April 5th, 2019
I picked up Jess Drolet, a hobbyist bird watcher and biology major with an intended focus in ornithology at the Community College of Rhode Island, at her apartment in Providence. She greeted me with her usual friendly smile, climbing into my passenger seat wearing all black aside from neon yellow shoes, her backpack and binoculars in tow.
She had also brought along reading material, a copy of Sibley’s Birding Basics and the annual report issue of Living Bird, a magazine published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “They did a feature on shorebirds. I thought you might be interested in that.”
Jess sat flipping through the magazine, landing on an infographic. “This is actually a really sad article about how many birds die because of colliding with …” She trailed off, and I could see from the infographic it was collisions with manmade structures: skyscrapers, wind turbines. “It’s very sad,” she said. Birds face numerous threats presented to them by humans including habitat loss and collisions with everything from residential windows to cars to communications towers.
“In New York City alone there’s about 90,000 bird deaths a year. 600 million in the US.”
“I wonder how many of those are pigeons though,” I interjected.
“Oddly enough, pigeons are one of the last birds to collide because they’re actually adapted to flying in this environment, that’s why they thrive in the city. Pigeons are extremely agile on the wing.”
I was still mulling that fact over as Jess relayed our intended itinerary for the day. Originally, I had done some research on local spots to bird watch in Rhode Island, but Jess had her own spots in mind. “It’s called Sachuest Point Wildlife Sanctuary, it’s run by the U.S Fish and Wildlife … We could also stop at Swan Pointe right now if you want before we head out. It’s literally down the street, so why not?”
I agreed to both locations, eager for some action and trusting that she would know the best spots. I put the car in drive as Jess directed me towards Swan Pointe Cemetery, the first stop on our Friday afternoon of bird watching.
We arrived at Swan Pointe, curving through the roads of the cemetery until we were greeted by the woodlands. We got out of the car, venturing into the woods. Our feet crunched through the dry leaves on the forest floor. Though it was officially spring, the trees were still barren.
As we made our way down the path, Jess began to give me some bird watching tips for beginners. “The most important thing is to learn how to identify calls. And that takes years to develop.” Jess explained that some species have similar sounding calls, distinguishable only by nuances that are difficult to detect. This isn’t a skill that’s quick to develop, it takes multiple seasons of bird watching to fine tune. “Experts who do ear training, they’ll be able to tell the difference between two different chickadees in a population. That’s my goal, someday.”
While Jess dreams of one day having a perfectly trained ear, for now there’s an app, the Merlin Bird ID. “This app is awesome because you can do this …” Jess clicked a button on her phone and a bird call was repeated back. “So you know what you’re listening for. There’s a lot of red-bellied woodpeckers here and they sound like this …” Jess said, clicking another button on the app.
“The red-bellied woodpecker is a medium sized woodpecker with a distinct red head and they’re called red-bellied because they have a really subtle reddish breast. But they’re head is actually much redder than their belly.”
Now that I knew what to look and listen for, we continued on. “Sometimes if they’re foraging they’re not singing.” Jess explained that in this case you look for movement instead. We paused here and there to look up at the trees, our eyes scanning for even the subtlest movement. “Overcast days are tough because the birds don’t usually pick up as much color.” Jess pulled out her binoculars to aid in our scavenger hunt, a pair that looked brand new with a matte, forest green finish.
Finally, in the distance, a bird let out a long, chittering call. “I’m not sure what that is … I don’t recognize that.”
Chipchichichi. “Those are just robins.”
Chipchip. “That’s a robin.”
Cawhahaha. “Yeah that I don’t recognize. I don’t know what that is.”
We followed the sound of the mysterious call. Listen. Walk. Pause. Repeat. “It’s up there somewhere … Oh I see it! I think it is a woodpecker. I think … Hold on, hold on. That is a …” Jess trailed off as she inspected the bird carefully through the lens of the binoculars. We paused and listened as the bird called again. “I have no idea what that is. Oh no, it’s a red-bellied. I’m pretty sure. It looks like it has a red head. Let me step back and look at it.”
Jess pedaled a few feet backwards and aimed her binoculars at the high up branch the bird is perched on. “That’s not a red-bellied woodpecker. It’s hard to tell because I can’t see their colors right now. That could be a northern flicker.”
I pointed the binoculars at the tree again, spotting the red-headed bird, “yeah, I see it.”
Cawhaha. “That’s what we heard earlier, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the bird that I had just seen call out.
“That was a northern flicker, that’s a northern flicker, I’ve never seen a northern flicker!” Jess excitedly took hold of the shared pair of binoculars.
She was able to take a good look at the bird, but soon after it flew off. “Yeah that was a northern flicker. I had this feeling too because I just listened to a call that sounded like that but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
But let’s see, the flicker. I don’t know much about their behavior. They don’t creep up a tree the way a red-bellied does and red-bellies almost never sit at the top of the tree like that. I don’t know there was something about the pattern of the feathers that made me think it wasn’t a red-bellied.
I can’t believe we saw a northern flicker! That’s so awesome.”
“I’m glad you were with me when I got to check another bird off my list,” Jess shared as we turned back in the direction we came from. “It’s so lively now. When we first got here you could hear a pin drop.” Despite the new found liveliness, we wanted to head out to our other location, the Sachuest Point Wildlife Sanctuary. Jess had seen a snowy owl during her last two trips there, and we had high hopes to see it again.
Jess was full of knowledge about the birds we observed passively as we made our way back. We saw robins (which are everywhere as they tend to flock in the spring), mourning doves (mourning with a u because their song sounds sad), and chickadees (whose call goes chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee)
“A lot of people think song activity is only the morning. That’s not true. There’s three times a day when you could get song activity. Morning, of course, mid-day, and dusk. What they actually do is they wake up in the morning, forage, go rest, take a nap. Get up, forage some more, because birds have to eat a lot. They have very high metabolisms.”
At this point we were particularly at the car, but Jess came to an abrupt halt, looking at a tree directly in front of us. “There he is right there, that’s the flicker! Oh my god that’s him! The northern flicker! You see him?” Jess helped my eyes follow the branches until I spotted him.
“Oh wow,” I exhaled.
“Beautiful, right? Really interesting markings.”
Dadadadadada. “Yup, did you hear that,” Jess said. “That was his drumming.”
“I saw it,” I exclaimed. “That was so cool.”
Dadadadadadadada. He drummed again, I passed the binoculars over to Jess so she could catch him doing it too. “Those are some really interesting markings,” she repeated. “Almost like tiger stripes on his back.”
Dadadadadada. Jess let out a laugh, “his whole body vibrates!” The flicker found reason to fly, as he took off from the tree as Jess had the binoculars fixed on him. “Oh do you see the gold in his wings, too!”
“Wow, yeah I see that. I’m glad we got a second look at it,” I said. I jotted down some notes in my journal once we were back in the car: