Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chance and Habit

It is my habit to take my first cup of coffee outside. I enjoy doing this on a Sunday morning, especially if I can get up early when it is cool, there is little chance of a lawn service or homeowner abusing the quiet, there are few cars about and the birds are singing.

Carolina wren, Cape May (Margo D. Beller)
I expect the cardinal to be singing in the morning. Having it joined by a Carolina wren is an unexpected but not total surprise. Carolina wrens are the only wrens that stay in my state all year, so even with the departure of the resident house wren some weeks ago, just before the last of the apple harvest, hearing a Carolina wren sing in the yard in August is a joy.

However, standing up, going to the screen door to find this wren and seeing a rubythroated hummingbird fly to the feeder for the first time in days is pure chance.

Chance is why birdwatchers go out into the field and look for birds in even the worst weather. We may go to a specific place we know or have read about, but when we get there we have little idea of what we will find.

How not to do a park - undeveloped area of Central Park
of Morris County (Margo D. Beller)
Here is an example. The other day I went to a new (2015) park we passed on the road that turned out, like Greystone near me, to have been a state hospital that was allowed to fall into disrepair, so much so that, after much controversy, the buildings were condemned and removed to create this tranquil 256-acre park.

Unlike what is now the Central Park of Morris County, this park, run by neighboring Somerset County, features a paved hiking trail. There is also a scenic overlook of a brook featuring a paved platform and two benches. It is very well done (unlike the Morris County park where the land where the Kirkbride building once stood is empty, overgrown and just sits there, useless unless you like off-trail bushwhacking, which MH and I do not).

We walked the trail and the environment suits the habits of many of the birds I'd expect to find in a park - chipping sparrows, field sparrows, goldfinches, bluebirds, robins, catbirds, Carolina wren, cedar waxwings. At the overlook I found, a great egret, a great blue heron and redwinged blackbird.

Marsh wren, Bombay Hook, 2017
(RE Berg-Andersson)
I was at that overlook twice, on our way in and on our way out. As I was leaving to catch up with MH, a redtailed hawk flew out of the wood, chased by the much smaller blue jays rightly viewing it as a threat. But right after that, when I was a short distance away, I heard the distinctive reedy chatter of a marsh wren! I had been looking at the cattails wondering if one could be there. These are secretive birds usually found along the seashore, not in a county park. They usually sing for territorial reasons, not because a redtail is being chased off.

Pure chance it was there or that I had heard it.

This is why we go out, searching for the chance to find a bird where we may or may not expect it.

The "rare" or unusual reported bird could be migrating north in spring or south in autumn, which may be why the marsh wren was in the park. Or perhaps an unusual bird got blown off course and now it is in an area completely foreign to it, at least until global warming brings the ocean to my back door. A storm forces ocean birds to an inland lake. A western bird or even one from Europe shows up on the wrong coast.

An Allen's hummingbird showed up in NJ a few years ago and the quick-thinking people running the natural area where it was sighted rushed out with a heat lamp and feeder to keep it alive through the winter. From this misfortune came the chance for this and other easterners to see an unusual, western bird.

Waiting for the chance to see a bird
at the thistle sock (Margo D. Beller)
I walk one spring morning in my town and down by the brook I hear the distinctive call of a Blackburnian warbler male, black and orange. This bird will soon fly north to pine forests but right now, it happened to stop at the maples over the brook. Pure chance I happened to be at the right place at the right time.

This is why I can't understand why people who have the habit of a daily walk do so with so little enjoyment, their ears covered, or are so gung-ho to walk 1,258 steps they can't stop a few minutes to take in the world around them. Those walking on a lunch hour are particularly bad, so eager are they to fit in as much of the "outdoors" as they can in an hour.

But is it really outdoors if you are not looking at the world around you, scaring up the ground birds as you trudge on? Is the sound of a titmouse singing "Peter Peter" so distracting to your habit that you can't listen to it?

Out of habit you are ignoring the chance of seeing the world around you.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful piece. I walk and hear the birds talking about me but I don't know who said what or what they are saying. Now, homing pigeons, I speak their language.