Little Sal

This past May, I took in a tiny nestling woodpecker that fell from his nest at the top of a dead tree at the nature preserve where my office is located. 

I tried several tree services to see if they could renest the baby. One sympathetic, brave tree climber even tried to help, but the snag was too unstable for him to safely reach the nest cavity.


While I’ve assisted with the care of hundreds of baby birds during my years volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center (AWARE), and have raised numerous baby squirrels from infancy to release, this was my first time raising a baby bird on my own. 

For exactly six weeks, I had the privilege to care for this tiny miracle, witnessing his transformation from a helpless, constantly-chirping clump of pin-feathers to a fully-feathered, fast-flying wild bird. Being a bird-mom wasn’t so different from mothering my own infants. The baby needed to be kept warm, fed, clean, and dry. In this case, nighttime feedings weren’t required, but for the first few weeks, I offered a specially prepared formula, warmed, by syringe every 15-30 minutes for 14 hours a day. And, of course, what goes in…

Needless to say, juggling full-time work and a baby woodpecker didn’t leave me with spare time for writing (I regret neglecting my blog and you faithful friends who read it), but I did post regular updates on Facebook and Instagram. What follows is a photo and video essay, comprised of my social media posts during this amazing journey.


May 17 — This little nestling fell from a tree cavity and was found on the ground this afternoon by @adambetuel at the nature preserve where we work. We weren’t able to get her back in the nest, so I’m doing my best as foster mom for now. Hoping a tree service will help me get her back in the nest since the parents are still tending other babies. Can you guess what species it is? Lots of good clues… #wildliferehab #babybird #justanotherdayattheoffice #feedme #crazyanimallady


All day long this one chitters! Looks like she’ll be staying with me a bit longer. A tree climber attempted to renest today, but the snag was just too unstable for him to get as high as he needed to be. We’ve made it 48 hours! She’s working hard growing, and I’m working hard keeping her fed! #feedingtimeagain #babyseason #nestling


Here is something pretty cool to see! (Yes, the baby is quiet which is remarkable in itself.) Woodpeckers have long tongues used for spearing and raking insects from crevices. Their tongues are so long that they they wrap around the skull. If you watch closely when the baby flicks her tongue, you can see it moving over the top of her head. Another day of feeding every 30 minutes begins! #babybird #wildliferehab 


Learning how to be a woodpecker…pecking and probing. So many new feathers, and this afternoon I heard my first “peek!” #proudmamamoment #wildliferehab  #birdspam #sorrycanthelpit


He sleeps… #heartmelts #abirdinthehand 


Growing feathers… #littlemiracles #artinnature 


When the baby comes back after being with a friend for a few days and isn’t a baby anymore…! We’re calling him Sal.   #imabigkidnow


Nest? Who needs a nest?! #proudmomma


Spending time on the porch to get used to the sounds and sensations. I wish he had a sibling to bond with, but for now, I’m all he’s got. #snowwhitesgotnothingonme​


When you’ve been playing hard and can’t keep your eyes open anymore… #tuckeredout #sosleepy #isnthethecutest


Lots of exploring and new experiences today. This guy’s been ready to leave the nest from the start, apparently. I think those black bars on his tail feathers mean he’s actually a Downy Woodpecker, though I would’ve sworn he came from a Hairy’s nest. (Both are nesting in the area where he was found). Whatever this little bird is, he’s sure got a lot of spunk!  #whatsthisbird #ohthecuteness

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​And just like that…solid food!  #imabigkidnow #birdwatching #fledgling


He knows his mama! Just flew right to me from the top of his cage! #lapbird #theskysthelimit


Working for the birds… #birdsmatter​​​

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​​​This guy is fully flighted now! He thinks he’s quite done with his mesh cage (and people!), but he’s stuck with me a bit longer while we work on self-feeding. Made progress today! #theygrowupsofast


Twelve days… #theygrowupsofast​​​

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Two weeks ago this little miracle fell into my life (and hijacked my FB and Instagram). He’s weaning now (as you can see in these pics and the video I just posted), so our days together are numbered. He’s given me a such a precious gift. #gonnamissthatkid  


Learning to eat from a mealworm feeder… ’cause you know, someone might put one out for him when he’s released.  #woodpeckerlife


This little troublemaker is gaining independence and knows good and well where to find his grub, but mom’s shoulder is a sure bet, too. Gonna miss him this week while traveling for work, but he’s with a great bird-sitter who has promised to send updates. #gotmealworms #birdmom   


I saw lots of gorgeous birds in the mountains this week, but this is the one that has my heart. Thanks to my friends Joy and Ken for taking such good care of Sal while I was traveling. #littlesal  #theygrowupsofast #birdwatching

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​​Today we tried blueberries! #ithinkhelikesit    

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Bath time!! #rubadubdub #birdwatching #littlesal #wildliferehab #woodpecker

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What’s that thing you’re always holding up in my face, mom? #woodpeckerselfies #trouble #curiousbird


