateur, while birding’s regarded as more serious and legitimate.
Many of us think of ourselves as birders, not bird-watchers. We do “watch” birds, but watching as a means to an end — identifying bird species, sometimes as many as possible, the “sport” of birding.
I don’t want to make too much of this. Many birders are excellent bird-watchers, if we mean the simple act of observing birds to understand them better. Many serious birding outings — whether alone or in groups — have moments of long watching, to enjoy the beauty, behavior, or individuality of the birds we see.
Still, allow me to make the case for the particular joys and passions of bird-watching — watching a bird, the bird, closely. In a few moments, I’ll tell you about a bird that has done that for me this winter.
You’ve heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” But between species, familiarity is a prerequisite for understanding. The longer we bird-watchers do our thing — watch a specific bird, species or individual — the more likely we’ll get to see birds do theirs. By watching, we may see, hear, and even feel their way of being in the world. “Feel”? Yes, I’ve had a flock of Bushtits pass closely enough to feel the breeze of all those tiny wings.
Some watchers of birds attend so closely that they even know individual birds, naming specific ones and picking them out of flocks. I am reminded of author Leonard Dubkin and his daughter Pauline naming pigeons in The Natural History of a Yard — and of the great corvid observers Lyannda Lynn Haupt and Bernd Heinrich doing the same with crows and ravens, respectively. I can’t say I know which are the true resident Spotted Towhees in my yard — the Him and Her of that space — and which of the others this winter are their offspring or visitors. I don’t think I’d know the difference if another Northern Shrike suddenly replaced the one I’ve been watching, off and on this winter, at Willow Spring Open Space in Centennial.
Even if we can’t yet tell a specific individual, we can still detect a lot. Take that shrike, for instance. I’ve noticed that the famously unafraid “butcherbird” can be as withdrawing as any other songbird. A male American Kestrel steals its perch, and the shrike retreats, calling in protest as it goes. (Birds of the World notes that shrikes on their breeding territory will chase off kestrels. But this young shrike is on winter grounds.) And like the American Tree Sparrows also at Willow Spring this winter, the shrike hid away when a male Northern Harrier, the “gray ghost,” coursed through and then above the shrike’s hunting ground.
One more thing I’ve learned. This particular shrike seems to favor small rodents over small songbirds. Though my observations are admittedly limited, I’ve only seen it pluck rodents from the grasses and weeds. It seems to ignore numerous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds that fly over. In one hunting attack in the grasses, the shrike landed next to a small flock of tree sparrows yet seemed to ignore them.
Birds of the World offers no clue to this shrike’s apparent preference for rodents. Maybe there are more voles this year. Maybe it’s the other predators. Or maybe it’s simply this: I haven’t yet watched the shrike enough to see its songbird pursuits.
Maybe that’s the point (it’s certainly one of the pleasures) of bird-watching. It forces us to slow down and notice more about where we’re watching birds and what else is there. Certainly, spending 30-45 minutes in one spot, and returning there frequently means less time in other spots, other habitats — and fewer species per outing. But remaining still, in one small patch, widens our view to other things, doesn’t it?
Things like the mammal tracks, the tufts of fur snagged on thorns of wild plum, scat, rodent trails, wasp and spider burrows — not to mention an uncommon or unexpected bird that may happen along as we watch. And also those fall and winter seedy weeds, wildflowers, shrubs and vines, all food sources to be surveyed to see how birds use them, and how that shapes our future bird-watching and birding visits.
Gradually, slowly, but never completely, the places where we bird-watch snap into sharper focus. I’ve known, in a general way, why I see the shrike, the kestrel, the sparrows, hawks, harriers and coyotes at Willow Spring — food, of course. But the gap between knowing that fact and experiencing it in the birds’ everyday actions is as wide and expansive as the open space itself.
One day, might we begin to list bird-watching experiences, observations, and learnings alongside our birding checklists of species and numbers? Stories may be harder to quantify, and eBird won’t be keeping state-level rankings of bird-watchers with the most of them. But bird-watching encounters are no less meaningful than birding ones.
