By JAMI POWELL
A petite figure framed by the backlit doorway responded to my ring of the bell. In the low light of morning, I regarded Mrs. Crawford, a widow in her early 70s I estimated, short and fit but not stooped. A close-cropped shag of white hair topped a kind face of gentle creases and lines. She acknowledged my arrival but did not invite me inside; instead she directed me in a quiet, polite voice to wait one moment as she gathered her coat and gloves and hat and binoculars.
I nodded and stepped away from the door and considered the neatness of her modest bungalow, her ordered flowerbeds lovely in their structure even in this dead withdrawn time of early winter. I didn’t mind the lack of formal hospitality on the small porch stoop. I had introduced myself the night before, at least on the telephone, when I called to confirm our start time and her home address. And now, at 7:30 on a cold gray December Saturday, we were two complete strangers, partnered for the day in the cause of bird conservation.
Mrs. Crawford and I were “volunteer citizen scientists”—at least that’s how the Audubon Society referred to us on this special day. Each year, a dedicated group of local birders organizes an area participation in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, “the longest running citizen science survey in the world.” For three weeks in December and January, various “count circles” across the nation are charged with covering specific geographical areas. Willing and hardy birder-type folks spend a locally designated day traipsing about the land within the count circles, doing nothing else but looking deliberately for birds.
Our local count circle spans terrain of three Kentucky counties —Boyle, Garrard and Mercer—and is subdivided into territories where various bird-counting teams of two or three people scour and count every bird that can be legitimately identified. Our territory for the day would be the town environs of Danville, county seat of Boyle—not the most exciting of geographies to monitor for bird variety.
Through the years though, I’ve learned that some of the older, more serious and experienced birders are quite territorial about their count circle domains. Control of these domains—the literal and figurative steering wheel—is often only relinquished when someone dies or becomes too feeble to continue the cause. When JT, one of the local organizers, called me about leading the in-town count, he mentioned the previous leader had stepped down due to health issues. If I wanted it, I could “have” this territory and its corresponding one-lady count crew, Mrs. Crawford.
I knew the in-town territory was the stinker of the lot, deemed the necessary yet boring evil to providing a complete avian tally to the Audubon Society. But I didn’t really care about that. I was excited at the notion of being in charge of a count circle, carrying the tally sheets and being the one responsible for submission of actual numbers for the count. Who cared if the bulk of our statistics would comprise pigeons and starlings? I was heartened at having control of the wheel, at last, and I accepted the role with no small sense of pride.
And now I sat in my car with Mrs. Crawford, who hadn’t said another word since our doorway encounter. But it was time to count birds and that would give us something to talk about.
“So where do you think we should start today?” I asked.
Despite being limited to in-town locations, we had more options than just counting bobble-headed pigeons on the courthouse steps. Our small town has significant rurality about it—lots of big open fields, quiet park ponds, and overgrown fencerows alongside cross-country running trails. I was eager to compete with the rural territories in identifying and counting a few superstar species that chose to populate areas near the city. Having spotted a good number of cedar wax wings and pileated woodpeckers while traversing city sidewalks, I knew the potential for discovery was there.
“We normally start at the cemetery,” answered Mrs. Crawford finally.
Located at the end of a peaceable, historic home-lined avenue and adjacent to the rear of the city high school, the cemetery offers a deceptively rich natural habitat. Its position behind neighborhoods and parking lots and practice football fields provides the cemetery property with a wild landscape of tangled brush and wooded pockets of solitude. Clusters of massive aged trees tower above cemetery stones. Throughout, a meandering one-lane drive allows easy access to remote corners of the place.
I parked the car at one such remote corner and we commenced walking. The early morning sky was a matte gray-white, almost indistinct from the air in front of my face. All I could see of the world was brown or gray, muted and milky, yet the air delivered invigorating briskness to my lungs and nostrils. I was eager to count some birds and discover avian treasures in a random thick tangle of brown limbs.
But there were no birds, just the sound of wind-rubbed branches, random blips and chirps blown about on the air. We recorded no identifiable bird for the first half hour. To dispel the underwhelming start, we chatted quietly about the stillness and lack of bird activity, the flatness of the light and how it cast the landscape and its contents in the same textured color—wooly gray. We exchanged nods with morning runners making their noisy, fabric-swishing ways around the cemetery.
Suddenly, a jet of movement streaked overhead and the harsh crack of a blue jay exploded the air. I celebrated this small beginning and indicated one tic on the tally sheet as the jay landed on a distant limb, no semblance of blue to be found in the sunless light. Because blue jay feathers lack blue pigment, a blue jay is never truly a blue jay until the sun can refract and reveal the blue to our human eyes. Only the sun justifies a blue jay.
