Birding

Yesterday I watched a Bald Eagle carry a dead bird to a tree branch and savagely rip it apart. Through my binoculars I could see feathers exploding outward while heavier stringy parts dropped straight to the ground as the eagle scratched and tore at the mangled bird clutched between its claws. I wasn’t close enough to see what kind of bird was being eaten, but I could see two skinny bird legs sticking straight up, quivering slightly as the eagle ate the flesh they were connected to. The eagle’s white head turned from side to side between bites, scanning the skies suspiciously. When it finished it rose up into the air and joined its mate in the nearby nest, which was the size of a compact car. The skinny little legs remained behind, sticking up in the air. The eagle made a quiet whistling call.

I didn’t see that by chance. At least, not the sort of lucky chance you might call it if I had witnessed that scene while on a run, or while leaving the grocery store. I was certainly lucky to see this view of nature at its finest, but I had given myself every opportunity to be well placed for the show. That’s because I was out birding.

Birdwatching.

Yes, I was out searching for birds just so that I could see them doing their thing and living life. I wanted to identify birds and watch them do whatever they do on an early winter’s day in southern Colorado. And apparently what they do is rip each other apart.

Turns out birding is more interesting than it sounds, especially when you go with a world-renowned expert like Aaron Keller. Aaron is a Durango-based biologist and ultrarunner, who has completed many difficult races, not least the Telluride Mountain Run, Bear 100, and, in a performance of pure brilliance, taking second place in the highly-competitive Lime-a-Rita biathlon we held in his neighborhood (behind Jenn Shelton.) He’s also really into birds. By day he walks grid patterns in the Mojave desert, picking up turtles so they won’t be crushed by trucks installing solar panels, whereas by… well, different parts of the day, he identifies birds that zip across ponds and from tree to tree with lightning speed.

“That was a Junco,” he said to me yesterday, while we were at a lake looking at birds. “Probably an Oregon Junco. They have those dark heads and you can see that flashing white streak on their tails.”

I sat there nonplussed, having seen just a blur of grey and white. But we drew near the tree where the bird had perched and looked through our binoculars at what turned out sure enough to be an Oregon Junco. This was confirmed by Keller sounding confident while explaining the bird’s various features, and then by me later searching in my new bird-identification guide to try to prove him wrong. He wasn’t wrong though. The only time I managed to prove him wrong was when he said that Bald Eagles eat fish exclusively, literally seconds before we watched a Bald Eagle rip apart another bird, as hitherto discussed.

Birding, as I’m sure you know, is not cool. This fact I tried to drive home to Keller every time we paused to look through the binoculars at another stupid little duck sitting on the water, but he was unfazed. Like a man absorbed in a good book he seemed completely inattentive to anything outside his field of focus.

“See the way that duck’s forehead kind of sticks out and is paler?” he asked me, peering through his spotting scope. “That’s an American Wigeon. And the dark duck behind it is a Northern Shoveler. They’re not actually ducks; they’re part of the Rail family, but they act a lot like ducks. You know the Rails?”

“Oh yeah dude. Obviously,” I replied, watching a duck butt bobbing up and down in the water. “Is that one drowning itself?”

“No, it’s feeding,” he said, moving the scope over. “These are dabbling ducks, so they mostly stay above water. But there are a few diving ducks out there too. You see that bright white one?”

“Ummmm…”

“That’s a Bufflehead. Their breeding colors are very bright like that, with the dark patches around the neck and along the back. They dive down to get at different plants and insects.”

None of this made any sense, so I did my best to be a dick about it. I took a turn looking through the spotting scope at a group of ducks and whistled appreciatively.

“Do you see something?” he asked me. “I think there might be some rare geese out here.”

“Yeah man. This one looks like a Sore-Throated Bushtit.”

“A what?”

“No, sorry. I think it might be a Western Bitchslap.”

He looked over at me. “I think you’ve had enough Sombra for– ”

“No! I see it now! It’s a Patchouli Grassburner! A Big-Chested Manslayer! A Hopeless Orphan!”

I kept a sarcastic tone in my voice until we left and were driving down the road. Then we spotted a bird on a powerline and when we pulled over to look at it found it to be a Kestrel. Kestrels are one of the smallest members of the Hawk family, and they are apparently, “…distinguished by the dark helmet and sideburns. They look like little old-timey pilots.” This bird’s beak was curved maliciously downward and its eyes were enormous. Its helmeted head moved in all directions as it scanned the surrounding area. Further on we came upon a Red-Tailed Hawk in a similar position, and we got a close-up view of the speckled band along its belly and its equally curved beak and equally huge eyes. Did you know that hawks can see on the order of four to eight times better than humans? They can easily spot small mammals from a mile away. Keller told me that, and he explained how different wing shapes favor different hunting patterns, from soaring and striking to chasing down frantic animals.