This essay originally appeared in Denver Field Ornithologist’s newsletter, Lark Bunting.
This morning, a walk along the High Line Canal Trail in Greenwood Village proved eventful. For most of the walk, a drone — pilot unseen — beat me around every corner. It flew higher than nearly any of the birds, save a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.
Wednesday’s snow meant a fairly fresh canvas covered by mammal tracks. Indecipherable ones lined the canal — coyote perhaps, but I’ve also seen a bobcat in the area. Rabbit, raccoon, and rodent tracks crisscrossed the trail.
Down along the Little Dry Creek, signs of beaver activity. Should the beaver have any success at building, their work will certainly be undone. Homes, the trail, and nearby roads all come to close to the creek for Greenwood Village to abide beavers.
A Baffle of Bushtits
During my short walk, I had the good fortune to encounter a flock of 15-20 Bushtits. They were in a productive patch of the canal, along with Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Juncos, Songs Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees.
Every encounter with Bushtits is magic. They’re incredibly active birds, moving from spot to spot in ways that mean you can never be sure you’ll indeed meet them while birding.
This flock might have been satisfied feeding along the canal, undisturbed by me and my camera. But a Sharp-shinned Hawk had other plans. Entering the scene to briefly perch on a power pole, the hawk inspired the Bushtits to give an emphatic, noisy warning call. They went quite for a time, as the hawk stayed perched. But as soon as the sharpie took off again — flying directly away from the Bushtits — the Bushtits called again.
I’d not heard this vocalization from Bushtit before. Apparently, they reserve it for small avian predators, namely Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. Joseph Grinnell documented this in a 1903 essay. Referring to the call as a “confusion chorus,” Grinnell speculates that its radiating intensity causes accipiters to lose individual Bushtits to the din.
A flock of bush-tits will be foraging as usual, with the ordinary uncertain medley of location-notes, when suddenly one or two birds utter several of the sharp alarm notes and then begin a shrill quavering piping. This is taken up by the whole flock, until there is a continuous monotonous chorus. At the same time every member of the scattered company strikes a stationary attitude in just the position it was when the alarm was first sounded, and this attitude is maintained until the danger is past. In nearly every case the danger is in the shape of a hawk, more especially of the smaller species such as the sharp-shinned or sparrow hawks. No matter how close the hawk approaches, the shrill chorus continues and even intensifies until the enemy has passed. The remarkable thing about this united cry, is that it is absolutely impossible to locate any single one of the birds by it. The chorus forms an indefinably confusing, all pervading sound, which I know from personal experience to be most elusive. This confusion-chorus, as I think it might be appropriately called, is a sure sign of the appearance of a small hawk even a long way off.
It seems reasonable to infer that this monotonous chorus of uncertain direction, at the same time as it sounds a general alarm, serves to conceal the individual birds, all of which at the same time maintain a statuesque, motionless attitude. Their colors also harmonize closely with the shadows of the foliage. The whole evidently forms a composite protective device, which must be, as a rule, effectual.
Beyond the Bushtits, I encountered a female Northern Flicker in a cavity in a cottonwood. She sat or perched deep in it at times, her head barely visible in the cavity.
She stayed in the cavity for some time, perhaps watching me watch her.
What was she doing? We’re months away from when flicker nesting usually begins. I didn’t notice any obvious nest building activities — no excavation of the cavity, no interactions with a mate.
Perhaps the sun, after snow, sparked something — as, for all of us, it tends to.
Fri 17 Feb 2023 9:58 AM High Line Canal Trail–Greenwood Village / Centennial (Arapahoe Co.)
16 species observed
Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1 Northern Flicker, 4 Blue Jay, 2 Black-billed Magpie, 7 American Crow, 2 Black-capped Chickadee, 5 Bushtit, 15 Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 2 European Starling, 3 American Robin, 10 House Finch, 9 Dark-eyed Junco, 2 Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored), 1 Dark-eyed Junco (Pink-sided), 1 Song Sparrow, 2 Spotted Towhee, 2 Red-winged Blackbird, 35
In 2009, Vernon R. L. Head and his companions set out to become the first birders to see the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar.