The now-gray jay flitted anxiously on the limb for a moment and then bolted for a stand of trees in the distance toward where we walked. The first official identification encouraged us, and we picked up the pace away from the outer edge of fencerow and toward the central stands of trees and shrubbery. More jays, a peppering of dark-eyed juncos, chickadee chatter—the plodding discoveries of the count began to falter against the creep of cold in our bones. I regretted my decision to wear the goose-down vest instead of the full jacket.
However, I delighted in walking and conversing with Mrs. C. I appreciated that she wasn’t excessively talkative; her contributions to our under-voiced conversations were sparse yet clever and wise. I took heart that she wasn’t the kind of birder I respectfully refer to as “a bird nut,” the person who carries around a spine-snapped four-inch thick Birds of North America guidebook and who halts all forward progress until every bird shadow and fart are properly identified and tallied. Bird nuts impress me with their skills and devotion but prove intimidating companions on a bird count. It’s too much pressure for my amateur’s knowledge.
Earlier in our cemetery walk, we stood quietly near a thicket of fast-flitting shapes and indistinct chirps. Binoculars pressed firmly against our faces and elbows out in steady concentration, we tried to identify the small birds so obviously present but so trickily concealed within the crisscrossed camouflage of brown branches.
“Can you see anything?” I asked, growing frustrated inside the empty narrow tunnels of the binocular perspective.
I was always a half second behind every bird. As soon as I focused my view-constricted eyes near an area of activity within the thicket, nameless brown blurs would jet away—little time for head stripe or wing swatch cues. I lowered my binoculars and sighed.
“This stinks. I can’t confirm a single bird in there.”
Mrs. C had already stopped peering into the thicket; she gave me a subtle smile and head shake as she turned to walk farther along the cemetery path. Relieved, I followed her and confirmed my suspicions—she, too, was a proud amateur and only had so much patience for the identification process. Hawks and little brown birds are my weak areas of bird identification. If it’s not a red-tailed or a kestrel, I’m clueless. If it’s not a white-crowned sparrow or a common house sparrow, I’m overwhelmed with the other possibilities.
She chortled at my confessions and her low, wise voice managed a soothing utterance: “I count what I know and let go of everything else.” With that, the cemetery quiet enveloped our boot steps and my thoughts lingered in considered approval of Mrs. C’s minimally worded sass.
We concluded our circumnavigation of the cemetery with a paltry roster of birds. My fingertips were tingly-numb and my nose perpetually pink and slick. The sun intensified its efforts to provide some color and warmth to the world, but we abandoned the flatness of the cemetery to try a small pond in a nearby city park. I didn’t harbor hope for the cold, lifeless water at the foot of Riff-Raff Hill, my name for this place. Situated in the middle of low-income housing developments, it’s more a low-budget sidewalk around a dank, cattail-ringed pond than a park.
A lone picnic shelter on a grassy expanse overlooked the pond; a rusty grill teetered askew in the wind. From the parking lot, we traversed a wooden footbridge to reach the walking trail. The water was dark and sludgy; scattered pimples of near-frozen white pocked the black muck. As I’m wont to do when crossing a bridge, I gazed into the water for a glimpse of something alive, the wriggle-retreat of fish, bubbles, at least. But I saw only sunken bicycles, car tires, collapsed wooden contraptions (was that a swing-set?) bent at odd angles in the underwater brackish gloom. Silently, I pronounced this place devoid of life but walked along the path with Mrs. C anyway, content to at least talk more about birds.
A flashy red-boy cardinal soon revived our eyes; a pair of chickadees hailed our presence. Warming to the companionship, I engaged Mrs. C in conversation about favorite bird encounters. I relayed my late summer visit to a bird blind in southern Indiana when I saw my first indigo bunting, two inches from my eager face, oblivious to my presence behind the glass. I described the indescribable blue of the bunting, how seeing him shocked my senses and humbled my perception of the eastern bluebird. I gushed about the pterodactyl-like pair of pileated woodpeckers that descended upon my tray feeder on several occasions through the summer. Mrs. C spoke fondly of hummingbirds and her deceased husband. Although she kept her conversational contributions succinct, I easily noted Mr. and Mrs. C had traveled and explored the world together as an active happy couple. Her good winter parka and broken-in hiking boots hinted at ramble-prone, wandering ways.