“They just kill other animals with their feet?” I asked, staring at the hawk.

“Mostly,” he responded. “Sometimes they use their beaks. Occasionally a bird will pick up its prey and then drop it.”

As he said that I remembered a story I had heard from Hardrock. Apparently–and I’ll single out Brett Gosney as the source for this–some kind of predatory bird actually caught a baby deer a few years ago in the mountains above Silverton while the Hardrock 100 was taking place. It carried the fawn up into the air quite a ways and then proceeded to do just what Keller described–it dropped the damn thing from the sky to kill it. But with either terrible luck or perhaps as an indication of the race’s welcome, the bird managed to land its prey right in the middle of the Grouse Gulch aid station. Pandemonium ensued, and order was only restored after the poor bloody victim was removed from the scene.

Even more impressive are birds’ migration patterns. We all have heard stories of crazy birds like Arctic Terns who fly from pole to pole twice a year, but have you ever really stopped to think about it? About the fact of flying from one end of the planet to the other with only a few stops? I hadn’t, until I was actually looking at birds up close. Keller was staring through his spotting scope again at something called a Green-Winged Teal, and I was watching another Bufflehead dive into the water and come back up repeatedly.

“This is a good wintering ground for a lot of these species,” Keller told me. “But they don’t all winter here. A lot of these birds stay the winter in Mexico or Central America.”

“Uh huh.”

“Seriously, there are hummingbirds that fly across the entire Gulf of Mexico in a single go,” he continued. “They’re basically glorified moths and they can fly two thousand miles in a stretch.”

“Whoa.”

“Some of these birds winter over in Argentina and they’ll fly the distance in one or two pushes. They spend the summer in northern Canada too, or Alaska.”

“Really? These little things?”

Yes, in fact. As anyone who has read Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run is aware, birds are in fact the most incredible endurance athletes on the planet. The ways that tiny little birds of just a few grams manage to migrate thousands of miles in single pushes, with often pinpoint accuracy, is so impressive that scientists are still unclear about all the mechanisms that allow such achievements to occur. They often fly in flocks and at night, which indicates that they perhaps navigate by the stars, but they also might navigate by landforms, or smells, or a host of other means. When I stopped to really consider the fact that these birds I was looking at, which were hardly bigger than my head (and probably lighter), could fly thousands of miles without stopping, I was blown away. I thought I was pretty good to run 50 miles in a few hours, or to bike 900 in a week. But these birds and countless others manage to outstrip my physical abilities so greatly that comparisons are not even worth the mental effort. These animals are capable of far greater endurance accomplishments than humans will ever be able to consider.

Yet they’re inspiring. To think that a bird which weighs five grams can fly thousands of miles in a push is to consider that maybe I can travel long distances too. Not just the long distances of ultramarathons, but the long distances of states or countries or continents. These birds have a knowledge of the landscape that I deeply admire, and which I want to inculcate in myself through long-distance travel. I want to see the world too, and understand how its mountains are connected into ranges, which are separated by lowlands and deserts. I want to see the high plateaus and the arid flatlands, the marshy coastlines, the canyons that split the earth like dried skin and the forests that still stretch unbroken as far as the eye can see. There are forces at work on a macro scale that I can only dream about, the kinds of forces that keep the whole planet spinning. I want to see their effects on tall ridgelines, on open plains, in vast collections of ice. Birds understand how the world is built because they have a perspective we don’t. We could learn a lot from birds.

So first I must learn a lot about birds. Even at the expense of being cool. Keller not only knows a lot about birds, but he also owns a house and has a much more sustainable approach to life than I do. I’ve been injured for the better part of this year, and thus unable to train. Just when I thought I was getting healthy again, the injury returned worse than ever. This has taken a lot away from me–primarily the tenuous sense of self-confidence that I get from working hard outdoors and competing in races. It has revealed to me that I must have a shallow outlook if by losing my ability to compete in races I also lose my self-esteem. I feel gutted, stuck to a branch with my skinny legs in the air. I want to be able to find the sort of quiet self-confidence that allows a man like Aaron Keller to spend a whole day walking through the woods looking at the wildlife. This is the sort of communication with nature that keeps the world in perspective. I’m only part of something much bigger, I keep telling myself. But it’s much harder to believe than I’d care to admit.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you birdwatch or have you gone birdwatching? What was the experience, which is so different from running, like for you?
  • When was the last time you learned a unique lesson about life from an unexpected situation?