I feel the need to open with a disclaimer. Book writing is difficult. And books aim for an audience. Sometimes, we find ourselves outside that audience. Reviews, I think, should begin from those premises.
This was the case for me with Vernon R. L. Head’s book The Rarest Bird in the World: The Search for the Nechisar Nightjar. On one hand, Head took on an impossible task: the only thing known about the Nechisar Nightjar is that exists, and even this is questioned. In 1990, scientists a single wing in a remote location in southern Ethiopia. In 1995, they published an article identifying it as belonging to a then unknown (to science) nightjar. They named the species Caprimulgus solala (the sole-winged goatsucker), or Nechisar Nightjar, for the location of the bird’s discovery.
Little is known about the wing. And thus the impossibility of Head’s task, to write a book about a bird about which there is nothing to say. Accordingly, The Rarest Bird in the World says little about the Nechisar Nightjar, beyond recounting the discovery of the bird’s wing. A twenty-five page chapter does help the reader understand the family of birds we call Nightjars, Head’s encounters with them as a bird-watcher, and his pursuit of some of their family members and more distant relative, such as Oilbirds, across the globe.
The Wrong Reader
And this leads me to the question of audience. Head is a global birder and The Rarest Bird in the World is as much about global birding as it is Head and companions’ pursuit of the Nechisar Nightjar. As such, it reads more as a travel book than a book about birds, or the environment, or nature.
To be sure, Head offers occasional remarks on conservation, evolution, or the behavior of birds. But The Rarest Bird in the World lacks the careful observations, grounded in a strong sense of place, that I look for in the books I read about birds and birders. Instead, Head’s destinations and his encounters with rare species at those destinations are central to the book. From these, he offers generalizations about what it means to be a bird-watcher. I imagine that some bird-watchers, particularly those who chase birds across the globe, will recognize their way of thinking about and doing birding reflected in Head’s book. As a mostly local birder, who usually eschews the chase, I didn’t.
Given how badly suited I am to The Rarest Bird in the World, I read it in a hurry. I nearly stopped, a chapter or two in, overwhelmed by Head’s use of metaphors. Probably 60-80% of the book’s paragraphs include at least one, often more. I think Head was trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. After all, most readers will not have observed the places and birds that Head wrote of.
For me, Head’s metaphors replaced careful observation of birds and the surprise that comes from uncovering something genuinely new or overlooked in the familiar feathers of a crow, raven, or starling. Head pursues the new in extraordinary encounters with extraordinary birds, and he tried to convey these experiences by comparing them to experiences slightly less extraordinary. Fair enough. But I still prefer the extraordinary in the birds of ordinary places. The ravens, kingbirds, and blackbirds who nest at strip malls have intrigue enough.
Do Rare Birds Need Us?
The Rarest Bird in the World left me wondering what genuinely rare and vulnerable birds want of us. Surely, it’s to be left alone. Being discovered by humans is only “useful” to a vulnerable species in that some humans might protect that species from some other humans. Head tells some of these stories of species pushed to the brink by humans only to be saved, perhaps just barely so, by conservationists and ornithologists.
This is one of the tragedies of human discovery. For many birds, to be known by humans is fatal. And yet to be known, particularly today amid the Anthropocene, might be a vulnerable species best hope.
Bohemian Waxwings are having a moment. These far north birds are venturing into Colorado. But what’s brought them here for the first time in a decade?
Bohemian Waxwings are having a moment. This winter, these far north breeders have ventured as far south as Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here in Colorado, Bohemian Waxwings have been relatively common in the Front Range this winter.
It’s been been a decade since Bohemians have been so numerous and conspicuous in Colorado. What’s brought them here? We’ve had deep snow and extreme cold in the Rocky Mountain west. While I don’t know if this has been the case farther north, where this species usually overwinters, one suspects that it is.
But perhaps it’s a fool’s errand explaining the Bohemian Waxwings southward movements. Cornell’s Birds of the World says this of the bird.
