Tweeting the old fashioned way

The art of bird watching.

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

We are blessed here in South Cariboo because we entertain a great variety of birds. One might say, a sumptious feast of birds. From sandpipers to chukars, from sparrows of several varieties to eagles, ospreys, from robins to chickadees, from Stellar Jays to woodpeckers, from belted kingfishers, to herons, from wax wings to warblers, our skies and our yards are an endless aviary.

So, there are many families that wish to attract birds. “Bird watchers”, they are called. And many bird feeders are hung to bring them closer. We can watch them, “until the cows come home”, and in doing so, we learn about their “pecking orders”, food preferences, mating habits, nests, and how they feed their young. We become familiar with their bird calls and songs.

We learn to identify the species. We consult with our Audubon Field Guides. We read about the birds’ habitat, migration patterns, nesting patterns. Bird watching, can be a lifelong interest. In fact, birds can be a life long love. And for some, a passion.

Birds, quite simply, are fascinating. They can teach us so much about survival! For one thing, birds are extremely flexible. If one habitat is destroyed by human activity, or some other natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and fires, – even wars, with all the violent traumatic consequences of warfare, – birds will not only survive, they will seek alternative habitat. Birds will adopt several habitats as a consequence of change.

Our cliff faces here in Cache Creek and Ashcroft host large flocks of swallows. In fact, you can tell when Spring has really arrived, when you see the swallows. They dart and swoop over our gardens and lots, our fields and meadows, wild and cultivated, parks, sage covered hills and mesas, and even our great canyons along the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. Another sign of spring are the mosquito hawks. Great numbers of them form a sort of dance in the sky.  It is a sight to see.

Some birds stay with us all seasons. The sweet repetitive song of the chickadees, for example, can be heard along the wild willows on our river bank. They will become so tame at the feeder station, they will let you stand only a foot or two away from them before flying off. Chickadees, unlike sparrows, will only take what they can consume at one fly-in. Sparrows will remain at the feeders for much longer. They are greedy and wasteful of the seed. “Pesky sparrows”, I’ve heard them called. But the most damaging sparrow of all is the white crowned sparrow. Those birds, like a scythe, can mow down every fresh new blade and leaf as soon as look at it. The white crowns are the bane of gardeners here. My poor delphiniums, when those avian thrashers visit every spring!

Even the way the birds fly is different with every species. The wave-like motion of the smaller birds is quite different from the darting certainty of direction of sparrows.

We have entertained a number of noisy, but very beautiful Stellar Jays for the past several years. These birds actually demand their food, and will wait in nearby trees for some time if the feeder is not filled.

For the past couple of years, we have been blessed with visiting Mourning Doves. Last year, while working in the yard, I heard what to me was a strange sound. I stopped to listen. It was a sort of echoing type breathing coo. At first, the sound was distant. But eventually, we saw the beautiful bird with its fan shaped tale feathers, white at the edge. The bird is large, roughly pigeon-sized. But quite different in shape. It is an elegant bird, if I may say so. Yes, some birds are. More elegant than others.

One day, while on the back deck overlooking the Bonaparte River, a blue heron winged its way upstream, only a few yards from where we sat. The effect of those wide wings, long neck, and long legs flying so close, and practically spanning the width of the river, was nothing short of awesome. An awesome surprise. On another day, I looked down at the river below the willows, and saw a blue heron standing a few yards away. It stood there for hours.

Such experiences are rather wondrous. They bring us very close to Nature itself. One might say, a spiritual experience.

Sometimes, when I am in my studio, writing or just thinking about nothing at all, I have a visitor. It hops about the back deck and seems to want to get as close to the patio door as it can. This bird is a ground feeder. It is also a shy kind of bird. It is the fox sparrow. A darkish brown bird, quite nondescript, really, but I think, with a sweet, private nature.

I owe my love of birds to my maternal grandmother, Ellen Belcher. She was a gamekeeper’s daughter, one of a large family, who lived in a part of middle England threaded with rivers and small streams. My grandmother talked about the birds she knew as a young child and later, as a young mother, in England. She mentioned their songs, the way they flew, – her love of birds was a gentle thing, almost, a reverence. As a child, I watched the wrens in my grandparents’ back yard in Winnipeg, and learned to identify the common birds that most cities host. I would draw and color birds. Go to a field and crouch under a shrub and watch the birds, and later, tell my grandmother what birds I had seen. She was always interested to know, and would question and explain.

To be living in the Cariboo, then, is truly a bird watcher’s heaven. You learn to determine the feeding calls to the young birds, and the calls that are made to attract a mate. You get an “ear” for the sounds. The best way to learn what bird is calling, is to actually see the bird as it calls. Which is not always an easy thing to do when a call is in a tall tree and the sun is behind it!

When I moved to the Old Cariboo Road in Cache Creek in July of 1993, I started to keep a bird log on the fly leaf of my Audubon book. There are over 60 different species in that book today. And I’m sure there are more to come!