Birding Big Year 2016

December 27, 2015

Corvids are so Raven

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 5:03 pm
1346 Common Raven38

Common Ravens

In the Disney sitcom That’s so Raven, teenager Raven Baxter can see the future. Raven draws on her psychic powers, ingenuity, and talent to get into and out of amusing situations. Sounds like the Corvids I know.  (Corvid – short for Corvidae, the taxonomic family of birds that includes jays, magpies, crows, nutcrackers, and ravens). Corvids are considered to be the smartest of birds and among the most intelligent of all living creatures.  They use tools, are reportedly “self-aware,” and their brain to body mass ratio is off the charts.  Don’t be calling them bird-brained, unless you hold them in the highest regard.


I have great respect for ravens.  On the absolute worst weather day and most extreme condition, I can always find a Common Raven playing in the wind, laughing at lesser birds.  Watch them for a minute.  They are not hunting, they are not trying to get from here to there.  They are more whimsical than expedient. Ravens ply the wind like a child sails a kite or skates on ice. Perhaps it was precisely this characteristic that led Noah to opened the window of the ark and send forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. …And he no doubt had a wonderful time doing it.  But unless I portray the Raven as mere devil-may-care, I admit, I am respectful if not fearful of ravens.

The Hebrew proverb warns, “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley…” No doubt Hitchcock borrowed and expounded upon that fear with raven’s diminutive cousin, (the equally sinister crow) in the 1963 cinematic thriller.  Who can forget the image of crows amassed and attacking children at the playground in The Birds?  Quoth the raven nevermore? But I simply must! Could Poe have picked a more perfect creature for that eerie and dark poem? “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’  Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’  Dan Fogelberg the balladeer  picks up where his fellow artists left off.  He portrays a succubus as the darkest of Corvids:

I see the raven’s made
Her nest in your eyes
She’s got you thinking that
Her love is a prize
And you’ll go under from
The weight of her lies
As the raven flies

Corvids do not only portray harbingers of death and messengers of judgement, but also servants of life.  While mankind may depict the raven as dark and devious; The Creator paints him differently, thus he retains my respect.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Not only does He feed them, but he once commanded them to feed a man given psychic power. God directed the prophet Elijah,  Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.  You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”  So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. … And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening…”

My Pinyon Jays are back.  Their seed-filled beaks hammering against the deck rails are keeping rhythm with my fingers on the keyboard.  They split the sunflower shells on impact.  More than a dozen are fast at work, and the sound is loud, annoying, if not haunting.  And yet I have adopted them, and to a large extent am lonely without them.  These jays, like crows and magpies are very gregarious; whereas my scrub jays prefer the company of no more than two or three.  Ravens will on occasion gather in groups, but like the scrub jay seem most content alone or with few.  All are extroverts compared to most passerines.

Last week I stood in the heart of the snow-piled City of Rocks – not another human in sight, nor a sound to my ear save one: a raven’s laugh. On similar junctures the voice was that of my favorite Corvid the Clark’s Nutcracker.  Almost exclusively his cranky call is heard at 6,000 feet sea level or higher.  The higher the better.  He is my companion of the mountain.  My Pinyon Jays and scrub jays prefer the lower altitudes, so that I am never deprived of the family.  Ravens have no preference or mortal allegiance, they are omnipresent and it would seem omniscient.  They know where they are to be and when, as if the Master shares His secrets and then bids them go.

The Big Year is but four days hence.  I know I can count on listing within the first hour of daylight the Black-billed Magpie and Common Raven.  I am reasonably assured of checking off the American Crow, Western Scrub Jay and Pinyon Jay.  Should I be so blessed by the Master of the birds, I pray He sends me a Clark’s Nutcracker.  That would be the ultimate Corvidae (pun intended), or as the kids say, that would be so raven’.