Notoriously irruptive, irregularly appearing in large numbers in regions south of normal wintering range. For example, only rarely reported from New Mexico, but in Apr 1959, huge numbers (about 10,000 individuals) arrived in Santa Fe and remained until early May (Ligon 1961). Late arrival at this southern locality suggests individuals moved into the area after depleting fruit supplies in more northern areas.
At least what we can say what the birds are doing here: devouring the berry-like drupes of Common Buckthorn, an invasive, non-native plant.
Just south of Denver, along the High Line Canal, a single Bohemian Waxwing amid 50-100 Cedar Waxwings quickly became a flock of 30-50 Bohemians among 100-150 Cedar Waxwings.
Today, January 15, that flock tripled in number. For the first time, I had the good fortune of standing amid a large, active, and noisy flock of Bohemians. They filled a small Buckthorn on the Canal’s edge. Dozens occasionally jammed in to my camera’s field of view.
While the photos of these gatherings aren’t particularly impressive, I like how much movement and activity they convey. Waxwings and a robin or too point in every direction. Some are in flight. Others are swallowing Buckthorn. Others are about to collect it. The birds only seem to do one thing in unison: throw themselves into flight, as a single, impressive flock.
When not eating, the Bohemian Waxwings trilled from high perches in the Canal cottonwoods. By comparison to the Cedar Waxwing’s call, the Bohemian’s call is slow and low. Between the robins, Bohemian Waxwings, and a few magpies, the Canal filled with a complex mix of sounds.
Waxwings and the Suburban Landscape
This year, many of the best places to see Bohemian Waxwings near Denver have been south and slightly east of the city, along the High Line Canal Trail. eBird shows that birders have reported Bohemian Waxwings throughout a 4 mile, as a car drives, and 7.5 mile, as the Canal winds, stretch of the trail from southeast Denver through Cherry Hills Village.
The Canal itself is a ditch dug by hand over a century ago. It used to carry water from S. Platte River, southwest of Denver, to the prairies north east of Aurora. Along it, a riparian corridor of cottonwoods, willows, chokecherry, Golden Currants and American plums developed.
These native plants provide important resources to the trail’s wildlife. Cottonwoods, willows, chokecherries, and plums are important host plants for moths and butterflies. These are themselves important food sources for birds during nesting season. Currants, chokecherries, and plums bloom early, providing insects and birds with nectar. The cottonwoods provide nesting habitat for native and introduced species, particularly Northern Flickers, Eastern Screech Owls, and European Starlings.
The chokecherries feed songbirds in autumn; they also serve as host plants for moths and some swallowtail butterflies. Meanwhile, the plums are both a critical host plant for moths and butterflies and an important late autumn food source for mammals, particularly coyotes.
The corridors has also proven a suitable home for weedy and invasive non-native trees and shrubs, particularly honeysuckles, Russian olives, Siberian Elms, and Buckthorn. These can spread voraciously. Tree of Heaven, European Spindle, Privets, the occasional lilac, and Golden Rain Trees, which are overused in landscape plantings, have also begun to move in.
So here in the southern suburbs of Denver and Aurora, our encounters with waxwings happen in a landscape altered by human activities. Meanwhile, waxwings and other birds continue to alter it, spreading seeds of Buckthorn across the canal and adjacent open spaces.
Birds ignore Common Buckthorn drupes until mid-to-late winter. It’s often the only fruit left standing at this time of year. So to find uncommon or rare birds, it often means being in search of the plant. In addition to the waxwings and robins, I’ve also seen White-throated Sparrows, Townsend’s Solitaires, Hermit Thrushes, White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Spotted Towhees feeding on or associating with Buckthorn.
All this leaves me with an ambivalence. Rarely do I seek out patches of invasive plants with any kind of joy or hope. But if I hope to find waxwings, I also implicitly hope to find these. And this stretch of the Canal is a wall of Buckthorn. Many of the adjacent yards also have patches of the plant, perhaps owing to the activities of robins and waxwings.
Not to be Ignored, Cedar Waxwings
While Bohemian Waxwing steal the show, Cedar Waxwings are also worth watching. They, too, acrobatically feed on Buckthorn, in Cirque du Soleil feats of balance and flexibility.