There are 13 comments

  1. AaronKeller79

    Just to be clear, wigeons and shovelers are indeed Anseriformes (ducks, geese), not Gruiformes (coots, rails). Also…I'm really really cool. I swear. Sigh.

  2. Carsonaceae

    Not once did I ever think that I would be serious birder when I was in my twenties. I was too busy climbing mountains and chasing chicks (the human kind) to be concerned with something that seemed like something only my grandpa would enjoy. Things started to change though, as I sought to learn more, on a deeper level, of the plants and animals of the landscapes I so quickly prided myself on moving through. Somehow only moving fast without learning began to feel shallow; maybe because if I didn't know anything about places I cared about then I couldn't make a reasonable argument when the time came to stand up for those landscapes. In today's world, protecting our favorite wild places is something we are often called to to. Learning about birds deepened my relationship with my own sense of place, but because of their migratory nature, I wanted to learn about where all the tiny warblers spend the other half of the year, something that inspired visions of travel.

    These days I often have trouble deciding whether to run or watch birds in the morning. At times, the two pursuits seem conflicting. To progress in either you have to spend a lot of time doing one thing, but you learn to integrate it into your experience everyday. I ran my first 50k and mentally catalogued a list of around 30 birds, all by ear. I sent that list to the race director (not sure he cared but hey). In May during migration, most of my time literally goes to the birds.

    Birding does get consuming, because it is one of those things that once you learn a little bit, you realize that there is so much more to know. It starts with an ID book, but then progresses to books on nests, ecology, behavior, etc. soon you will be ID'ing birds on the wing from their flight pattern or wing beats.

    I like the warblers for their bright colors, but I also love ducks of all kinds for the same reason as well as their goofy habits. I used to make fun and fun of bird names too, like the red-breasted BUTThatch (nuthatch). Sometimes their real names make you wonder (pyrrhuloxia, bushtit, bananaquit, etc.) who named them and why.

    Get a Sibley or Peterson guide, a good pair of binocs and go with someone who knows more about birds than you do. Go in the morning, sit still and pay attention. Then go for a run. Ultra runners in the mountain west may be particularly fond of the olive-sided flycatcher, especially after long runs. It's easy to agree with the sentiment expressed in its song as it sings "quick three beers" from a solitary perch at the top of a tree.

  3. marcuscengland

    "So first I must learn a lot about birds. Even at the expense of being cool."

    Just to be clear, and to agree with Aaron whom I knew and worked with way back when before he decided to copy me and start running ultras (and be better than me at it), birding is cool. It probably is detrimental to my running when I try to do it at the same time, however.

  4. @eLLiejG

    Great writing as always Dakota. Meghan poses the question whether any readers have been birdwatching. Have I been birdwatching??!!!!!! Given my dad is a professional ornithologist, yes – I got my first pair of binoculars for my 8th birthday. They were mostly used from the back of our car, pulled over at the side of a country road to note down my observations in my dads notebook. Every single bird ever seen was noted down. I don't know why but my dad never saw the elephants and pandas that me and my sister did, and duly noted in his scientific note book ;) When exceptionally uninterested in yet another small bird that looked like all other small birds, we would watch cows instead – I mean there are so many cool cows to watch from the side of country roads too! Maybe I was not always the most enthusiastic but I did pick up some knowledge, when at age 4 I was asked by a by a school entrance tester to identify various items pictured before me I was adamant that the picture was a robin, the silly professional claimed it was just 'a bird' ….
    I'm not sure I'll ever become a huge birdwatcher but certainly having spent much of my childhood outdoors going to birding spots did lead to a love of the outdoors and in some meandering way led to ultra running.
    For bragging rights – my Pops: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Greenwood

  5. msgreen

    Love this. Though I myself, despite having grown up smack next to a bonafide Audubon property, I cannot bring myself to care about birds. "Oh look, a blue one." That's the extent.

  6. johnsolstitial

    Birding, as known in this household, is cool. We watch for the travelers as seasons change. They are better forecasters of winter and spring than any human attempt. The birds are part of seeing what is out there as you run; something missed my many. Nice article, thank you.

  7. Archangel_Tex

    I have been an amateur birder for a long time. But after reading this opening paragraph about an eagle savagely ripping apart and mangling a bird whose flesh quivered as he ate it, I have decided birding is too violent and savage of a sport for a Texas guy, and I am going to take up feral hog hunting instead.

    High Island (Galveston) is my favorite close-by birding destination.

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