A lackluster hike around the perimeter of the pond revealed nothing more than rippling floats of trashy debris along the water’s edge. Even the airborne masses of starlings were absent this Saturday—not that I was excited to count them (or estimate them), but at least it would have indicated some life in the sky. After a brief restroom stop at a nearby gas station, I guided our course to a local
bed and breakfast operation, the aptly named Old Crow Inn.
The proprietors of the place are bird-count-friendly and encourage yearly visits during the Christmas count. The acreage is vast and wild for an in-town expanse of land; they keep a small collection of farm fowl for egg production and a decent-sized vineyard. Hopeful for the birding potential of this place as the sun swept last woolly bits from a burgeoning blue sky, Mrs. C and I meandered through overgrown gullies and rock-strewn pastures. I marveled at her septuagenarian nimbleness as we climbed the steep rocky ground; our pace, which I allowed her gait to dictate, made snappy progress around the property.
We peered into dense tangles of brush and binocular-scoured the distant waving tops of tall wheat-colored grasses. No birds. Our entire traverse of the land managed only to upset the sensitive gaggle of farmyard-bound exotic geese. Their relentless chorus of loud honks and clanks disturbed the air around the property so much we could barely hear our own human conversation, never mind the fleeting bits of other bird calls.
Dejected yet again, Mrs. C and I assessed our situation from the warmth of the car. Hunger pangs distracted me; I needed another bathroom break and perhaps a renewing sandwich and hot cup of coffee from some local eatery.
“How about a lunch break? Maybe the birds will perk up this afternoon.”
Mrs. C winced. “I’d rather keep going and finish the count earlier in the afternoon.”
Taken aback some by her brusque manner, I wondered for a moment if Mrs. C didn’t like me, that maybe I blathered on too much while we walked the territory. Most bird counters prefer to linger in the day as long as possible. And the lunch stop had always been a treasured moment of my past bird counts. During my first count, our trio had paused for rest and sustenance at a roadside establishment in the rural Mercer County town of Burgin—the Village Inn. I loved the name and didn’t even mind the cloistered, cigarette-infused atmosphere inside as we ordered plates of hot home-cooked food and sat around nursing mugs of strong coffee, talking about birds of course.
I wouldn’t enjoy such a lunch stop with Mrs. C. But I respected her honesty and common sense approach to salvaging some of this Saturday for her personal pursuits. I agreed to her plan and swallowed my hunger (and pride) as I folded another stick of chewing gum into my mouth.
The Old Crow Inn sits adjacent to another wide expanse of property owned and managed by the city school system. Several acres of pastureland contain the overdone football stadium with its royal-blue and white, school-spirited harshness. But surrounding that visual monstrosity is a well-maintained cross-country running trail that snakes alongside a gurgling arm of Clarks’ Run Creek. Vast grassy fields envelop the stadium and make for great rambling places when they aren’t being used as parking lots for the Friday night football crowds. Mrs. C and I hiked with a great purpose and hope but afterward tallied only a single-digit number of rock doves on a wire and a solitary (always) mockingbird.
I remember when I first joined the bird count; I wondered how in the world we could possibly count birds and not count those same birds again and again. When I asked this question of my birder friend Bill, he chuckled and shook his head with the all-wise approval of a patient veteran birder educating his apprentice. Bird counters only count the number of birds spotted together at one time. If three doves dabble and peck at roadside gravel, a birder counts three doves. If two doves are spotted later at a different location, those two are not added to the original count of three. But if one should spot four doves pecking the ground together, then one more dove may be added to that original tally of three.
Often now, I find myself explaining to curious folk how the count works. And just as often I am ridiculed, mostly good-naturedly, about my participation in the bird count. The hunter husband of a work colleague once asked me at a holiday party why I would count a bird when I could shoot it. He bellowed with brutish laughter afterward and took a slurp from his tumbler of bourbon. I narrowed my eyes and trundled off toward some other eggnog conversation, whispered under my breath, “Asshole.”
The bird sighting failures mounted as our spirits wavered and potential counting places in town dwindled. The sun had finally shrugged off its wooly-worn robe of cloud cover and the renewed clarity of the December air managed to delay our surrender. Mrs. C suggested we investigate a favorite bird spot of hers, some brushy acreage near a children’s home that borders the railroad tracks. We scooted across town in the midday sunshine and parked in the grass alongside the long straight entranceway to the home. From there, we hiked through winter-swept blonde grass to an old rock fence delineating the property from the railroad’s realm.
