Brian Dorsam has started a nature and science blog, Missives, about his adventures (thus far, with birds) from his home in New Orleans. Brian was a student of mine at Bard College but I can say I had nothing to do with this new passion for birds! This wonderful essay captures so much of the pleasures (and confusion) of the early days of birding.
Bird Island Through An Opera Glass
I don’t know anything about birding. I have only birded accidentally, when, by chance, I’ve glimpsed a jay on a walk through the woods or shooed a goose from my parents’ lawn, and I suppose, if you really want to get into it, that doesn’t quite count. My vocabulary for identification is limited mostly to pigeons, crows and bald eagles, and I’ve only ever encountered two of those in actual life. Now that I’m thinking of it, I’m not wholly confident that I could point out a sparrow. So, what moved me to participate in the great legacy of avian observation? Well, now, there is an air of romance about it, isn’t there? I rather liked the idea of it. I imagined myself, binoculared and notebooked, passing beneath the winter trees, ears attuned to the finest sound. I imagined gazing upward into the sun to spy a swooping egret, gliding deftly with the breeze. I imagined encountering a fellow birder on the path and saying things like, ‘A bit early for this time of year, wouldn’t you say?’ and, ‘I thought so, too,’ and, ‘Ha, ha, yes.’ I imagined all of these things. And so, with little ado and much aplomb, I got myself up early, dusted off an empty notebook and went a-birding.
I aimed my stride toward Bird Island, which, I thought, seemed about right. Bird Island is a small sanctuary (about 200 feet long and 100 feet across at the middle) nestled in the Audubon Park Lagoon, a thin ribbon that lies along the eastern half of the park. It is so named because the island is known to be one the area’s most densely populated rookeries, home to nearly two hundred Great Egrets alone, and supporting significant populations of Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Double-crested Cormorants and Anhingas, as well. I thought, perhaps, it might be cheating a bit to go to a rookery, but I supposed that this wasn’t, after all, a contest, and I figured I need not make it too difficult for myself. Seeing birds is, ultimately, the point.
The park, to my great fortune, is only a brief stroll from my house, and so I set out lightly on foot. The morning was grey and damp and the air was still cool from the night’s chill. As I walked, pack at my side, I had to remind myself to look up. Perhaps it seems silly that so simple an idea would come so slowly to mind, but I fear some inborn disposition often leaves me gazing at my boots. I forced my head upward and squinted my eyes. I heard flitters and squeaks in the trees above, but found the branches too dense and my sight too untrained to notice any movement. It occurred to me that were I not going to a rookery this might be damned hard. Folks, of course, get themselves so good at this that they can identify a bird by sound without even looking at the thing. As for me, the noise is all a bit of a mess. It’s difficult to sort one call from another and the sound is often so ubiquitous that tracing the sound to a tree (let alone a branch, or an animal) is nearly impossible. I could scarcely imagine doing this in the woods, without an island to look at, equipped with only my ears, my (spectacled) eyes, and a long checklist to quantify my discouragement.
People have been doing this for a long time. The idea that birds might be of some aesthetic value, in addition to nutritional value, dates back to the late 18th century. However, as ornithologists in those days had not the fortune of accompanying themselves with a binocular, they most often accompanied themselves with a rifle. This regrettable practice led, ironically, though predictably, to the severe depletion of hoards of precious species and the annihilation of many others. Even the great John James Audubon – whose name was later borrowed for our country’s preeminent environmental conservation society and, of course, for my neighboring park – made most of his invaluable paintings from stuffed corpses and indeed is most famously depicted in a wolf skin coat with his arms folded tenderly around a rifle so large that its barrel continues out of frame.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century and the development of optics that ornithologists began putting down their weaponry and picking up a spyglass. This propelled a conservationist movement that helped unmake the egg, skin and feather trades, which effectively eradicated, among many others, the Labrador Duck, the Eskimo Curlew and the Carolina Parakeet, all of which were painted by Audubon.
Among the early conservationists was Florence Merriam, who published the first American field guide, Birds Through An Opera Glass, in 1889. In her book, Merriam describes the opera glass as ‘the “inseparable article” of a careful observer,’ thereby, in one sentence, advancing the essentiality of optics as the primary instrument of ornithology and redefining birding as an act of observation rather than annihilation. The publishing of field guides made it possible for birdwatchers to identify birds while the birds were still in the trees, rendering their slaughter fundamentally unnecessary. It was from this movement that the National Audubon Society was formed.
George Bird Grinnell (I’m not making that middle name up), angered by the avian genocide perpetuated daily by the fashion and taxidermy industries, formed the first Audubon Society in 1886, which gained an astounding 39,000 members in its first year. Soon, Audubon Societies were opening across the country and in 1905 the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals was formed. The National Audubon Society is now one of the nation’s foremost conservation groups and organizes the world’s longest-running wildlife census, the Christmas Bird Count, which gathers over 50,000 volunteers annually to conduct a survey of bird populations across the world. The 112th count ended on Thursday – two days before my excursion.
It’s all for the best, really. I thought about counting the birds I saw, but I was unsure that I’d be able to do it before the heat death of the universe. There were surely hundreds; all of them crowded on the small islet, quarreling over the limited space. This is typical for Bird Island. However, today, there was one distinct difference: there wasn’t a single egret.