Cedar Waxwing on the High Line Canal, Cherry Hills Village, CO
Meanwhile, I’ve watched waxwings mellow out the laxative properties of Buckthorn by voraciously drinking. They’ll do this at puddles on pavement, as well as high in cottonwoods, where they gobble up melting snow.
An apparent pair of Cedar Waxwing used the snow to maintain their bond, exchanging it as a sort of gift. (Another Colorado birder reported similar behavior between Cedar Waxwings on January 7, and I saw it again on 1/15.)
This “passing behavior” is common during nesting season, when birds affirm their bonds through exchanges of food and water. According to Birds of the World, this behavior is not especially well documented in the winter among Cedar Waxwings: “The extent to which mates associate in winter and migratory flocks is not known.”
However, Bohemian Waxwings display this behavior, according to this 1978 article in Blue Jay, the long-running journal of Nature Saskatchewan. And according to the Birds of the World account of Cedar Waxwings, some pairs do indeed remain bonded beyond the nesting season.
For now, the birds remain committed to the Canal. Eventually, they’ll exhaust it as a food source and look elsewhere. They’re remarkably nomadic birds, after all.
waxwing ripen the winter buckthorn
For more on the remarkable behavior of winter waxwings, see Mary Holland’s incredible post and photographs of a Bohemian Waxwing feeding on Bald-faced Hornet larvae.
It is first, and primarily, a book of sociology. Cherry is a sociologist specializing in animal studies at Manhattanville College in upstate New York. She used qualitative methods, such as interviews and observation research on Audubon bird trips, to explore how birders relate to birds and the environment. Cherry and I share an interest in how practices of attention are learned. While the topics we write about are wildly different — I’ve written about the role of attention-management in the denial of problems and Cherry’s written about it among birders! — we use similar frameworks and approaches in our work.
Read as a work of sociology, For the Birds is, as most outings of birdwatching are, a joyous trip through wild spaces and urban parks to see birds. Cherry shows how birders learn to see, identify, think, and talk about birds, usually in the accompany of more experienced others. She demonstrates that, over time, many birders — or at least those involved in the Audubon Society — develop what she calls a “naturalist gaze” that allows them to perceive and assess the quality of local ecosystems.
But as I’m also a birder, I read For the Birds as a description of the activity. Much of what Cherry documents resonated with my experience as a birder and field trip leader. I nodded along as Cherry describes a trip leader describing birds perched at “o’clocks” on a tree. This is a strategy I learned from long-time birders in Denver (e.g., “the nuthatch is at three o’clock on the bare branch on that large tree” or, better yet, “the Plumbeous Vireo is at 9:37 on the bare branch on the century-old cottonwood along the canal”).
As a birder, it also was enriching to understand that my sense of how I became a birder was fairly generalizable. While there may not be one path to becoming a birder, there are certain experiences that many of us go through that enable us to effectively use our binoculars, our cameras, our field guides, each other, and, eventually, our earned knowledge to find, spot or hear, and identify birds.
There was yet one more thing that For the Birds represented to me. As I mentioned, Cherry is based in upstate New York and studied with Audubon Societies in the area. I grew up slightly farther upstate than these groups, near areas where some of the birders who Cherry met would look for birds. I recognized the Black Dirt Region of upstate New York, where downstate birders seek Short-eared Owls. When one birder Cherry spoke to complained of birders trespassing on private property to seek a Gyrfalcon, I had a sense of where this might have been: Blue Chip Farms, not far from where I grew up, where a Gyrfalcon spent much of the winter of 2015. (The timing of the bird seems right for Cherry’s research, and a friend-birder [we need a word for that — “frirder”? “briend?”]) had told me of out-of-town birders and photographers trespassing at the farm to get better photos.)
Sociologists tend to write books that drain the joy from the world. By focusing, specifically, on birders relationship to non-human species, Cherry preserves the joys and passions of birders. Sure, she asks that more birders eat less meat — surely the one thing most birders could do at an individual level to protect habitats for birds. But she carefully documents the ways that birders care for the birds they see, even above their commitments to their list. And she shows how our “naturalist gaze” inspire us to learn more, appreciate more, and understand more about the delicate relationships among ourselves and the non-human species that surround us.
