My family has had some hard winters over the past several years. As someone who has never been fond of the cold, it’s strange to say that the harsher-than-usual winters of the last two years haven’t been the problem, but the travails of the season have been peripheral at best. No, we’ve been fighting things like cancer and near-fatal car accidents, and this year has been the hardest of all. After beating breast cancer in 2012, my mom got a pancreatic cancer diagnosis in November 2013. Since then, life has been an often-nauseating roller coaster of surgery, chemotherapy, hospital visits, sleepless nights, dark thoughts, and trying to keep our heads above a place of sadness and hopelessness. Some days are better than others, but always, always, there is a cloud of uncertainty that says, “You can’t plan too far into the future. Things could change forever any day.”
Had this all happened in the summertime, my solace would have been found in a swamp somewhere. Nothing in my life, or my plans, has remained constant over the last three months except that I find my peace outside. The last two winters, since I’ve been more earnestly pursuing my fascination with dragonflies, I’ve felt their absence like a loss. From mid-October to mid-April last year, I dreamed in dragonflies because I couldn’t see them for myself. In those first few weeks after my mom’s diagnosis, I felt more helpless than at any other time in my life, and I wanted so badly to go stand by a pond and have the blue dashers and baskettails zoom around my head. They remind me that if nothing else, I can always count on the world to be full of treasures. There will always be a swamp to run to somewhere.
So it’s fitting that this is the year that it finally occurred to me to watch the birds. To keep going to my favorite places even though I wouldn’t see dragonflies or butterflies. That I work at a place where there are easily more than 100 different types of birds taking up residence or passing through. That there are treasures everywhere, all the time–we just have to look for them.
So we started to maintain our backyard bird feeder. We got one for seeds, and one for suet. We watched for weeks and have counted 15 interested species so far. I started walking through the Old Forest at Overton Park during the afternoons, even if it was freezing and gloomy. My friend Naomi gave me the Stokes Guide to Birds, and we all know my interest level in something skyrockets when I have a field guide I like. I’ve been studying eagerly, and this weekend felt knowledgeable enough to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count for the first time. (My amateur status was served up to me nicely when I realized that the Tennessee Ornithological Society had identified 100+ birds in the Old Forest to my ten. But in fairness, there were many of them, there was one of me, I was chased out prematurely by rain, and I do not speak the language of birds AT ALL and am thus unable to identify anything by sound. Except maybe the Carolina wren because it’s a loudmouth.)
And you know what? It turns out that the birds help a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever love them like I love dragonflies in all their delicate ferocity, but they are fascinating in their own right. I look forward to learning much more about them as time goes on.
Here are a few glimpses into my winter of birdwatching.
First, the backyard feeders. Most of these were taken through a window, so apologies for the fuzziness and the lack of compositional variety. Left to right, top to bottom:
1. Surprisingly, we’ve had very few European starlings. I shoo them when there are too many, but I let this one hang around for a minute since it was alone.
2. A female downy woodpecker shares the suet with a much smaller chickadee.
3. The carolina wren perches rather than eats.
4. Tiny dark-eyed juncos are so adorable.
5. This mockingbird was singing its heart out.
6. The cardinals and house sparrows like to snipe at each other, but they’re the most frequent visitors to the feeder, so they make it work.
7. The finches: a goldfinch on the left and house finch on the right.
8. Little chickadee, big sunflower seed.
These are birds I found in the Old Forest at Overton Park. There’s no better break from a desk job than a walk in the woods.
1. I love kinglets. They’re tiny and bouncy, and not terribly wary. This golden-crowned kinglet stayed within a few feet of me for about 10 minutes. The challenge is that they’re constantly flitting from branch to branch, so having time to focus is more a matter of luck than anything else.
2. Red-bellied woodpeckers are one of the few species that I’m starting to be able to recognize by their calls. We saw one of these in the backyard, and the contrast between its size and the smaller downy woodpecker was fun to observe.
3. Speaking of the downy woodpecker…
4. When I first saw this little golf ball of a winter wren, I exclaimed aloud, “Tiny!” I was on my way out of the forest to head home when I saw it hop into a tree cavity. Like the kinglet, it wasn’t terribly bothered by my presence, even when I loudly tromped over leaves to get closer. It was much harder to photograph, though, because it likes to bury itself in leaf piles and holes in the ground to forage. This was the best I could do, so I apologize to the little guy for photographing its bum.
5. Here’s a hairy woodpecker, which looks a lot like the downy woodpecker except for the little black spur on its chest.
6. A carolina wren that plopped down right in front of me (hence why this photo is the best of the bunch).
7. A yellow-rumped warbler, displaying its…yellow rump.
8. I’m going to refrain from assigning a species to this hawk, because I know it will be wrong.
9 & 10. Two photos of a tufted titmouse. I had never seen these until yesterday, and suddenly they were everywhere.
11. Spotting an enormous pileated woodpecker never gets old.
12. I see a lot of hermit thrushes, and they’re good at posing and singing beautiful tunes.
13 & 14. Both of these are ruby-crowned kinglets. The one on the left even showed me its crown at one point, which as someone who struggles to ID every single one of these, was something I appreciated very much.
If you squint, you can see a robin in this photo, but mostly I took this one because I always love looking through this enormous vine.
On Saturday morning, I started out early to the Shelby Farms Beaver Pond, which to my surprise was partially frozen over. There were several red-winged blackbirds making their presence known via their very loud singing, but they cloaked themselves in the foliage too well to get a photo. Here’s what I did shoot:
1. Lots and lots of Canada geese. My least favorite bird, probably?
2. Prior to this morning, the only sparrows I’d ever felt comfortable identifying were house and white-throated, which are the ones in our yard. This one was obviously different, though, and it turned out to be a chipping sparrow.
3. Another carolina wren.
4. Until I got home and identified this as a brown thrasher, my description for it was “the giant scary thrush thing.”
5. The song sparrows were chippier than the chipping sparrows, which is why everything confuses me.
Finally, on Sunday I visited the Lucius Burch State Natural Area in search of some wading birds.
1 & 2. I found 40 or so ring-billed gulls in the flooded cornfields. They were not super excited about my presence.
3. I was so confounded by this bird while looking through my guide. In the field, I assumed it was a song sparrow, but when I got home, I didn’t see any white markings on its neck, and its chest was much more heavily streaked than it should have been. Figuring out that it was a female red-winged blackbird was an “I’ll be damned” moment.
4. There were a few killdeer flying around and screeching, which set them apart enough that I eventually realized they weren’t part of the gull faction.
5. Mallards and gadwalls flew away from me all day. Like, way far away.
6. An actual song sparrow in a blooming maple tree.
More birds to come, as my recent escape-to-Florida weekend, which I booked back in October when Southwest was running $94 round-trip sales (!!!), quickly turned into a birding excursion. Get ready for lots and lots of herons.