December 24, 2015

Now There’s a Good Bird

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 8:50 pm
Good Bad Bird

One of these is a good bird

Standing at the large picture window of the Old Cahoon house, I peer through the inch-thick glass, looking for a good bird.  The circa 1912, two-story brick house (aka City of Rocks Visitor Center) provides the perfect hunting blind for up close birding and photography.  Outside, three separate feeders are strategically positioned for maximum visitation.  At the moment, at least 75 birds have settled in for a meal.  To date, nearly a dozen species have discovered the sunflower seed buffet, spread daily thanks to the generous donations of park patrons.  Unfortunately, the majority of these feathered friends fail to qualify as a “good bird.”

Before I am accused of making value judgements regarding birds, let me just come right out and confess it.  There are good birds, and there are, well, birds of a lesser assessment.  It’s not their fault really, and the reasons date back to creation itself. For God created some things for noble purposes and some for ignoble, and this is the right of the creator.  Who is man to question his purposes? Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  Did not the creator declare to the children of Israel that some birds were “clean” and could be eaten, but others like the vulture, raven, and cormorant were “unclean” and to be left untouched and despised?” Was not the dove a symbol of the Holy Spirit and the eagle a representation of strength and honor? On the other hand, have you ever heard the coot being spoken of in a positive light?

I know a good bird when I see one. Dark-eyed Juncos are ok, but there are just too many of them at the feeders.  The beloved male goldfinch is a good bird in full spring plumage, but in the dead of winter – not so much. House Sparrows, seriously? No.  I’ll take a House Finch sighting, only because they force me to discern the subtleties that differentiate the Cassin’s Finch.  A Ring-necked Pheasant dropped in a few days ago.  But what is considered a good bird on Tuesday, might not be so the rest of the year.  Pheasants are colorful and all, but they’re an introduced species from Eurasia (note upturned nose here). Three Eurasian Collared-Doves land near the northernmost feeder, scaring the crap out of the juncos…literally.  This dove species arrived to the Almo Valley about 2004.  I wonder if their ancestors were neighbors with the pheasants.

Twenty-five years ago I was an interpretive naturalist at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas.  As a pious birder there, I did my best to proselytize the field-tripping school children to embrace the religion of birding.  I recall one hike where we all had a close-up encounter with a beautiful Red-tailed Hawk soaring just above us.  “Look!” I exclaimed and pointed like all rangers are trained to do.  Some looked, some shuffled their feet, and one raised his imaginary twelve gauge and pumped two rounds into him.  Horrified, I chastised the boy – “That bird is federally protected!  You can’t do that!”  He nonchalantly replies, “My dad say’s they kill our chickens. What good is a chicken hawk anyway?”

Despite what some snot-nosed kid in Arkansas thinks, Red-tailed Hawks are “good” birds. Take my word for it.  And so is this Harris’s Sparrow that just crawled out from beneath a giant, undisciplined rosebush at the corner of the parking lot!  This species is most often at home on the east side of the Rockies, in the Great American Desert to be exact. The past three years it seems one (and only one) pays the park a visit. I will have to post the big news on Facebook later.  Just over 4,000 people follow the City of Rocks Facebook page, and I know at least a handful of them will be as excited as I.

So you might be wondering, how can I tell a good bird from a bad one.  It’s easier than sexing a chicken.  First you eliminate all of the bad ones: too ubiquitous, non-native, annoying call, ugly, drab plumage, occurs over all of North America in every habitat…need I go on?  Then, considering what is left, you have the good birds: colorful, few in number, hard to find, has a great song like “Quick three beers!” “Drink your tea,” or Jose Maria.”  Of course the absolute best birds are the ones not yet on my life list.  The funny thing is, however, when preparing for a Big Year, even a trash bird is loved the first time he is observed.  I’ll be counting on these Eurasian Collared-Doves to be right here on January 1st.

A Facebook friend recently asserted that there is no such thing as a bad bird, only a bad birder.  He must be one of those guys who likes to watch House Sparrows.  Clearly he is not one of the faithful. But I think I could convert him by the end of a Big Year.  Oh look!  Downy Woodpecker!  He just flew into the base of that Siberian Elm.  Now there’s a good bird!

