Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Biggest Lesson in Birding

Two years ago, I was sulking like a Mourning Warbler, hiding behind the crowds and not saying much. Skirting the shadows, too shy to show myself. Who could have imagined that, two years later, I would be standing in front of the very people I once was too nervous to speak to and be giving a keynote presentation at the very festival that made the first crack in my shell, allowing me to see how beautiful the world could be.

I certainly could not have predicted as much, but there I was. Maumee Bay State Lodge, opening night of the Biggest Week in American Birding, speaking without a script or any notes about the birds and people I have met and loved since those earlier days. I wasn’t a Mourning Warbler anymore—I was a bright Blackburnian, flashing my colours and not afraid to hop about the branches, visible to all.

It was all thanks to one Grey Catbird.

I’ve told the story now tens of times, but it never gets old. That day, two years ago by the boardwalk at Magee, when I looked into that bird’s eyes and saw someone I wanted to protect. That flurry of wings, that shock of quiet power, that leap of energy from tiny clawed feet to my outstretched hand. The bird that opened the door to my adventure.
The bird that has now allowed me to open the doors for so many others.

‘Every journey begins with a single step’, and in my case, a single flight. The flight of a catbird that led me to spread my own wings and, for the first time, not have to beat through upstrokes and downstrokes, but to soar on a warm thermal of air that carried me farther than I ever thought possible. Allowed me to see things, meet people, I would have never imagined.

And so, as I stepped onto the boardwalk for the first time this year, I was met with the familiar sights and sounds of the Biggest Week in American Birding and found comfort in the hustle and bustle of the festival.

 My first life bird of the day took just minutes to find—a male Cerulean Warbler, foraging at the top of a tree at the beginning of the boardwalk! It was sort of surreal to see this bird, for I have long heard of them but never seen them.

Soon after, a second lifer appeared, even rarer than the first—a male Golden Winged Warbler! I ended up seeing one more, and that second one was in a tree with a Cerulean! Not a bad day for rare warblers, I might say.

Then, in the same area: a Mourning Warbler! These are incredibly elusive birds, sticking to the shadows and low shrubs. You must have a lot of patience to see them when they appear, and so I sat, staring into the brush, along with a crowd of other birders waiting for the male Mourning Warbler to break cover.

Eventually, he did, and long enough for me to get some photographs! The clearest I’ve ever seen a MOWA and certainly the best photos I’ve ever gotten of one! What a beautiful little bird.

Nearby was a strikingly richly coloured Wood Thrush. Thrushes as a group are my favourites, for their ethereal songs and perfectly balanced forms.

The warblers at Magee often get so close that you don’t even need binoculars, and sometimes even too close for telephoto lenses! This happened with a stunning Blackburnian warbler (my favourite of all the warblers). I did manage to snap a few good photos, as he stayed low and close for quite a while. Usually these birds are high above, foraging in the top of trees, so this was an exceptionally incredible encounter.

Later down the boardwalk, I found some more wonderful warblers like Bay-breasteds, Magnolias, and Yellow-rumpeds.

A male Black-throated Blue Warbler came close as well, singing right in front of us!

This Common Grackle was preening in the sun, his iridescent feathers illuminated into golds, purples, and blues. Their yellow eyes and large bills make it easier to see how the birds evolved from dinosaur origins—Grackles look positively reptilian!

Also, the third life bird of the day was a Whip-poor-will, who was pointed out to me by a fellow birder. He certainly camouflaged in with his surroundings!

Later in the afternoon I came across a large group of people, and that could only mean one thing—a bird of interest had been sighted! It turned out to be a rare bird even for Magee standards—a Worm eating Warbler! These are an ‘overflight’ species, which means they breed in southerly states but some individuals overshoot their destination and eventually turn back around to fly down to their breeding grounds. So, it’s hard to find them up here! He was incredibly difficult to see and I was staring at the same clump of tangled branches for about half an hour, and saw him for maybe 20 seconds in total. Not long enough for a photo, but I’m still glad I got to see him. He was my fourth life bird of that day!

Another unusual sighting was not a bird, but a reptile—a Blanding’s Turtle. I saw two of these endangered turtles, and this one’s throat was so yellow it reminded me of a Prothonotary warbler!

On the way out of the boardwalk, I took the stairs up to the observation deck to find a really neat Tree Swallow and a foraging Eastern Phoebe. Within the coming weeks, I am sure that the male Prothonotary Warbler from last year will be back again to claim his territory under the deck!

The next day, at Maumee Bay State Lodge, I found a pair of gigantic Trumpeter Swans, their heads and necks stained from lives of foraging in iron-rich waters. I even heard one of the swans make little trumpet-notes as they swam.

The next Saturday (May 11) was International Migratory Bird Day 2013. It marked two years since my first catbird encounter, and so it was only fitting that I found many catbirds all throughout the day!

I also was super excited over seeing a female Black throated Blue warbler—I think they’re so beautiful, with their ‘mascara’, white ‘handerchief’, and subtle blue hue to their feathers. What a stunning little lady! I hardly see females of this species, so this was a special treat. She stuck around for a while, and allowed many good looks!

Earlier in the day I helped out with the bird banding demonstration at Black Swamp Bird Observatory, telling the visitors about my experience with the Catbird and how they have given me the ticket to the adventure of a lifetime. It was a full-circle moment: two years ago, I was nervous just to attend the banding demo. Now, here I was, in front of all the visitors, teaching them about the birds and sharing the importance of appreciating and conserving these feathered wonders.

I wouldn’t have guessed that the power of birds was that strong, but I am so happy, grateful, and humbled by how inspiring they have been to me. I would not be where I am today if not for birds, or the people they have brought into my life. I hope that, in years to come, I can continue to tell my story at Biggest Weeks and show others that, with a little gust of wind a flock to guide you, flight doesn’t seem as hard after all.

~Peace always,
Kristina Polk~


Julie Zickefoose said...

I would be proud to call any of these photos mine. Beautiful work and sentiment, Kristina. Keep on keepin' on! I'll be watching.

Kim Smith, said...

Kristina, beautifully said! I'm sorry to say that I wasn't able to hear your keynote presentation at the Biggest Week, but happy to think that you might give a repeat performance next year. And I agree with Julie, these photos are wonderful!

Lisa Romaniuk said...

What a great story and what a great inspiration you are!

Diana Evans said...

Young lady, you are truely an inspiration to so many! Thanks for sharing your amazing story