Special features

You’ve got bird mail

Five stories show how birdwatchers from coast to coast are using the internet to inform, entertain, connect, and inspire
By Noah Strycker | Published: 12/22/2010

BRD-C0211-500Used to be, you had to talk to someone to hear a good birding story. Or read a book, magazine, or newsletter. These days, real-life tales from fellow birdwatchers are available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, via the internet and your computer.

To join in the fun, all you need is an email account and a subscription to what the digital cognoscenti know as a listserv — a high-tech computer programmed to perform a low-tech function: to receive the emails that subscribers send to it and then re-email them immediately to every other subscriber.

More than 100 bird-related English-language listservs are in operation in North America, and for the last year or so, I have subscribed to every one. The experience filled just about all my non-birding hours. I read as birdwatchers shared sightings, asked questions, gave directions, discussed bird identification, told jokes, and announced birdwalks, lectures, and festivals.

Not all of the messages made for edifying reading, to be sure, but every once in a while, I discovered a true gem — a message that stuck with me long after I had left my computer. Such gems, I discovered, spoke volumes about why birdwatchers watch birds, about why nature matters, about the birds themselves, and about lots more. Don’t believe me?

Here are five actual emails, edited only for space and grammar and reprinted with permission from their authors.

BRD-C0211-2-100.ashxThe first, written last February by Rob Sandelin, reminds us of the power that nature has on people. Rob is an environmental educator who has spent much of his life observing and studying nature in the mountains of the Northwest. He has served as a naturalist at Yosemite, Olympic, and Denali National Parks, and he’s a co-author ofField Guide to the Cascades and Olympics (Mountaineers Books, 2004).

Currently he teaches field skills to student naturalists at the Environmental Education School of the Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe, Washington. He sent the following message to his state’s listserv, called Tweeters:

I ended up riding the bus east of Seattle trying to get home today. At the Bellevue Transit Center in downtown Bellevue, the sun came out and a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos perched in adjacent, leafless trees and began trilling back and forth.

I stood in the sunshine and watched them, and then an older man came up and asked me about the birds. Then a mom with two kids joined us, and a young woman in a business suit. Then a couple of homeless-looking guys joined the crowd, and then a young guy on a bicycle. I ended up doing an impromptu nature talk about territory, bird migrations, native birds, spring, whatever seemed to come up. People kept asking questions. It was like suddenly nature had become the focus of a flash mob.

The bus pulled up, and we all dispersed. It magnified for me the power nature has on people — something I take for granted where I live and work — but it was even more amazing in the middle of the Bellevue skyscrapers, with a handful of strangers all mutually inspired by a pair of birds.

— Rob Sandelin
Snohomish County, Washington
February 17, 2010

BRD-C0211-2-100.ashxThe following message answers an age-old question that someone in Sandelin’s flash mob might have asked: Can birds freeze to a perch when their feet are wet?

Vicki Williams, a birdwatcher from Marietta, Georgia, who regularly describes the behaviors of birds in her yard on the listserv Georgia Birders Online, posted this message last January about a distressed American Goldfinch.

I’ve never seen a bird frozen to a branch before, but I did this morning. I was groggily looking outside at the birds and their frantic activities when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a bird take off and land back down again. Something didn’t look right, so I stared directly at the bird.

It was a goldfinch, and seemed to be struggling to free itself. After another abortive attempt to take off, I realized both feet were frozen to the forsythia branch. While wild thoughts of how to free the bird without causing it to have a heart attack — and me to fall and break something — ran through my mind, the bird struggled again, finally broke free, and took off.

All I can figure is that it had gone to the birdbath to drink and got its feet wet, then went and sat on the branch a little too long and — voilá! — frozen.

That was the most dramatic incident during my day of watching the birds.

— Vicki Williams
Marietta, Georgia
January 9, 2010

BRD-C0211-2-100.ashxWilliams may not have had to rescue her goldfinch, but in July, Bruce Shackleford, an environmental consultant based in Benton, Arkansas, was presented with an unexpected opportunity to save a bird’s life — and in his own backyard. He shared the story with the Birds of Arkansas Discussion List.

Making my rounds to check on plants and animals, I went to our patio to eat some fresh Concord grapes. Thus preoccupied, I didn’t spot the disaster until hearing a desperate chatter. It was a Carolina Chickadee fledgling that had unfortunately flown into a garden spider’s web.

The web was like flypaper on a string! That doomed little chickadee was absolutely hog-tied and facing certain death. I had read about bird-eating spiders in Australia, but I haven’t heard of avian-munching arachnids in North America.

Had it been a useful meal for the spider, I would have left things alone. However, Spidey was making no advances toward the chickadee. The tiny bird would obviously experience a slow death.

So I pulled the little feller free. He was a mess! The chickadee’s right leg was calf-roped to his wing feathers, and his left leg and a portion of his tail feathers were taped to his other wing, so I cleaned him up a bit. Had the straitjacketed fledgling managed to pull free on his own, he still would not have been able to fly.

