Hunting a Thrush

Hunting the Fierce Varied Thrush


            If you are not a birder, you are probably 99% of the population and reasonably sure that folks running around in khaki shorts with binoculars, and fluttering checklists chasing colorful songbirds are one century away from the nuthouse. To be sure, birding doesn’t involve the crunching tackles of a football game or the pounding fists of a hockey match, but if you’re willing to make a minor mental jump and look past the sun screened noses and baggy pants, it IS equally exciting.

            For me there is no thrill like spying a lone Northern Oriole waving atop an isolated creosote bush after a four hour drive through scrubby, ill-featured high desert to a destination named by dead pioneers. I’ve cherished every allusive second watching this supreme master of Harlequin elegance dance and parade as if banished from a traveling circus.

             If your eyes are not already drifting towards the Cowboys game, I can tell you that birding will hook you with an equal fervor while educating you in the value of nature and the art of patience.

            On a recent trip to Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas, I felt completely absolved of nerd-dom when I found a group of middle aged professional men dressed like football coaches waiting on a pair of nesting Blackhawks. Their nest was near the entrance of the main campground and was precariously balanced on top of an old growth cottonwood tree. I laughed and listened as the group shared their exuberance over the chance to see a rare species and watch it float across the evening sky. I realized my own adventures in spotting a Ruby Crowned Kinglet or Red Breasted Sapsucker were part of a full blown sport.

            It was several months later on a Friday afternoon that I decided to look over some writing I had done that morning for re-editing. I left the living room couch and walked casually by the half open blinds above the kitchen sink where I detected a short movement out of the corner of my eye. As a birder, I’ve trained myself to see small movements because they are common to the songbirds that frequent the feeders at that time of year. Instinctively I froze, long past the rookie mistake of moving too fast with visual prey to pursue; knowing that even a subtle point can drive away an interesting bird like a blazing machine gun. I scanned the lush, green sword ferns and thick surface duff until I spotted something on the edge of the lawn aggressively digging for seeds or insects.

            It was a Varied Thrush, a beautiful bird that can easily be over looked as an aberrant Robin due to its size and orange breasted coloring. But the orange of this visitor was a little more electric, like that in the uniform of a nineteenth century emperor’s guard. It holds a regal manner, beaming under the light of admiring eyes, composed, confident, and aware of its status around the usual suspects of the feeder.

            It was only the second time I’d seen one in my back yard – the other had come the previous year when a small flock had landed to wait out a two day snow storm.

            This memory caused me to wonder why this fellow had chosen to show up now. I thought of the Mountain Bluebird seen only a few miles away that morning, and how flocks of usually sparse Robins had similarly descended to loiter on the lawns of the neighborhood.

            The weather report showed an arctic air mass dropping down from Alaska to push out a high cell that had made the previous week quite pleasant. It was going to cause a twenty degree nose dive in local temperatures and drag an eight degree wind chill with it. Even in winter, it was not an unusual forecast for the Willamette Valley of Oregon, but birds that usually wintered high in the Coastal Range (west of the valley) now fled mountain winds for the calmer, warmer valley below.

            It occurred to me that a hundred and fifty years ago, Native Americans would have been able to predict the approach of a harsh cold wave by watching the variety of species mixing into the area around their village.

             If you were a kid in the 70’s, you remember watching the reruns of stereotypical cartoon “Indians” (not Hadji) in shows like Johnny Quest, where it was inferred that “Indian” characters possessed the ability to talk directly to animals and obtain information about the environment.

            As I watched the thrush dig through the duff of the elder Tibetan Spruce, I understood from where the misperception had come. Native culture was organized so fundamentally differently from the European tradition, that it didn’t possess an appropriate environmental frame to understand it. If you have a culture that believes it is part of the land added to the accumulated knowledge of a thousand years on that land, it is difficult to truly see it from a culture frame focused on controlling nature and materialism as progress. The power of predicting weather and talking to animals would have been perceived as somewhat magical rather than practical.   

