How I Found Solace Among the Birds
It was 7:23 on the morning of January 2 as my mother and I drove across the Hudson River in upstate New York, just a few miles north of Troy. On the far side of the span, a man stood hunched over a large spotting scope mounted on a tripod, his gaze fixed on the ice-covered water. Gulls circled above in the steel-gray sky. Up ahead, a plastic owl perched on the roof of a green SUV quickly quelled any fear that we might not find our group before our departure time -- 7:30 sharp.
My mother and I had signed up to take part in the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. For the past 111 years, local chapters of the society have gathered bird enthusiasts and nature lovers to tally all the birds in their respective regions. It's the world's longest-running wildlife census, and each year, for several weeks during the holiday season, tens of thousands of citizen scientists break out their binoculars to participate. Although this was the 61st year for the Troy count, it was the first for us, and we didn't want to be late.
We took a parking spot on the far side of the Hannaford supermarket, grabbed our hats and gloves, and hopped out to meet our companions for the day. In addition to the guy at the scope, there were three others, all standing in silence, staring up at the sky. It started to rain.
"Hello. I'll explain that in a bit," Larry Alden said, breaking the silence and gesturing toward the plastic owl. After this brief but friendly greeting, he went back to staring at the sky. Nearby, a large crow's roost was emptying out. These birds circle around scavenging for food all day, so their morning exodus was our best chance to count them. For the rest of the day we'd ignore any crows that crossed our path, so as not to double count and skew our results.
Alden, our leader for the day, is Audubon's official compiler for this region. As with every count, we were to cover a 7.5-mile radius and tally every bird we identified by sight or by song. Alden has been covering this territory for more than a decade, and he had plotted out something of a scavenger hunt for us. We'd make dozens of stops at choice bits of bird habitat near backyard feeders, on brushy riverbanks, in protected ravines, and among silent stands of pine. Before we split into two groups to drive to the first of our designated lookouts, my mother and I went over to see what Steve Chorvas, Alden's friend and a longtime birder, had spotted through his scope.
"Two wood ducks," Chorvas said, reporting the news of his sighting for us newcomers. Wood ducks were a significant find this time of year; ordinarily they'd have passed through by now, gone south for the winter. Alden speculated that, despite all the snow, the winter had not been cold enough for the river to freeze over completely, so some birds may have risked remaining in the area to avoid a long migration.
Just south of the bridge, I spotted two ducklike birds.
"Mergs," Alden said. He explained that they were indeed a type of duck -- common mergansers -- but south of the bridge was not our territory. My sense of accomplishment fizzled. Turning back to our turf, he pointed to a group of gulls sitting on floating ice. They all looked the same to my untrained eye, but Alden said that one was a great black-back, marked by large patches of black feathers on its otherwise white body; two were ring-billed gulls, with narrow black bands around their pointy beaks; and the last was a herring gull, fatter and with a gray rather than a black back. I jotted notes and tried to remember the differences.
I'd sold my mother on the bird count idea fairly easily. When my siblings and I were kids growing up near Albany, she often turned to the outdoors as a place to find peace -- or perhaps to make peace -- with four high-energy children. She'd take us on quests to spot turtles and beavers at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center or retrace the steps of the Mohawk on the Indian Ladder Trail at John Boyd Thacher State Park, from which we could look out across the Hudson Valley and, on a clear day, glimpse the Adirondacks and Vermont's Green Mountains in the distance. We'd fill our shoes with sand tramping through the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, each of us hoping to see a Karner blue butterfly, an endangered species most readily identified by the male's vivid violet wings, which span barely an inch.
I'm not sure when we began to realize that our wild places were not so vast and untamed, but certainly by the time I was 10 I knew that my friend Mandy's church sat on the far side of the pine bush where the butterflies lived, and therefore those woods could not really go on forever. As time passed and we grew older, gymnastics practice and soccer games allowed less time for our nature quests. But even as the years ticked by, the view from our kitchen table offered a steady lens into the natural world and, with it, solace. Each spring, when a familiar species returned to our backyard bird feeder, my mother made a note in the small journal she kept tucked away in a kitchen drawer.
