Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
We just finished watching the birding show broadcast on Channel 2 last Monday: “Birding: The Central Park Effect.” This is Saturday. We taped the original showing, but accidentally chose the Spanish-language channel, so had to find it and tape it one more time.
What I liked best were the comments of the woman who guides birders in the park. She finds a warbler with her binoculars, and as she tells her birding companions where the bird it and where it is going you can hear the intensity and urgency in her voice. She has the enthusiasm and expressive voice of a good sports announcer. What she sees is important and meaningful.
Later in the program she sits in her apartment with her book of lists, marking the bird species seen that day, reviewing entries from other days. She has 30 years worth of personal records, and would have more if her mother had not tossed her childhood notebooks. She talks of daily goals – the number of species seen – and weekly and monthly goals.
I’ve been there and done that. The challenge of seeing one more species today than I did yesterday always added interest and energy to my birding. My records date to the early 1960s. day-by-day accounts of species seen – where and when. The memories are written in those numbers.
I’ll be out Sunday morning with a grandson. Mid-July isn’t highlight time for birds, but there will be things to see. I haven’t hooked him yet on lists, but I’m working on it. Sightings become a collection as well as a challenge as well as pleasure of the moment.
There is a note of seriousness at the end of the show as various Central Park birders comment on the declining number of birds seen, decline evident in as small an area as a single city park. It’s the same here. I want my grandson to see everything possible now, while the species we have still exist.
Bird species don’t have to actually be extinct to be extinct on a personal basis. If you have to drive a day or two to look for a bird that is found only with extraordinary good fortune, for all intents and purposes that species is extinct for you.
Bird more now, and join the effort to save what we have.
On the drive to Lutsen last Friday evening we picked up fog at the Silver Cliff tunnels on Highway 61. It thinned the thickened along the shore, sometimes creating twilight, at other times opening a hole so the sun highlighted a spot of road ahead of us. We saw a handful of crows and one raven. At the cabin, no sounds – no bird calls, no wind, no slush of the lake swells against the rocks. Just before dark, when I went out to pee, one Red-eyed Vireo called lazily from behind us. Inside again, in front of the wide window facing the lake, three Herring Gulls came from the spruce trees at my left, wings starched in glide position, 15-degree angle of attack, three focal plane shutters crossing my window lens, gone when they found the shoreline fog. Next morning, the vireo again, and a distant raven. When we lived in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin several years ago ravens were my favorite birds. We didn’t see them often; they prefer privacy to an extreme, and I suppose we’ve taught them that lesson. We heard them daily, croaks and squawks from back in the woods or across the lake. We had a pair of resident human neighbors, and a dozen weekend families who shared the lake. We were half a mile off the township road that served us. Vehicles were of another world. Airplanes were rare. We had birdsong and the wind. It was lovely. I walked to the mailbox at driveway’s end each day, from late spring into summer counting on an Eastern Wood Pewee to sing me along. The raven and the pewee and the distinctive rap of courting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, rap starting fast, quickly slowing to an irregular beat that dribbled off to its end. People sometimes ask me if we miss the lake and the woods. Yes, the sounds of things mostly – the birds and the ice. The ice snapped and cracked as it formed or on cold cold nights when it pushed against itself. In the spring, when it went out, it hummed and sang like a musical saw. It was nice to be back in the woods for a few days, to hear the ravens again.
Below, a shy raven.
Ben Franklin wasn't happy when the Bald Eagle was chosen as our national bird. He had a low opinion of the species. I thought of Ben a few days ago. On a scouting trip, looking for Snowy Owls (what else?), I came upon a pair of eagles in a plowed field beside a road. They were waiting for traffic to clear before returning to the deer carcass in the ditch, flattened and coming apart. I stopped to watch them return to their lunch, pulling and tugging to rip pieces of meat from the roadkill. This is part of what Franklin wrote to a daughter about these birds: "For my own part I wish the Eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his Living honestly." Yes, it's dirty work, but you know what people say about that -- somebody etc. etc.
The new movie "The Big Year" is an entertaining two hours, perhaps not as good as two hours in the midst of heavy bird migration, but worth a look. It certainly is as entertaining as many movies released this fall. Roger Ebert liked it. StarTribune film critic Colin Colvert hated it, but he probably needs to spend more time outdoors, less time in theaters. The concensus among email posters on the two birding networks I subscribe to is, see it. See it soon, however, one viewer writes, because the movie is likely to have a short shelf life. Birders will like it, but it's not going to be a box-office hit.
The movie "The Big Year" opens here Friday. It's a movie about extreme birding. The Big Year is an individual effort to see as many species of birds as possible in a calendar year, usually in North America. The movie follows three men who made this effort in the same year. This actually happened, and a book (same title as the movie) was written about it. The movie more or less follows the book, with the usual liberties taken when translating actual event to a feature film. The movie is about people birding rather than about birds. I was pessimistic when I learned of the movie, assuming it would be a joke not on but about birders. After watching preview clips and reading the comments of other birders, I'm optimistic now, and certainly will be in the audience Friday. I'll go to be entertained. I'm not expecting a documentary.
One of the characters in the movie is based on a New Jersey resident named Sandy Komito. He was one of the three men involved in the Big Year on which the movie is based. You can find a set of audio interviews with him at
If for some reason that doesn't work go to www.nabirding.com. The interviews are easy to find. They're a good introduction to this seldom-seen part of the birding world, and to the movie. Listen to Sandy before you go to the theater. There also are interviews with one of the other Big Year guys, Greg Miller, and with a man who contributed video of some of the birds seen in the movie.
If you would like to share the movie experience with other birders, Betsy Beneke, public affairs director at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, is organizing an event at the Elk River theater Friday for the 1 p.m. showing of the movie. Arrive at 12:45, she says, and dress like a birder. She's offering a prize for the best birding "outfit."
Jude and I will watch the movie Friday afternoon at the Icon theaters in St. Louis Park. You will not recognize us as birders.
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