|A Great Horned Owl. Top of the food chain. Good for|
marketing blog posts.
Until that book settled in my Kindle, I had no idea that there was a thing called "birding," or that there was an entire world of hikers, world travelers, citizen scientists, ornithologists, and conservationists who spent much of their waking time watching and studying birds.
For me, this activity was an epiphany--who else knew? It turns out, 50 million Americans plan an outing to observe birds every year.
But if birding was epiphany, it would also turn out to be escape. In early 2016, I needed to get away from my screens in the worst way, far from our new administration and the damage it was inflicting on the American democratic experiment. My Facebook feed was turning toxic, and Twitter went from being noise to a black hole of contempt sucking energy and goodwill out of our nation.
In the process, I traded tweets for tweets, heading into the woods with my Sibley bird book, camera, ebird app, and binoculars, sometimes with an experienced guide from Mass Audubon. It was like stepping inside a huge video game (with fresh air) where I needed to focus, observe, and, in the words of Monty Python, prepare for something completely different.
Flash ahead to December 2019. I now have 286 species on my life list. (There are people who count nearly that many different birds every few months, but I persist.) More to the point, I now know what a life list is. The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary and Plum Island have become second homes and places of refuge. And every so often, by being patient and lucky, I'll take a picture I like of a bird I like.
Here, then, in an ongoing trade of tweets for tweets, are my favorites photos from 2019:
|This is an Egret that I photographed early in the morning with my friend Rebecca|
for one of her excellent "running with" birding articles.
|These two Pileated Woodpeckers met me on our driveway as I returned home from a run. They were nice enough to|
stick around while I dashed inside to get my camera.
|I got up early one morning and drove to a park in the center of Portland, Maine, to take this picture. It's a Great Black Hawk, native to Central and South America. It would be uncommon to see this handsome hawk in Texas; having one make its way to Maine was a shock. Unfortunately, this poor lost soul, whose feet are not adapted to cold winters, caught severe frostbite and had to be euthanized.|
|This battle went on for quite some time, but there was little doubt the Great Blue Heron would win.|
|Ducks, Herons, Egrets. It was a little far for my lens, but it helps explain why I bird on Plum Island.|
|A massing of Tree Swallows. Also Plum Island. Spectacular.|
|This Bluebird was king of the hill at the Ipswich River Audubon, at least for a moment.|
|A Northern Harrier out for breakfast, hanging nearly motionless in the wind.|
|A common visitor to the suet outside my window, this fat Carolina Wren looked ready for winter.|
|Two European Starlings match their surroundings on a barn in Gettysburg. Introduced to Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare fans who wanted North America to be home to all of the birds mentioned in the Bard's works, Starlings now number 200 million. I like them for their spectacular colors and impressive flocks. However, Starlings are destructive to crops and compete aggressively and successfully with Bluebirds and other native cavity-nesters.|
|This American Robin was stuffing itself near the beaver dam that has transformed the woods around our property. Beavers to me are like classical music and Elvis Presley; I appreciate them--just don't ask me to love them.|
|Here's the Red-tailed Hawk I mentioned, a resident of the Ipswich Audubon. Red-tails are all over Massachusetts, having|
adapted especially well to highway life where small rodents scurry along the apron near the interstates.
|This is the Eskimo Owl, rarely spotted in New England and . . . ok, ok. This is a shameless plug for Innovation on Tap, which you can find as hardcover, audio, and Kindle version on Amazon. (And please leave a review!)|
Shameless plug ended.
|This House Finch is dining in a tree on Plum Island. If I had to pick a Christmas card picture, this might be it.|
|This was my first-ever Red-headed Woodpecker, spotted one afternoon on the battlefield at Gettysburg. I am told that they are particular not just to a territory, but to a single tree. I am hoping to go back this year and find him again. (For a small donation to the Gettysburg Foundation, I'll tell you where. :)|
|This female Red-winged Blackbird (at least, that's my best guess) is prettier than her more boisterous mate.|
|I found this Scarlet Tanager by ear because I remembered it sounds like an American Robin with a sore throat. (I have now nearly exhausted my knowledge of bird sounds.)|
|In August, I visited the Hartwick Pine State Forest in Michigan, hoping to spot a Kirtland Warbler. The entrance guide said I had almost no chance--too late in the season--and she was correct. Alas. But I was able to hike through some of the last remaining old-growth forest in Michigan, a real treat. And I also found this Rose-breasted Grosbeak by ear because I remembered it sounds like an American Robin that has taken singing lessons. And now I HAVE exhausted all of my knowledge of bird calls.|
|And here's a Palm Warbler.|
|And here's a Black-and-White Warbler, mercifully named in a way that I can remember.|
|Near as I can tell, this Great Blue Heron has caught a small Swordfish, though|
someone who knows fish might have a better ID.