For the Birds is a book I wish I’d written. Cherry participated in birding trips and interviewed birders to understand how we think about and act toward birds and the environment. The book dispels stereotypes about birders as obsessives interested mainly, if not exclusively, in their life lists to show how we learn to care about the birds we encounter and the habitats that sustain them. She describes us developing a “naturalist gaze” through which we observe the dynamic relationships between birds, humans, and urban / suburban habitats.
Two of the chapters in For the Birds address birders’ perceptions and ways of talking about specific species and categories of birds. Given my own interest in how people think about Nightjars and Nighthawks, these chapters are of special interest.
Chapter 3 addresses common birds; Cherry shows that birders are not nearly as indifferent toward the typical birds of yards and parks as we normally think. Rather, we take common birds as indicators of relatively healthy ecosystems, particularly in urban and suburban environments.
Cherry also demonstrates how birding trip leaders try to convey this quality of common birds, helping field trip participants value the numerically common birds. Her writing on this resonated with my own experience, both as a trip participant and trip leader. Field trip leaders may draw attention to common birds, teacher novice birders how to identify them, and share origin stories of those birds’ presence in urban and suburban landscapes.
Learning to see the connections between birds, food sources, water sources, and built environments is critically important in this. Urban and suburban habitats come alive when we can perceive these connections. And birders may develop a commitment to stewardship and conservation, creating backyard and neighborhood landscapes that can sustain these connections. That so many birders become proponents of native plants is an example of this.
Chapter 5, meanwhile, addresses the distinctions birders make between “good” and “bad” birds. The former are, in a sense, birds–in–place: native species in balance with ecosystems. Birders are take into consideration commonness of birds. Uncommon birds and/or those that we only encounter during migration tend to be described as “good” birds during and after our outings in the field. Bad birds tend to be species out of alignment with ecosystems — invasive species and those birders consider “harmful” to other birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, are the main example of the latter.
For a while now, I’ve found it curious that birders, myself included, will use phrases like “good bird” and “best bird” when describing their outings. I’ve wanted to analyze posts in birding lists to see which birds us birders apply these terms to. My sense is that uncommon birds — migratory ones and colorful ones, especially — most frequently earn this label. I’ll tend to use the term to apply to some migratory vireos in the Front Range of Colorado — Plumbeous and Cassin’s Vireos, especially, but not the rather common Warbling Vireo.
But Cherry shows that birders also consider the broader, ecological context of bird sightings.
Birders deem birds “good” based on their behavior, including how they fit into an ecosystem and how they exercise agency to provide ecosystem benefits.
Cherry, For the Birds, p. 117-18
A bird like the Common Nighthawk — my favorite bird and almost always the “best” bird on my lists when I see this — fits most of these criteria. It is, most of the year, numerically uncommon (by comparison to common birds). Though not difficult to encounter, it’s not exactly easy to encounter. So sightings, too, are rather infrequent in most urban and suburban settings.
But their behavior, too, draws me in: their crepuscular flights; their singular calls; and their intense, unsteady pursuits of prey. (I’ve written of these in “The Nighthawk’s Trajectory,” for the Center for Humans and Nature.) And then there are Nighthawks relationships to ecosystems: their dependence on flying insects as prey and their use of human habitats for nesting, for instance. This is what Cherry means by “good birds” exercising “agency.”
I also have a tendency of designating every Shrike I see — Loggerheads during spring and fall migration, Northern during winter — as a “good” bird. Like nighthawks and some vireos, they’re uncommon. On most bird outings, I don’t expect to see them. They are also rather “picky” in their exercising of agency. They need particular habitats and food sources. In Denver’s suburbs, they tend to prefer weedy, overgrown areas with lots of insects and mice. This means you’re less likely to encounter them in a backyard than you are even the uncommon vireos. And many suburban parks wouldn’t attract them. Rather, you need wilder portions of suburban habitat.
All of this is to say that Cherry’s sociological analysis of how birders think and talk about common, good, and bad birds resonates with — and, indeed, clarifies — the birder’s experience.