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Pete Dunne on the unsung benefits of being a birder

unsung benefits
One of the unsung benefits of being a birder is all the sunrises we get to savor, like this one on the New Jersey shore. Photo by David Unger/Shutterstock

When I reach my last day upon this planet, I hope I will greet a morning like this morning. Set in the familiar confines of our backyard. Washed clean by overnight rains. As still as a suspended breath. Nurtured by the sounds of the birds that have brought elevated meaning to my life since the age of seven.

White-throated Sparrows, massing for their daily assault upon our feeders, fill the autumn air with their eardrum-piercing call notes. On whistling wings, Mourning Doves settle upon the leafless branches of the corner hackberry, resembling, in their upright posture, so many teardrops on a stick.

In the distance, Canada Geese begin their morning gabble. The stillness and my heightened awareness confer elevated meaning upon this everyday sound. I’ve always loved the sound of wild Canadas. In my youth, the birds were a rare autumn treat; now, 60 years on, they are at near-plague numbers. Their two-noted bark still unlocks the wanderlust in me, the never-quelled desire to see what lies just beyond the horizon.

Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.
Contributing Editor Pete Dunne, courtesy of New Jersey Audubon.

Meanwhile, up on the Methodist church steeple, nine European Starlings pass judgment upon the human preoccupation with finding meaning with a chorus of irreverent wolf whistles and exaggerated gum beating. My mentor, Floyd, gone these many years, used to call starlings “Yellow-billed Gum Beaters.” How’s eternity faring, Floyd? Ever run into Maurice Broun or Roger?

Overhead, American Black Ducks in tight flocks engage in their morning commute to the wild-rice stands upriver. They’ll return in the evening whether anyone is here to witness their passage or not. How’s that for existential thought?

On crooked wings, Ring-billed and Herring Gulls search the riverside park for their morning tribute of trash fish or discarded fries. Either fare is fine; gulls are not picky eaters. Nature’s patterns are as affirming as they are nurturing, and to be a birder is to be blessed with elevated awareness, a good thing.

Abruptly, a Blue Jay brays an alarm. The Mourning Doves bore dove-sized holes into the morning glow as our adult male Cooper’s Hawk settles upon a favorite hunting perch. Since the neighborhood harpy’s first attempt at breakfast was foiled, he settles in, waiting for fortune to incline his way. Wherever life assembles, death is never far away.

Knowing I won’t trouble the hawk, which has grown as used to my pattern as I am to his, I brave my wife Linda’s anticipated admonishment by walking my slipper-shod feet across the sodden grass. Stopping by the rose garden, I lift a frost-burned but still blood-red flower to my nose, inhaling deeply. The rich color is deceiving. The petals hold less fragrance in December than an orchid.

Raising the coffee mug to my lips, I am not surprised to find the contents cold. Offering the dregs as my libation to the universe, I turn for a second cup just as the sun finds a break in the clouds on the horizon, making half a hundred water droplets sparkle like liquid stars.

One of the unsung benefits of being a birder is all the sunrises we get to savor — red ones, golden ones, and subtle ones, too. This one fell onto the subtle end of the scale. Only the elevated awareness that comes of being a birder made it resonate with meaning.

Just before entering the house, I take one more look overhead and am surprised to find a sheet of American Robins, the last of the season’s migrants, a gift from autumn’s final cold front. Even more surprising, from the peach tree, a robin breaks into song. It’s not a sound I expected to hear before March.

What a gift, vocalizing robins in December, but one that sounds oddly incongruous against the backdrop of the White-throated Sparrows, whose dirge to Old Sam Peabody… Peabody… Peabody is more seasonally calibrated.

Thank the heavens for the elevated awareness that comes of being a birder and for all the little sunrises that make up a birder’s dowry and mark our path through this life.

The second mug of coffee led not to more natural encounters but to the day’s writing. It wasn’t until 4 p.m. that I pried myself free and took a walk about town. My GP encourages the stroll, but our two spaniels, Liza and McKenzie, get credit for an assist. Their imploring four o’clock “Isn’t it dinnertime?” look has salvaged many a late afternoon.

Without their catalytic brown eyes, I would have missed the flock of 400 or so Snow Geese. So high were the birds that they seemed no more than a broken scratch in the sky. Their single-note bark was nearly swallowed by distance.

What a day: Canada Geese in the a.m., Snows at the close. The 400-500 Ring-necked Ducks rafting on the park pond were just a bonus. And while I don’t know at this juncture what tomorrow will bring, I do know that it is precisely the not knowing that will drive me out of bed. I’m sure you can relate.  

A version of this column appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of BirdWatching.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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