Friday, January 31, 2014

Wasted Time?

Time is precious, particularly in today's fast paced, high pressure culture. Earlier this month, I put aside several hours for the explicit purpose of birding, with the hopes of adding the barn owl to my life list (a gross lack among the birds I've seen). I made sure my work was caught up, planned my route carefully, researched recent sightings at an appropriate hotspot, and gauged my timing to coincide with the times others had reported these elusive raptors.

It was an exciting moment, setting off for the first time in months to travel a distance - nearly an hour's drive one way - with the hopes of successful birding. It was a race against the sun as well, as it crept closer to the mountains and the light dwindled. I'd need sufficient light for proper identification, but if I arrived too early, the birds wouldn't be active.

I arrived right on time, with a glorious pink sunset lighting up the fields in great relief. My skin tingled with more than cold as I donned my gear - camera bag on the left, field bag on the right, binns in their harness. Hat - check. Fingerless gloves - check. Warm boots - check. I could see every hummock of snow, broken chunk of ice, and frost-covered fence post as I picked my way over the uneven ice onto the roadway (gated on a Sunday, but publicly accessible) and began scanning for birds.

That's what I didn't see - birds. There was a long-tailed flutter near the parking area that might have been a sparrow or a towhee, but it vanished and was not inclined to reappear no matter how much I pished. Further on, in a solitary tree, an unusual lump might have been a large raptor, but it was gone by the time I was close enough for a decent look. Far to the west I saw a large bird flying away, already too distant for identification. To the north, on a radar tower, another large raptor perched, but the distance was far too great in the failing light to note any markings. In three hours - mostly driving, and the rest during a darkening, temperature dropping walk - that was the sum total of my sightings: four might-be-birds that couldn't be identified.

This is the discouraging side of birding. Birds have wings and will use them, and no matter how prepared we may be to see them, they don't always care to be seen. Unfortunately in the these particular circumstances, I didn't have the time or inclination (bloody cold it was) to instead appreciate the beauty of my surroundings, and it felt very much like time wasted, time when I could have been doing many other things on my never-ending must-do list. It's hard enough to carve out a bit of time by myself, and harder still when that time isn't as productive as the anticipation.

Still, as the year continues, I hope to find more time to waste. Maybe one time there'll be a bird in it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thoughts on Albatrosses

On our trip to Hawaii, I had faint hopes of lifers, but one burning desire among the birds I wished to see most - I wanted to add an albatross to my life list. I had no true seabirds to my name, and in my eyes, the albatross - any albatross - is the pinnacle of pelagic birding.

For five days as our cruise ship sailed toward the islands, I scoured the horizon several times a day, hoping for one of these birds that I know spend their lives well out to sea, but to no avail. Then in Hawaii, at a new port of call each day, I scoured the coasts hoping to see one soaring above the cliffs and beaches, but nothing then either.

It seemed like seeing an albatross was to be an unfulfilled wish of this trip, until we docked in Kauai, our third port of call. That day, we'd planned a tour that included a visit to Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, a recognized bird sanctuary. I spent a great deal of effort to keep my hopes grounded, but within moments of entering the refuge's grounds, they took flight.

First, it was the nene - several of these endemic geese were lounging about the roadways, casually watching the van pass by. Then, it was the red-footed booby colony - a tremendous cliff snow-covered in their white plumage and fluttering. But within seconds, a great shadow passed above me, and there it was - an albatross.

To be rendered speechless in the field is quite a feat, but there you have it. I could only stare at the bird's gracefulness, its speed, its sleek plumage, its dramatic air. And its proximity - there was one point where it couldn't have been more than 20 feet above me. I fumbled clumsily with my field guide to confirm the wing patterns as the Laysan albatross (already my suspicion based on color and range), and tried for a few minutes to get a photo, but I was wholly unprepared for the bird's intense speed. When the wings don't flap and the bird appears imperturbable, you don't realize just how fast it goes when soaring on wind currents - while there's no mistaking the views I got, they were only fleeting. Instead, I contented myself with a photo of the informational sign overlooking the coast, the only photo I could manage and the only time the bird was still enough for better than an awed glimpse. But bird or not, it stands as proof that I was there - I saw an albatross.

That shadow, the bird's elegance, the brief encounter I had on a tour that was all too short - these are birding moments I'll never forget, and those feelings are something I need to remember more: the discovery, the excitement, the amazement, the sheer joy.

This is why I bird.

Thursday, January 9, 2014


Aloha! One word with so many meanings - goodbye, hello, love. In the past few weeks it has come to mean all of that - and more - for me. For our fifteenth wedding anniversary, my husband and I said aloha to work, children, winter weather, stress, and to-do lists to take a 15-night cruise to Hawaii, where we said aloha to relaxation, discovery, exploration, great food, fun games, volcanoes, and yes, birds. In that time, I added 16 amazing lifers to my list, and as picky as I am with adding any species to my list, I can truly say aloha to each one...

  • Surf Scoter
  • Nene
  • Laysan Albatross
  • Great Frigatebird
  • Red-Footed Booby
  • White-Tailed Tropicbird
  • White-Rumped Shama
  • Brown Booby
  • Red-Vented Bulbul
  • Red-Crested Cardinal
  • Common Waxbill
  • Spotted Dove
  • Common Myna
  • Japanese White-Eye
  • Zebra Dove
  • Java Sparrow

What an amazing experience, with lifers for the picking. We took several tours to different state and national parks, including a bird sanctuary at Kilauea Point, but this was by no means a birding-specific trip, and I was not trying particularly hard to visit top habitats or scout for elusive species. Before the trip, I'd been hoping to see just a few new lifers, but my expectations were exceeded in flocks.

More important, however, is saying aloha to other things in my life. Aloha to bitterness, betrayal, and past - goodbye. Aloha to adventure, exploration, and future - hello. But most of all, aloha to my husband and my family - flesh, feathered and other, all of which are part of me - I love you. Aloha.