Of River Otters and Sunrises
by Ted Floyd
In a few hours, August 2012 will be in the history books. I’m tempted to say that this past month was a poor one for me. You see, I didn’t get to do a whole lot of birding. For starters, August is back-to-school month here in Colorado. Then there was the weeklong visit with the in-laws. And, as you may know, all sorts of exciting new initiatives are under way here at the ABA; that’s been taking up a fair bit of my time this summer...not that I’m complaining. Oh, and did I tell you?—I’m at work on a new field guide.
Things were so bad in August, I added only four species to my Boulder County year list. Lynn Barber, ya got a shoulder I can cry on?
Actually, things weren’t all that bad.
For one thing, I went birding every single day of the month. Thanks to eBird, I’ve gone birding every single day since January 1st, 2007. And, thanks to eBird, I’ll go birding every single day for the rest of my life.
There’s something else. While birding this past month, I got to see some awfully cool stuff. Not birds, mind you. Other stuff: other taxa and other phenomena. Stuff I’d never have seen, if I hadn’t been birding.
Which reminds me of the ironic take-home lesson of Pete Dunne’s Feather Quest, which, believe it or not, is now twenty years old.
“One of the rarely spoken advantages to being a birder,” Dunne writes in The Feather Quest, “[is] the number of sunrises you get to appreciate in the course of a lifetime.”
“All [sunrises] are different and all are priceless,” says Dunne, who “count[s] each sunrise the way a miser counts his gold.”
I don’t disagree with Dunne’s assessment. (How could I?) But I’d like to apply his thesis a bit more broadly.
Consider the morning of August 12th, 2012.
When I reached the street corner at 2:55 in the morning, half a dozen birders were already present. A few more appeared, and we were on our way.
If I weren’t a birder, I wouldn’t have been out at three in the morning.
The Perseids were putting on an excellent show. The nocturnal migrants—just a trickle of Chipping Sparrows—didn’t impress. But the meteors were fantastic.
If I weren’t a birder, I wouldn’t have seen those meteors streaking through the night sky.
At sunrise that morning, a few of us drove north a few miles to a local shorebird hotspot. Shorebird numbers were disappointingly low, down quite a bit from earlier in the month. But check this out: The whole time we were there, a frisky American mink (Neovison vison) frolicked on a pile of rocks along the inlet canal right in front of us. We even got to hear it—a life vocalization for me.
If I weren’t a birder, I wouldn’t have seen—or heard—that mink.
That evening, right at sundown, I made a quick jaunt to the park at the end of the street. Maybe I’d spook a night-heron, or come upon a Great Horned Owl, or hear a few passerines getting ready for nocturnal migration. Nope. None of that. But I did see the oddest thing: a gigantic Canadian Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) ambling along the trail. I got so close, it threw its quills!—a life, er, behavior for me.
If I weren’t a birder, I wouldn’t have seen that porcupine.
One other thought. That day, August 12th, I saw sunrise and sunset.
A week earlier, I was out east, way out east, heading out toward Montauk Point, New York. I was driving east along—wait for it—The Sunrise Highway. Sunrise that misty Sunday morning was beautiful.
If I weren’t a birder, there’s no way on earth I’d have left the house way before sunrise that morning.
My objective for the day was a “poor man’s pelagic” aboard a whale watch out of Montauk. My companions for the expedition were the ever-enthusiastic Jeff and Amy Davis. The birding was decent (Scopoli’s Shearwater and Roseate Tern), but the great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran) was the highlight. And it was enchanting to watch a pod of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis)—a dozen-plus adults accompanied by several newborns!
If I weren’t a birder, there’s not even the remotest chance I’d ever've gotten on that boat.
On Saturday, August 18th, I left the house way before sunrise for a chance at Black Swift at a waterfall near the continental divide in Boulder County, where I live. One has to get to the waterfall early, for two reasons: first, to see the birds; second, to get there ahead of all the hikers.
At sunrise I was about halfway up the trail. Nearby a noisy brook sparkled in the sunlight. Then I saw something marvelous: like a cross between a python and a seal, a splendid northern river otter (Lontra canadensis) swimming against the current. I watched, mesmerized, and noticed something: There were two of them! For a splendid five minutes I tarried with the otters, smiling, cheering them on, laughing out loud at their antics.
