Monday, March 3, 2014

Ever Learning

The snow was up to my nose and the temperatures hovered around a balmy 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  In our area the winter sun rises and arcs low enough through the sky to shine directly into my home office window.  Without leaves from the backyard woods to intercept the bright rays, the light is just too strong to keep the blinds open.  The direct sunlight along with the reflection from the snow makes it impossible to see my 
computer screen.  So on most days now, I’m reluctantly closing the blinds and burying my nose in my work. 

On one particular day a few weeks ago while clicking away at my keyboard and squinting at a bunch of tiny little numbers moving across my screen, I heard a fluttering on the windowsill, on the other side of my light barrier.  The sound went away quickly, and I returned to my work.  Moments later the sound returned.  OK, that’s it.  I had to know what it was.  Slowly rotating the louvers, I was able to glimpse a bird I’d never seen before at our home, yet alone elsewhere.  On noticing a small patch of yellow on this smallish bird, I thought “oh, it’s a goldfinch”.  But huh, it’s winter and the male goldfinches couldn’t even be close to start putting on their brilliant yellow summer plumage.  Well, it’s certainly not a warbler.  But no one will ever confuse me with a knowledgeable birder. 

We live within a half hour drive of the famed Magee Marsh, home to Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO).  Magee Marsh, and the adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge sit on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the shallowest but most bio-diverse of the Great Lakes.  Legions of fantastic avian creatures stop here in large numbers on their long and arduous northward migration from their winter homes in the tropics.  The protected ecosystems here provide just the right mixture of shelter and food to enable the feathered songsters to rest and refuel on the abundant insect life.  Once they’ve renewed their energy and winds are right, they take off on the journey northward across the vast lake.  Thousands of birders from all over the country, and even some from other countries flock here to experience the annual gathering of dozens and dozens of different songbirds.  For many years only a weekend event, the bird watching community has expanded the official festivities into “The Biggest Week in American Birding.”  Throngs of serious and merely curious birders have had a most welcome impact on the local tourism industry.  There is so much publicity surrounding this annual natural event a person can’t help but learn or think they’ve learned about the celebrated birds. 

And that’s where I now realize I fall into that category of “thought I learned”.  As I looked again at our small bird with yellow patches, I kept thinking it’s a warbler but always came back to “it cannot be a warbler.”  I had listened, admittedly distracted by all the surrounding activity, to several area ornithologists while they identified, banded, and counted scads of different species during the celebrated week of birding.  I was under the impression the warblers all go way south to the tropics for a nice winter of sitting on the beach, sipping margaritas and enjoying other good time activities.  Oops -I guess that’s what I’d do if I was in the tropics for the winter.   Well whatever the birds do down south, in spring they head north in three waves to hit the Lake Erie shore between late April  and late May.  Given my confidence of having “learned” from the experts. I was sure this backyard bird was no warbler.   Or hey –maybe this was one of those rare cases that gets birders all atwitter with excitement and they would flock by the carloads to observe the unusual sighting in my backyard. 

OK –I pulled out my Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.   Yikes, this creature sure had all the field Yellow-rumped Warbler.  I surmised it had to be incredibly rare at this time of the year.  Posting a few pictures and asking for verification, my friends confirmed it was indeed the winged vertebrate shown in the field guide. 
markings of a

During the week, the bird continued pecking into the crevices on the windowsill and the corners of the outdoor deck rafters jutting out above my lower level office.  There must have been some tasty insects camped out there trying to hide out from predators.  As the week progressed, this cheerful bird continued to distract me from my work.  Fortunately before I posted the sighting to some rare bird network, I learned not all warblers go to the sunny south.  This particular species does winter in our area.  Whew – embarrassment averted.  It turns out this is perhaps the northernmost part of its overwintering area, but by no means was the bird’s presence rare, or even uncommon.  So don’t look for my name in the rare sightings journals. 

For approximately two weeks I didn’t get much work done while I enjoyed the chirps, fluttering, and antics of this little Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Fortunately my boss wasn’t terribly upset (I’m self-employed).  Without a green sprout in sight, this distracting visitor reinforced my understanding that our conversion to landscaping with native plants has enriched my life.  In the past several years as we’ve continued the journey, gradually replacing our landscaping with native plants, we’ve stopped feeding the birds with store-bought birdseed.   Yet, we have more birds with a greater variety of species than we had before.  The native plants, unlike the old non-native ones, are providing the
habitat and food sources for this greater biodiversity.  While enjoying this little wild bundle of feathers, I’m sure my blood pressure was down and on retrospection I realized I slept better at night.  I’ve been reading lately about how important nature is in our lives.  Like the native plants that bring wildlife such as this bird into our yards, we’ve evolved over thousands and thousands and thousands of years intricately woven into the rest of nature around us.  It’s only in recent history where the number of people living in cities has surpassed those living in the country.  Studies are disclosing that stress, disease, and poor mental health, among other human problems are exacerbated when we live and work in areas devoid of nature.  Welcome little warbler and safe travels until we meet again.

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