Now, all birds are, of course, exquisite and fascinating creatures, archaic in make, delicate in movement and (the majority of them) endowed at birth with that most magnificent of nature’s gifts: sweeping, effortless flight. Though, it is difficult to withhold one’s partialities. I suppose there are people out there who get positively giddy at the sight of a duck, but I’m not one of them, and I’ve never met one, either.
I had known the egret population to dissipate during the daytime, which made for a fantastic display at sunset when hundreds of them would soar down the lagoon and fill the trees to rest for the night. When I had seen the herons previously, I had made no note of time or season and perhaps, I thought, they’d all gone out for breakfast. I resolved myself to watching the ducks, trying to muster up some enthusiasm for the little pedestrian waddlers.
The ducks hadn’t made my checklist and so I couldn’t identify them at the time. I later discovered that they were Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. The name is apt, as I specifically made note of their shrill, incessant chattering. Their appearance is quite distinct, as well. They are predominantly brown, but are grey about the face, upon which is a small but striking white ring around the eye. Their bill is a vivid orange and their feet a dull shade of pink. The tail and wings are black, though the latter is marked with a large, white streak that becomes most vibrant in flight. When they do fly, however, they are ungainly, gliding clumsily into the wind with their feet spread apart, giving the whole event a sort of, ‘Oh, no!’ feeling. They are not glamorous creatures.
After I had been sitting for about 15 minutes, a woman paused on the path behind me. ‘I wish I knew where all the egrets went,’ she sighed. I turned to her and shared a solemn look.
‘They’ve been gone for a year or two, now.’ My mouth opened.
She nodded and said that no one was quite sure why, but that in any event they hadn’t been seen on the island in some time. Then she left. I later found out that, in fact, the egrets have only been missing since the spring, but that the reason for their departure is entirely unknown, even to park officials. There are a number of theories, most involving scares of some kind, which all seem unlikely. There was a large storm in late March that, some say, could have spooked the birds, but, to be honest, I don’t even remember this storm, and the birds (New Orleans natives, of course) have surely seen worse. Another theory is that the ruckus from a nearby film shoot could have caused the exodus, but this seems doubtful, as the birds lived, after all, in a park, which has hosted races, parades and music festivals and supports a daily population of joggers, walkers and golfers, all within 50 feet of the island. Their sudden evacuation is particularly disturbing because they left their nests and eggs behind. That the egrets have only been missing since April is of great consequence, however, because it does not preclude the possibility of their return this coming spring. The island seems awfully bare without them. To see an island of live oaks, each leaved in purest white, lit by the glow of the sinking sun and ringing with the chatter of the spring fledglings, is, to put it at its mildest, quite something.
So, I sat. I was contemplating the ducks and my sad fate, when something caught my eye from the south. It was black and lean, with its long neck outstretched. I reached into my pack and grabbed my opera glass, thinking of Florence. I pushed my glasses up onto my brow, put the glass to my eye and watched the bird fly. It settled itself on the edge of a high branch and, when I was sure it wouldn’t take off again, I pulled out my notebook. I glanced through my checklist and identified it.
The American Anhinga is known by a puzzling variety of names, the sum of which provides one with a truly confounding image. Depending on whom you’re asking, the Anhinga is called either the Water Turkey, the Darter or the Snakebird. The Brazilian word from which ‘anhinga’ is derived means, rather gravely, ‘devil bird’ (emphasis mine). Suffice it to say, they are a rather absorbing sight. They are long, lean water birds, about 33 inches from beak to tail, and each feather is a sleek, glossy black. Their beaks, a soft yellow, are thin and sharp and nearly double the length of the head. The ‘snake’ allusion no doubt refers to the neck, which is lithe and sinuous. When they swim, their bodies are submerged with only their neck winding across the surface of the water. Unfortunately, this one seemed solely concerned with sunning himself.
As soon as he got comfortable, he opened his wings, revealing streaks of white that adorned most spectacularly the outside of each wing. He seemed quite content in this position and, in the hour or so that I watched the bird, he changed position only once – this, of course, was a 180 degree rotation at the half hour mark to ensure that each side was sunned equally. Though I surely wished I could have seen the unique swimming style for which the bird is so frequently named, the display was impressive and, admittedly, a greatly welcomed respite from the chirping duck circus below.
By the end of my stay I had seen, to my knowledge, ten different species of bird. As most of them were missing from my tragically underequipped checklist, I can only comfortably identify seven of them (remembering, of course, that many of these identifications could still be wholly incorrect) – three Blue Jays; two Gulls; five American Coots; five white-morph Greater Snow Geese; three White Ibis; a truly impossible number of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks; and, of course, the great Anhinga.
Florence was right about needing a field guide. To my credit, I did try to track one down before I left, but found each of the local bookstores frustratingly lacking. By the time that order comes in and I find the time to make my way back to the island, perhaps, just perhaps, the Great Egrets will have returned. Let’s hope they’re not spooked by noise. New Orleans is kind of a music town.
My camera was not quite good enough to capture the Anhinga, that dark and lissome bird, so I did things the old fashioned way.