December 20, 2015

A Big Year Primer

Filed under: Birding — Tags: , — wfkeck @ 3:22 pm
122015 photograph1

Planning the 2016 Big Year

Fingers rest at the keyboard on a quiet Sunday, December 20, 2015.  The sun is piercing through the late morning fog just out my cabin window, revealing intermittent views of Cache Peak.  Subtle hues of white and gray compete for attention, attempting to define what the day will be – mostly cloudy?  Partly sunny?  No matter; there will be birds at my feeder, flittering joyfully at the presence of new black-oil sunflower seeds.  And there will be anticipation by this avid birder of the moment, less than twelve days from now, when those birds count toward the 2016 Big Year.

A Big Year?  Many non-birding muggles have come to learn what that is, thanks to the 2011 film The Big Year, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson.  These acclaimed comedians each portrayed real life characters who spent 1998 chasing birds and the coveted title of Best Birder in North America. A Big Year is a dedicated effort to see as many bird species as possible within a year.  The effort can be motivated by the spirit of competition or personal achievement. Of course the Big Year concept predates both the movie and the year on which the book was based.  Whether explicitly labeled or not, mankind has been chasing birds long before the painter John James Audubon or explorers Lewis and Clark.  I chase birds; and there will be birders chasing birds long after I join the cherubim of paradise.

I am sitting at my oversized self-important oak desk.  A 4×6-foot National Geographic map of the United States dominates the left wall.  Bookshelves behind me contain 36 personal journals, chronicling 35 years of the most recent 52 years of life.  The journal 2016 is poised and ready for ink.  Atlas and road maps lay cluttered beneath a wooden lamp that was turned on a lathe by my father – a Christmas gift given to his son back in childhood days that were defined more by chess and fishing than birding and chess.  The 2000 edition Sibley Guide to Birds rests easily within reach. I am planning my own Big Year.

In the movie Moonstruck, the actress Olympia Dukakis asked the question, “Why do men chase women?” and the answer came back, “Because men fear death.” This humorous if not partly accurate answer, causes me to wonder:  “Why do men chase birds?”  Is it because of the prehistoric practice that men hunt and women nest?  I think it unlikely, as there are most certainly as many women who chase birds as men. Is it because chasing birds is so manly? [A bow to sarcasm].  Is it because we fear death?  Will breaking the 300 species threshold in 2016 help to define the meaning of my life?  When my bird life list finally breaks 500 (something I should have achieved years ago) will it finally give me a sense of accomplishment?

As I sit and wait for the epiphany, a Pinyon Jay band of sixty descends upon my deck feeders like Frank Baum’s Winged Monkeys in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  My Black oil sunflower seeds are tossed and dispersed erratically to attentive Dark-eyed Juncos below.  And then it comes to me.  I chase birds, because I fear God – not as defined from the Hebraic word mora (terror and dread), but yare (awe and reverence). I revere what the Creator has made for me.  “And out of the ground, the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every foul of the air, and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

These days, the names (both common and scientific) are all given, and the Lord God does not parade the birds before me; but He bids me to go find them. And find them I must. “For what can be known about God is plain to them.  For his invisible attributes, name, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

I never quite understood how rugged men of the mountain west could speak of fly-fishing as a religion until I watched the movie A River Runs through It.  Now hopefully it is socially acceptable to admit that birding is a religious experience.  I sit at my desk, plotting and planning, scheming and dreaming of trips to the holy lands in pursuit of birds – places like the San Pedro National Riparian Area, the Edwards Plateau, Ruby Mountains, Big Thicket, Cheyenne Bottoms, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Ozarks, and dozens more.  These lands are holy, because the Lord God has tucked His birds away there in ancient and pristine habitats; thus, there I will go.  In finding them, I will draw closer to Him.

A sacred pilgrimage can only be understood by those who set forth in humility, sacrifice, and determinationSuch is my Birding Big Year: humility, because I bare my soul, my success (or lack thereof) transparent to the reader; sacrifice, because instead of writing this blog, I could be birding; and determination, because the 2016 Big Year is an enormous commitment of time and resources over 366 days, and yet who can tell what a single day may bring.  I am determined to go, and I am willing to take you with me.

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