Birth of a Christmas Birder, by Donovan Kelly
You don’t remember that sunless late December morning. Temperatures and wind gusts lingered in the 20’s, pushing the wind chill well into the “stay in bed” range. Even my long johns shivered. The last time I had pulled on long johns was to interview some crazy Pennsylvania ice fishermen. This time we teamed up to join some crazy Virginia ice birders. A strong link exists between long johns and insanity.
I held a deep fear of experienced birders. Who was I, an untested birding amateur, to dare to walk the woods and roads with a team of varsity birders and to presume to name and count birds for the official Christmas Bird Count?
I had one ace up my sleeve. A rufous hummingbird, the first reported in Loudoun, had chosen to spend Christmas in our yard. She was lured to a hummingbird feeder that I had forgotten to take down after our regular crew of ruby-throated hummingbirds had flown south.
It was beginner’s luck, like drawing to an inside straight on your first hand of poker. I had drawn a rare rufous hummingbird that may have spent the summer raising a family 2,500 miles away in the Pacific Northwest. Or so guessed Mary Gustafson, the professional bird bander who hung a trap over the hummingbird feeder and lured in the wandering hummer. Within minutes, she had caught, weighed and banded the little bird with the frequent flyer miles. Mary also plucked a trophy tail feather to confirm the identity of “Y42321.” Then she carefully laid Y4 on her back in my mother’s hand. Hummingbirds never lie on their backs and don’t know what to do or how to get up. When we turned her over, she quickly flew off, and despite the indignity, stayed with us until mid-January.
Y4 made me a short term hero on the Christmas bird count, but I quickly regained my amateur status. I spotted a hawk. To me it was just a hawk, but one of the real birders immediately called out “red-shouldered hawk.” He showed me a picture in the bird book. I had so much to learn.
As we walked back through the woods, a large bird with a red head and black and white barred back flash past. “What’s that?” asked the real birder at my side. Without thinking, I called out “Red-bellied woodpecker.” My fellow real birder nodded and the woodpecker was logged. My first call. Maybe I could do this. Yesterday I couldn’t spell “crazy frozen birder,” now I was one.
* * *
Join us on our Christmas Bird Count at https://loudounwildlife.org/CBC.htm. All experience levels are welcome and you can come out for a full day or just part of the day.
* * * * *