Then I continued on toward the Black Swifts.
I weren’t a birder, I wouldn’t see stuff like northern river otters in
high-mountain brooks sparkling in the rising sun.
The next day, Sunday, August 19th, my family and I were at the decidedly unbirdy venue of Coors Field in Denver. You’re never not a birder, as the saying goes, and I had my binoculars with me. Well, my kids and their friends had my binoculars most of the time. I’ll be honest with you: The birding that afternoon at Coors Field was lame. But the dragonflying was spectacular.
A major flight of green darners (Anax junius) was under way. Now I’ve seen epic green darner passages at the Fire Island, New York, hawk watch and elsewhere, but this was special. A thought occurred to me.
There are more than forty-five thousand people here. All but a tiny handful of them can see as I do. But how many of them, I wonder, realize that something astonishing is happening, right here, right now? If Bill Maynard is here, he knows it—unless he’s at one of the bars. But everybody else?
One more anecdote, if I may. It was the late afternoon of Sunday, August 26th. The kids and I were birding at a local nature preserve. You can probably guess the next sentence. That’s right: The birding wasn’t great. But everywhere we went, we had to step out of the way for darkling beetles in the genus Eleodes.
Those black beetles were strangely bewitching—just doing their thing, seemingly oblivious to our presence, indifferent, even, to our handling of them. Where had they come from? Where were they going? What were they doing? I don’t have answers to any of those questions. But I can tell you one thing, with complete definitiveness:
I wouldn’t have seen any of those beetles if I hadn’t been out birding.
Every once in a blue moon (speaking of which, go out tonight and see it!), I give thought to what life would be like if I weren’t a birder. On that note, it’s useful to go back to Pete Dunne’s maxim:
One of the rarely spoken advantages to being a birder [is] the number of sunrises you get to appreciate in the course of a lifetime.
As I said earlier, I don’t disagree with that assessment. But I believe it can be put in more general terms:
One of the rarely spoken advantages to being a birder is the amazing number of cool objects and phenomena you get to appreciate in the course of what otherwise might be a frankly boring lifetime.
I have a confession: I am by nature and temperament something of a homebody. I don’t particularly enjoy travel. I don’t crave adventure. But I sure do love birds and birding—as a result of which I’ve seen a great deal of Planet Earth, its creatures, and its peoples. If I weren’t a birder, I might well still be living in my hometown, perhaps even in my parents’ basement, I dunno, playing Dungeons and Dragons and watching Star Trek reruns or something.
The other day, I noticed an interesting new functionality on Facebook. Alright, maybe it’s always been there, but, if so, I’d been unaware of it. It’s a map that shows places you’ve been.
I’ve been on Facebook for exactly two years and six days. (Facebook delights in informing you of such matters.) Here, courtesy of Facebook, is a map showing where I’ve been in the past two years and six days:
And here’s a map of where I would have been the past two years and six days, were I not a birder:
I’m not kidding. Pretty much the only reason I ever leave town is to go birding. And, with apologies to Dr. Seuss, oh the places I go! And, oh, the things I see and do. Even the slow months beat the pants off whatever my doppelgänger is doing in an alternate universe. Think about it: great hammerhead sharks and newborn dolphins; minks and river otters and porcupines (oh my!); green darners migrating and darkling beetles doing Lord-knows-what; meteors blazing through the night sky; and so many sunrises...sunrise over the Atlantic, then sunrise at the Continental Divide, and a lot more.
September promises to be just as grand. It’s a guarantee. I don’t know what’s in store, but I do know this: September, and then October, and after that November, and on and on, it’s all good. If you’re a birder, every month, why practically every day, indeed every moment, is a blessing, full of surprise, brimming with wonder and delight.
* * * * *
Perseids, by Stefano de Rosa.
Great White Shark, by Dila Fraye.
Northern River Otteres, by Dmitry Azovtsev.
Green Darner, by Mark Chappell.
Darkling Beetle, by Andrew Williams.