|This Swainson's Thrush is resting on a gravestone in Lowell Cemetery, a historic burial ground and wonderful birding area not far from my home. Harry Livermore Abbott is buried there; Abbott was one of three unwounded officers of the 20th Massachusetts that helped beat back Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. The late Senator Paul Tsongas is buried a few yards from our Swainson's.|
|Back to the Warblers: this is a Magnolia.|
|This is a Bay-breasted Wabler, also photographed at the Lowell Cemetery.|
|Here's a Plum Island Barred Owl, still bloody from brunch. Ours was a chance meeting: I was walking along, looking up; he was down on the ground eating. I got within a few feet of him before we saw one another. He flew up to a nearby tree, willingly posed, and then I departed so he could finish eating.|
|This was another chance meeting, me looking up and this Pileated Woodpecker working for breakfast down low on a fallen log. He took off, hooting and hollering but stopped on this tree so that I could get a sunrise shot.|
|The Common Merganser is a species of duck that I envision Dr. Suess saw one day before he started drawing.|
|This Northern Cardinal was molting, a terrible thing birds do to new birders to make them even harder to identify.|
|These Mallards in-flight show their beautiful colors.|
|I spotted his Egret outside our hotel in Burlingame, CA, one morning. The marsh and shore here is full of birds despite constant racket from SFO.|
|Nearby, a Western Grebe.|
|Also nearby, this Marbled Godwit was wading for breakfast. If I ever write a novel, the heroine will surely be Mabel Godwit.|
|The area outside this particular hotel in Burlingame was filled with surprises. Sitting quietly near a bridge, I found several Black-capped Night Heron.|
|This angry bird is a Purple Martin, finding home sweet home in manmade cavity nests on Plum Island.|
|The Snowy Owl is the Beyonce of the bird world. Once December rolls around, if you see cars and trucks gathered anywhere on Plum Island or Salisbury Beach, you can bet why they're there.|
|The gentleman with the truck was nice enough to let me climb aboard and plant my camera. Birders are some of the nicest people in the world.|
|The Curved-Bill Thrasher is common in the canyons and brushlands of Arizona but will also head for the Great Plains, and a few end up in the panhandle of Florida.|
|This is Whitewater Draw, a protected area that can gather as many as 20,000 Sandhill Cranes.|
|Looking like the molting Northern Cardinal shown earlier, this Pyrrhuloxia likes thorny bush, mesquite thickets, and ranchlands, but can also be found hanging out on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.|
|Possibly another source for Dr. Suess, this is a Gambel's Quail.|
|We found this Broad-billed Hummingbird at the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia, AZ--worth a visit even if you are not a birder.|
|Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are fairly common but not always easy to find. This one sat up nicely but very briefly for his portrait.|
|This is an Acorn Woodpecker, which many bird guides say is the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker. Since the Pileated Woodpecker (see above) seems like a more obvious candidate, our Audubon troupe engaged in a lengthy google search and discussion. The guides are correct; Woody is modeled on the Acorn.|
|This is the beautiful American Kestrel, the smallest and most common falcon. Kestrels love open country, upon which humans tend to build malls and cities and suburbs. Consequently, this species is in decline.|
|These Rosy-faced Lovebirds and their parrot kin have taken up residence in Phoenix's Encanto Park. The species is native to Africa and first started appearing in the city in 1987--likely having made a great escape from a private residence.|
|I want to say this is a Brewer's Blackbird, but I'm not certain. I did appreciate his stopping on the back of a sheep, though.|
|There are no visible birds in this picture. I just liked it. And it saves you from having to read a second shameless promotion for Innovation on Tap.|
|I think this is a Scaled Quail being flushed by Mass Audubon guide extraordinaire Scott Santino. What I know for sure is that it was a lucky shot.|
|My birding friends in Arizona. I'm not sure why I wasn't with them, but it made for a good shot.|
|A final treat in Arizona: Burrowing Owls. As we convert prairie to agricultural use, their numbers are in decline.|
I'm hoping to double my life list in 2020 and report better news at this time next year.