13 January 2011

Hook bird(s)

Jerry Ligouri's recent post at the Utah Birders blog got me thinking about "hook birds." Your hook bird is the one bird that caused your first "wow" moment, and got you hooked on birding for life. I've heard some fun hook bird stories, and in a way I wish I could point to one bird as my hook bird, but I can't. I have three hook birds, each marking a different transition in my birding.

Despite growing up in the city, I feel like I've always been interested in the natural world. I know many people have a moment in their life when they realize how interesting and wonderful wildlife is, but I think I was born with a particularly strong sense of biophilia, as E.O. Wilson calls it. In fact, my first word; before "mom," "dad," or anything else; was "bird." A few years after that, I remember being impressed with my father's knowledge of the natural world. He wasn't a biologist, or a birder, or a hunter. He worked (and still works) in automotive insurance. But he loved nature, and as a young child, I noticed. I remember, at an age of less than ten - maybe five? - hearing a bird sing in my front yard, and having my dad tell me it as a chickadee. I was fascinated that he could give a name to that sound, and even tell me what the bird looked like, just by hearing it. I wanted to be able to do that. So in a way, Black-capped Chickadee was my hook bird.

You might say that a Black-capped Chickadee in my yard in Seattle was the bird that got me into birding for life. (I photographed this one near Birch Creek, Cache County, UT on 17 Jan 2010.)

But, that was hardly the start of my birding career. I was interested in birds, but also in everything else - plants, fossils, rocks, stars, mammals . . . anything natural and real. As I grew up, my focus narrowed on animals. In my last year of college, where I majored in Zoology, I took an ornithology class, but I don't remember any of those birds standing out from any others. It wasn't until I started working on my Master's degree at Oregon State University that I ever went birding for the sole purpose of finding and observing birds. My statistics professor, Dr. Fred Ramsey, was also a birder, and author of "Birding Oregon". One morning at the start of class, before we dove into p-values and correlation coefficients, he took the time to draw a simple map on the board. The "X" on that map marked a treasure: a Snowy Owl that had been hanging out in a farm field a few miles outside of town. The next day, a couple friends and I drove to check out the owl, and were suitably impressed. I think that was the first time I realized that birding was not just learning to identify the common sparrows and warblers that were resident in my area: birding could also reveal unexpected surprises. Those surprises were worth looking for. And so, Snowy Owl was my second hook bird.

A Snowy Owl in the Willamette Valley of Oregon was my second hook bird. This one was photographed in Alaska by Floyd Davidson, and was taken from Wikimedia Commons.

After finishing my degree at OSU, I moved to Washington, where I worked on a project studying frogs and salamanders. One of my coworkers, Casey Richart, was an avid birder. Just as I had been impressed with my father's ability to identify a chickadee by its call, I was impressed by Casey's ability to identify a raptor from what seemed like miles away. Casey and I went birding several times, and I learned a lot from those trips. We also shared a house for a while, and worked on a collective yard list (which reached 39 species by the time I moved out six months later). It was while birding with Casey that I realized that birding is not just a matter of memorizing the field marks pointed out with little arrows in the field guides, but that it is a skill that can be honed for a lifetime: learning the subtle differences in how a hawk holds its wings, recognizing the difference between chip notes of sparrows, or learning to tell the sex and age of birds. Birding was a hobby that would challenge me as long as I cared to let it.

Around the same time, I had the chance to "chase" a very rare bird that had been found right in the town we lived in: the first Redwing ever seen in western North America. (Redwing is a species of thrush from Eurasia, not to be confused with the Red-winged Blackbirds of North America.) The bird stuck around for quite a while, long enough for my aunt to read about it in the newspaper, for me to read about the bird online, and to go find the bird. When I went, I saw dozens of other birders also looking for the bird. We shared the search that morning, we shared information when we found it, and we shared optics so that everyone could get a look. It was my first rare bird chase, and I loved it. I loved seeing a bird that had never before been seen in the region, I loved the camaraderie of the group as we looked for the bird, and I loved the thrill when someone finally shouted "there it is!" as it landed in the top of a tree filled with robins. I was impressed on that day that birding isn't just an activity to do by yourself or with a friend: it can be an activity of an entire community of people who share sightings online, learn together, and share a passion for birds. That Redwing was my third hook bird. Besides showing me that there was a community of people like me who loved birds, that experience taught me that rare birds can show up anywhere - even in your own neighborhood.

The best shot I could manage through my spotting scope of western North America's first Redwing, in Olympia, Washington, on 28 December 2004.

A flock of birders shares smiles as they watch the Redwing in a residential neighborhood in Olympia, Washington.


Steve's Bird Blog said...

Nice post, my hook bird is the Western Kingbird. It was the bird that made me realize how awesome birds are. I shot one with a BB gun when I was about 10 or 11. I didn't kill it but I did harm it. I took it in very sorry for what I did and took care of it for about a week and set it free. From then on I never shot another bird, well not with a gun. Now I shoot them with a Canon.


John Prince said...

That is so cool. I can't believe how many bird watchers there were to see that Red Wing.