Heaped-huge brush piles offered inviting places for bird activity. We hiked and paused to listen for hints that might guide our direction. But the train traffic proved incessant and thudding with diesel idle and heavy freight noise; we couldn’t hear the audible bird clues to know where to look for identification. I wouldn’t have heard a blue jay if he had perched upon my shoulder and cracked loose his cry. At this point, Mrs. C and I were so defeated we were almost punchy. We looked at each other and shrugged and laughed, taking solace in that kind of camaraderie born from shared defeat. A smattering of 40 or so starlings rocketed across the blue as we returned to the car—a few more sacred tics for the tally sheet.
In the car again and fading with hunger, I made a final suggestion.
“What do you say we visit the pond at Millennium and call it a day?”
Our city park has only been around since 2000, hence the ingenious name, but it offers a large enough expanse for one to wander and be alone in a semblance of nature. The park consists of open rolling field with a boundary of mature trees. An asphalt loop traverses the perimeter; inside are neatly kept softball and soccer and football fields, restrooms and sheltered picnic table clusters, a playground, and a skateboard park. The nucleus of all that organized athletic-bent activity is a large kidney-shaped pond with what I hoped would be some active bird life. Mrs. C replied in favor of our swan song plan.
We approached the pond from the nearby parking lot. The early afternoon appearance of the sun had attracted a hardy few to the cold-blown confines of the park—a couple of dog walkers dotted the distance and a lone boy on a skateboard carved an endless U in the air. But the pond, deserted of humans, bustled with a clattery population of water birds. Like rewarded children, Mrs. C and I grinned at each other as we neared the activity ahead. Finally, birds.
Along the walkway to the pond, I paused to read a sign that instructed the proper way to feed these particular pond dwellers—cracked corn and bread crumbs only. I suddenly realized that people regularly feed these birds and that Mrs. C and I had crashed this party with empty hands despite our noble hearts. There would be expectations.
I started to suggest we retreat to a local feed store and repair our gaffe just as the water fowl collective spotted our approach. Cacophonous quacking and peeping filled the bright air. A mass feathery movement shook the stillness of the pond; the chorus of the reception neared a celebratory level. We couldn’t help but laugh and quicken our pace toward them as they waddled and swam toward us—birds that begged to be counted!
The ground around our feet swarmed with persistent questions and inquisitive looks from duck faces. Mrs. C and I apologized profusely and after a few minutes, word spread that we were mere watchers. Thankfully these ducks—mostly mallard pairs and snow-white domesticated ducks—got the message quickly and returned to their normal affairs. A few cotton-patch geese complained loudly as they retreated to the water, apparently annoyed at having expended so much energy so quickly for no good reason. Still giddy from the intense yet fleeting bird love, I recorded the appropriate marks on the tally sheet for the wild waterfowl species represented at the pond.
We decided to pause at a nearby bench, soak up the warm sun, and watch the pond life around us. Several mallard pairs remained close, perhaps hopeful we might change our minds about feeding them. They peeped and poked in the overgrown grass rim of the pond, the sun exploding out the iridescent green of the male mallard head and the midnight-blue frame of the wing swatch. I could gaze upon the graceful curves and colors of a sunlit mallard for hours and never once lose interest. His mustard-yellow bill, rubbery orange feet, and jet-black twins of curled tail feathers: avian artistry upon a fluid canvas.
Contentment settled upon us as we sat quietly on the bench. It was good to cease movement and be still; neither of us talked for a long while. The morning hours of slow hiking and fruitless seeking had worn me down more than I’d realized. Sitting in contemplative silence at the park pond’s edge was restorative. Around us, bird life ensued.
I extracted my binoculars from my backpack and slowly scanned the distant edge of the pond. I watched as more smooth-moving gangs of mallards and white ducks dabbled near clusters of reeds; a sunning gaggle of Canada geese laid themselves in hefty clumps to the sun’s mercy. I scanned past a significant bump of tall rim grass and cattails and barely noted something pointy and bill-like. I jerked a double-take and focused my attention on the bump; finally I detected the perfectly camouflaged great blue heron’s slightest movement. Seated in a contented hunch, she appeared satisfied in a sufficiently masked and unperturbed part of the pond, not too close to the walking path and opposite the noisy duck enclave. I could just make out her dagger bill, the yellow color muted by the surrounding grasses, as she turned her head more fully to the side. Excitedly, I showed the heron to Mrs. C and we added yet another species sighting to our tally sheet.
And then I noticed him, a different bird on the water.
“I think that’s an American coot,” I pointed and whisper-screamed like a crazed child.
I scrambled for my bird book and hastily found the page. Mrs. C silently considered the coot as he swam past, loitering behind a party of trolling mallards. I showed her the bird book entry for confirmation. She looked, nodded, and then returned her gaze to the coot.
“I’ve never seen one of those before,” she murmured in a half-dazed, sun-drunk voice.