Now in my thirties (and my mother a sprightly 60), I latched on to the idea that we might revive our nature quests with a renewed sense of purpose. My interest in this birding trip was in part to put nature to use as the stress-relieving, mind-cleansing tonic that it had been for my mother when I was a child; after an incredibly long and trying year, I felt I needed it. We could have planned to take a hike, as we sometimes do, but the bird count was something we would have to follow through on -- we had told Alden we'd be there.
I live in New York City now, and I had driven upstate the night before our adventure. I hoped we'd see an eagle, I told my mother eagerly over dinner, whereupon she told me she knew how to identify eagles. In addition to their large size and white head, they have feathery cuffs around their legs, "like pajama pants," she said, laughing and lifting her arms as if to pull a tiny pair of trousers onto an imaginary eagle.
But as we stood on the cold steel bridge, our giddy sense of anticipation began to give way to a feeling of uncertainty. The reality was that our leader was standing at the back of a mostly empty grocery store parking lot, looking rather eccentric as he pulled the plastic owl off the roof of his SUV. My mother shot me a familiar look, the one that suggested we'd have a laugh about this later. We made note of a few other birds -- cardinal (1), Carolina wren (1), red-tailed hawk (1), plus lots of chickadees and sparrows -- and hurried back to the car. We would be following Alden, and he was just about ready to go.
As the day unfolded, our two-car caravan wove its way through communities of small, down-at-the-heels single-family homes, hunting for quiet thickets along the river's edge and the wooded fringes of dormant cornfields. The others in the group took turns riding with us novices. While gazing out the window looking for birds, Chorvas noted that he was seeing more empty bird feeders this year, perhaps a sign of tough economic times. We pulled onto a dead-end road and stopped in front of a power transformer surrounded by scrubby underbrush.
Alden got out of his car and slung a beat-up Fisher Price cassette player (on permanent loan from his daughter) over his shoulder. He hit a button, and the song of a screech owl began to warble from the speaker. Suddenly birds appeared from everywhere: nuthatches, sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers. They were mobbing us, Alden explained. Alerted to the presence of a predator, the birds flock to the scene en masse, perching in open view and stealing from their would-be stalker the ability to carry out a surprise attack.
My mother and I stood there, awestruck. Mobbing was new to us, and the idea that you might invite this gathering using a child's tape player was even stranger. But the collective action of birds of so many species drawn out from places we couldn't see was magical, as they called to one another and made fussy noises as if to say, "We see you, you bully. You won't get us today."
A couple of stops later, we paused above a small ravine -- ideal bird habitat, Alden told us. There was shelter (bushes, trees), water (a small creek), and plenty of food (sumac, bittersweet). A dog barked in the yard of a house a few hundred feet away, and a power line ran through this "perfect" slice of nature. It struck me that we had not fully considered that this bird count would take us not into "the wild," but through a patchwork of scrappy places like this. Alden had warned us that we'd need to cover a fair bit of ground, but to be furiously hopping in and out of the car all day, driving from place to place, was oddly fitting: it reminded me that I didn't need to try quite so hard or travel so far to seek out nature. It is under my nose all the time, even in New York City. As I stood among rundown ranch homes with dogs chained in their yards, the fragmented aspect of it all seemed to matter rather little. I didn't see the downtrodden outskirts of Troy; I saw the ideal habitat that Alden saw, and the forgiving nature of the birds that lived in these chopped-up swaths of brush and water.
A week after the count, Alden e-mailed the group with the results of the tally. I called my mother. "Did you get Larry's e-mail?" she exclaimed. "Who would have thought there were 15,000 birds in Troy! On one day!" Indeed, I thought.
The next morning, standing in the kitchen of the home my husband and I had just acquired in Brooklyn, I noticed for the first time that the previous owners had left a bird feeder behind. It was bolted into the brick on the back of the house, visible from both the kitchen and the dining room. I smiled to myself and looked around, wondering where I might stash my new birding journal.