Upon release, the chickadee flew into a redbud tree, chattering all the while. It reminded me of Mel Gibson strapped to the butcher table in Braveheart: “FREEEEDOM!” Too bad for Mel that he didn’t get cut loose!

— Bruce Shackleford
Benton, Arkansas
July 30, 2010

Join in the fun

Here’s where you can find the internet discussion lists mentioned in this story:

Tweeters

Georgia Birders Online

Birds of Arkansas Discussion List

Ohio Birds

Illinois Birders Forum

Find a list of other free regional, state, or provincial birding listservs on the website of the American Birding Association:

ABA Mailing Lists

BRD-C0211-2-100.ashxIt’s no secret, of course, that birdwatchers spend money. But as the following story shows, birders have an impact on the economy even when they might not realize it.

The writer, Tom Bartlett, is a retired high-school biology teacher, a certified bird bander, a trainer of bird banders, an original member of the board of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge Association, the compiler of the Ottawa NWR Christmas Bird Count, and an avid birder for more than 40 years. He sent this message to the Ohio Birds listserv:

For the past 10 years or so, various birding groups have been giving out cards that birders leave at places they visit, shop, and eat, telling the owners that birders were there and spent money. I always wondered how effective they are.

Well, I found out. Since the early 1990s, whenever I go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I eat at Ang-Gio’s Restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie at least once. While eating there Saturday night, we got talking with the owner. When I mentioned we were up there birding, he got very excited and ran over to the checkout counter. He came back with six cards, which were taped together.

They were cards from one of Michigan’s birding groups, a little different from others I have seen. They had a place for how much was spent. The owner proudly showed us that these six cards represented more than $1,000 in meals from just the past couple weeks. He wanted to know if I had a card. I had cards from the Kirtland Bird Club in Cleveland but had left them home.

Never again!

He made sure to tell me that birders are always welcome at his place. So, some progress is being made to show the business community that birders are an economic force.

— Tom Bartlett
Tiffin, Ohio
February 1, 2010

BRD-C0211-2-100.ashxListerv birdwatchers regularly share the stories of highlights from the field, including news of rarities or vagrants. Last February, readers of the Illinois Birders’ Forum received what I consider to be the year’s best sighting report. They were treated to a description of a rarely observed behavior of one of America’s most spectacular birds.

Eric Walters, the founder and former president of the Illinois Ornithological Society, had visited the Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy property in north-central Illinois, on Saturday, February 13. He has been doing official bird surveys there for almost 10 years, and he runs the Christmas Bird Count circle that includes the grasslands. He was hoping to locate a Prairie Falcon and perhaps a few other birds that had been found earlier in the winter. Walters had his camera, and he came away with what he considers to be the pictures of a lifetime.

Around 11:20 a.m., Walters saw a large bird slowly flying south. He thought it might be a Bald Eagle. But after studying it, he could see the white mid-wing and tail feathers of a young Golden Eagle. Walters took a few photos, but the eagle continued flying, so he hopped in his car and followed it. He writes:

Little did I know I was about to experience one of my most exciting Illinois birding experiences over the past three decades.

I relocated the Golden Eagle in the sky, again slowly moving south, but doing a little circling. Then I noticed its behavior seemed to change. It set its wings and began to dive in my general direction!

It was then that I noticed a terrified white-tailed deer that had been caught in an open cornfield and was attempting to flee. Was this eagle just having some fun by scaring the deer, or did it have other purposes by dive-bombing it?

Deer have great open-field speed, but it was clear this one was quickly losing ground to the diving eagle. I could hardly believe my eyes. Was this Golden Eagle going for a kill of an animal more than twice its size?

The eagle’s two back talons extended and hit the deer’s hindquarters. I wonder if the eagle was trying to sever some of the deer’s powerful leg tendons so that it couldn’t run fast or perhaps not move any farther, which would then give the eagle additional attempts to finish the kill.

The shock and/or pain might have added some adrenaline to the deer, and, with a burst of speed, it changed direction. The deer continued to employ a new crisscross escape plan that the eagle didn’t appear to be able to adjust to as quickly. The chase continued across the road and into the prairie. Imagine getting buzzed by a Golden Eagle!

— Eric Walters
Zion, Illinois
February 15, 2010

Epilogue: Walters later posted that he found a 1919 report of a Golden Eagle killing a deer and a 1985 record of a dead deer at a Golden’s nest. He also reported that he had researched how Golden Eagles molt: Based on the tail and wing feathers on his bird, he wrote, it was probably in its third winter of life when he photographed it. In other words, it was an experienced hunter. In addition, Walters relayed a message from a federal biologist who described a satellite-tagged Golden Eagle in Wisconsin that had spent 7-10 days feeding on a deer carcass. The biologist argued that the eagle may have killed the deer. To see more photos of the attack and read Walters’s posts, visit www.ilbirds.com and search for “Eric Walters Golden Eagle.”

Noah Strycker is a researcher, photographer, artist, and writer. He is  associate editor of Birding magazine and author of the forthcoming book Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (Oregon State University Press, spring 2011).