It was clear the coot wasn’t with the mallards, more like he deployed their collective wake to scare up a potential snack. The coot’s head bobbed as he glided through the dark ripples, an elegant watercraft. His plumage and colors blazed impeccable in the clear sunlight: the petite, snout-like beak of white was rimmed in red with a corresponding-colored top dot; his velvety black head and neck feathers descended to a sleek gray body, not a feather out of place; and finally, those red eyes with bottomless black cores.
As if to acknowledge his new fans, the coot maneuvered closer to our bench, again following the mallards’ wake. The ducks prattled ashore to investigate the ground near our feet, and so did the coot. Still mesmerized by the piercing red eye, I finally noted the coot’s unusual feet. Not webbed like the ducks, each foot resembled three connected strands of tiny purple-blue balloons, a sort of inflated raft system for water propulsion. Mrs. C and I gazed in breathless awe as the coot continued to tease with his presence. We looked and processed the encounter as long as he would allow before he launched himself to the water, having grown weary of the mallards. Through my binoculars, I followed his trek around the pond until he disappeared in a far-side thicket of reeds. I wondered if he lived there in a properly hidden coot home. I searched the pond for a coot companion but found no other bird like him.
Mrs. C and I lingered a long while in discussion of the coot. I read aloud from my bird book and explained the coot’s lobed toes. Moved by this new bird experience, we decided the coot had provided a satisfying conclusion to our bird count. And with that declarative notion for the in-town count circle, we walked to my car and I drove back to Mrs. C’s faded red-slat bungalow on Lexington Avenue.
In the brighter light of mid-afternoon, I could see her house was narrow yet long as it extended into a deep backyard and garden. Her bird feeder tubes and trays were neatly displayed. The car’s approach scared off several winter-bland goldfinches and a tufted titmouse but not before we quickly noted their numbers for our tally sheet. It was three o’clock; my bones were cold and creaky from the day’s activity. Mrs. C got out of the car and walked around to my window.
“Could you send me those photographs,” she asked, “the ones you took of the pileated woodpeckers at your feeder?”
“Of course!” I answered almost too eagerly. It was the first question she’d asked me all day. She gave me her email address and bid me a brief-worded yet genuine farewell.
A dear friend of mine, who harbors hesitation when she meets new people or engages with strangers, finds it fascinating that I can spend an entire day with someone I don’t know. I suppose I would understand her perplexity if we spent the day together with no common purpose or task. But a fellow birder is no stranger to me. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I trust the integrity of someone who can identify the call of a white-breasted nuthatch. I sense a kinship with someone who takes the annual initiative to mix four parts water with one part sugar and feed the feisty, always-ravenous ruby-throated hummingbirds. I believe in the goodness of someone who sits quietly with nature and just observes.
The following day I emailed Mrs. Crawford with my best photographic snaps from the pileated woodpecker feeder incident. Though shot through a window screen and blurry from the digital zoom, the images evoke angular-headed flying dinosaurs pied black and white and blood-red. Pileated woodpeckers mate for life and often travel together in search of food. Their bulky bodies and stabbing bills upon my wobbly tray feeder proved a thrilling sight. With the photograph attachments, I wrote a brief message about how much I enjoyed spending the day with her in the effort of identifying birds. I mentioned the lingering thrill of the coot experience and I thanked her for the company. But I never heard back from Mrs. C.
Several weeks after the Christmas bird count, I suffered a bout of winter-spawned blues. Nothing felt right or real or worthy —just gray thoughts inside a gray-mush mind. And then I remembered the birds at the pond, their unbridled excitement at the notion of a friend arriving with some food for a visit. Are we not all happy about that notion, regardless of species or genus?
I arose from my sofa-rooted funk, got dressed, and headed to my local feed supplier. And I returned to my waterfowl friends at the park pond; I owed them this kindness after that December day I arrived empty-handed with Mrs. C and they still managed such a fine greeting. My approach received an equally glorious yet prolonged celebration as I scattered the food in a wide swath around me. The joyous duck noise lured onlookers from across the park —parents with small children drawn to nature’s happy frenzy, boys on skateboards intrigued by the sudden influx of animal energy.
I dispersed the feed as judiciously as I could and before long, my container was empty. Tenacious ducks swept the scene clean and lingered near with their persistent peeping. I scanned the pond for their friend, my new friend, the American coot. But he was nowhere to be found that day.
Jami Powell lives in Danville, Kentucky, where she writes mostly nonfiction about creatures, herself included. She studies in Spalding University’s MFA program and serves as evening supervisor for Centre College’s Doherty Library.