            My Thrush friend ignored my musings, and still strutted his stuff for an audience of one. I remembered the new digital camera collecting dust on my bedroom shelf. Taking photos, especially of birds, had added a new dimension to my life in the previous ten months, and whenever I went out hiking, or driving, I trained myself to bring the camera along until it developed into an unconscious habit. The beautiful thrush offered a perfect chance for more practice, so I slowly slipped away and made a mad dash for my gear.

             I snatched the camera by the neck cord and flipped off the lense cap as I set a new land speed record through the hallway to the kitchen, halting abruptly at the border of the window. It was about to become a full fledged photo stalk. The Thrush for his part, hopped around a bit, but graciously stayed in the area to display his photogenic plumage like a feathered matador. I took good care positioning myself, then raised the camera in slow increments to avoid detection while looking through the focus frame to follow his pogo stick-like hops. 

            Birds have an incredible instinctual survival setting that tips them off to any unusual activity in their vicinity. Songbirds constantly hop around anyway, but all birds have a knack for seeing you well before you see them and then choosing how much stage time they will allow.

            True to form, my subject hopped out of frame with each arm raise, teasing me with a series of movements around a beautiful sun lit area that would have shown his coloring to perfection. He walked in, and hopped out like a hokey-pokey child. It caused me to snap a series of half-bird, half-dark photos that evolved into a circular routine of swearing and the erase button. I started to think he was only hanging around to annoy me, fully enjoying the futility of my labor.

            I managed ten worthless photos before I decided to change my position to the small kitchen window over the sink. I leaned closer to the window for a few shots, failed, and then tried standing back a few extra feet before failing again.

            I sighed, then grinned, as the thrush turned its back on me for a few seconds before turning back, then spinning again.

            My arms started to shake with the stain of keeping him in frame, and I laughed at the inanity of it all, breaking away for a moment to recompose myself.

            As a kid in high school, I would have laughed at anyone walking around pursuing birds for entertainment. What a waste of time I would have thought: after all, you could see a flock of birds just about any time of day in your front yard if you opened your blinds.

             I didn’t suspect then, what I would learn later, that in applying energy toward any positive endeavor pays back dividends sooner or later, and often includes the side benefit of seeing the world in a new way. When I started applying my own energy toward enjoying bird species, their specific behaviors and appearance, I started learning the subtle differences in color, size, beak shape, flying and feeding patterns that make birding possible.

             I have never taken out a novice birding and failed to raise their interest in unusual birds. Even my brother, a confirmed beer-toting couch potato told me, “I’m kinda starting to get this bird thing”, after a two day birding adventure outside of Tombstone, Arizona.

            A football game as a football game is always predictable in the sense that you know what two teams are going to show up and when they will play. When you go birding, and walk quietly through the brush weaving between young trees on the edge of a pond, you never know just what mix of birds will be there. After hunkering down to scan an area with binoculars, you might see Bald Eagles chasing ducks, Kingfishers diving for fish, Roadrunners stomping snakes, or Rose Tanagers fighting Northern Cardinals over territorial rights. It’s a three ring, multi-dimensional wildlife circus most walk through their whole lives without recognizing.

            My prey, through some miracle of miracles, finally stayed in the same spot for more than a fraction of a second. Surprisingly, he stood exactly where I had first spotted him, but I was skeptical about another allusive trick. Maybe this species always behaved this way under this set of circumstances; I didn’t know.

            I decided I had enough energy for one more try before sulking my way back to the bedroom computer. I raised the camera from the edge of the window and slithered up the side. I found the now familiar back facing me. I held the camera as long as I could, then “SNAP!” he miscalculated where I had been and jumped right into the frame. Ahah! As I clicked the picture in review, I was exhilarated to find I captured a perfectly framed Varied Thrush in close up. So goes the life of a birder.          


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cedarhike
    Sep 24, 2012 @ 03:37:57

    I don’t remember reading this one before. It’s easy to envision the details, including the frustration of the bird’s quirky games. Nice.


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