I have an aviary, at least a temporary one! A fellow rehabber donated it to me, my amazing husband drove 50 miles with me to pick it up and promptly put it together on our lower deck, and I installed the screen. Sal moved in two days ago and is happy being outside and unconfined all the time. When he’s ready (not flying at me for food when I visit), i’ll open the door for him to explore the big wide world. He can return to his safe retreat until he’s ready to be on his own. I decided that even if I could find a release cage for him with another rehabber, Sal and I are in this together till the end. #wildliferehab #gamechanger 


Someone missed me while I was out of town for my teacher workshop this week. (Or is it the other way around?) #birdmom

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Learning to eat peanuts and showing off his neat trick of holding his food on his belly while he pecks at it. Thanks, @juliezickefoose, for the suggestion! #wildliferehab  #goodeats


A little piece of my heart right here… Friends ask about Sal’s name. When he was found, near a Hairy Woodpecker nest, I mistook him for a Hairy nestling, and not yet knowing his gender, embraced the suggestion by @katy_manley to name him (when “Hairy” met) “Sally.” Later, discovering “she” was a “he”–and a Downy Woodpecker–I changed his name to Salvador, meaning “savior”–“Sal” for short. So, may I present Salvador Downy! #littlesal  #whatsinaname​


Soaking it all in… Little Sal’s release day is impending! #birdmom #bathtime  #woodpeckerlife


Sal is pretty charming after his bath as well, even if he looks rather silly. Feather care is important! #washandgo 


Little Sal is free! I released him this morning with a small group of friends. After he left the cage, he checked around the outside of it for 2 minutes, made several jubilant flights around the yard, then disappeared for two hours until returning for a mealworm snack. He has explored all corners of the yard, and we’ve been calling to each other throughout the afternoon. Friends ask if I’m sad, but I couldn’t be more excited to see him enjoying his freedom.  #freeatlast #salvadordowny #thisaintmyfirstrodeo


June 29 — First night in the books! Sal flew off to sleep among some pines last night after I topped him off with some mealworms. I was glad he stopped by again for breakfast! #thefreelife  #birdwatching


Sal continues to grace our lives with his presence. If you’re curious, you can see more of his adventures on my Facebook and Instagram feeds.

Oh, and then there were these bluebirds…

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The Coolest Birds on Earth

As Atlanta wakes to its first winter storm and I watch my backyard birds gathering at the feeder, I find myself reflecting on the ways that wildlife survives winter’s cold, harsh weather. Although I grew up in New Jersey and spent four years in college in Vermont (where winter temperatures often stayed in the single digits for several days straight), I’m now more acclimated to Georgia’s climate and inclined to put on a sweater when the temperature drops below 70 degrees. Some birds, however, feel right at home in the cold. In fact, roughly 200 species flock to arctic regions to breed and raise their young in the land of the midnight sun. Last July, a family trip to Iceland gave me a chance to witness some of these birds nesting and raising young in one of the coldest, harshest biomes on the planet, where even a summer day can feel wintery to a girl accustomed to Georgia’s climate. Average daily temperatures during our visit were in the 40s fahrenheit (colder with windchill), and we saw more clouds and drizzle than sunshine. Regardless of the weather, Iceland was one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. Our week-long adventure circling the country on the 830-mile Ring Road took us by vast lava fields, active volcanoes, massive glaciers, roaring waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains towering above slaty seas.

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Welcome to Iceland! 

The second largest North Atlantic Island (39,769 square miles), just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places on the planet, and glaciers cover 11 percent of the country. Frozen rocky subsoil combined with gusting winds prevent trees from taking root, and most of the interior of the country is tundra, a treeless polar dessert that supports only scattered low plant life like lichens, mosses, and sedges. In fact, the landscape is so barren and uninhabitable that the first American lunar astronauts were sent there for pre-mission training. Somehow, however, the birds carve out a living here, even in the most remote places on the island.

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The first bird we saw when leaving the airport was the Redwing , which we dubbed the Icelandic Robin. We saw them all over the island. 

One of the most common birds we encountered was the White Wagtail, easily recognized by its distinctive black and white plumage and characteristic habit of constantly bobbing its tail. Often seen running about in parking lots, parks, and other open areas in pursuit of insects, this is one of the most common birds of open terrain in Europe and Asia. The first wagtail we saw, true to form, was running in the gravel parking lot of our hostel catching moths. Like most birds in Iceland, for whom nesting in trees simply isn’t an option, wagtails nest in low crevices among rocks or cliffs and will readily nest in the niche of a building. Foraging on the ground and sometimes in shallow water, they eat mostly insects, as well as other small invertebrates. Watching an adult trying to satisfy the appetites of three hungry fledglings was a memorable birding moment of the trip. Iceland’s White Wagtails find the winters a bit too cold, however, and migrate to Western Africa in winter.

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This White Wagtail seemed to be finding food just fine in a gravel parking lot. 

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No rest for a parent with hungry babies!

The Artic Tern is, perhaps, the ultimate snowbird, spending summers in the arctic raising their young then migrating to Antarctica during the arctic winter. No other animal has a longer migration than the Arctic Tern, which makes a 22,000+ mile round trip journey between poles each year, spending the majority of its lifetime in the air. In Iceland, these birds are sometimes considered a nuisance, as they can be aggressive to humans coming near their nests. We saw them all over the country, inside national parks and alongside highway rest stops, and I can attest that they will dive-bomb you if you wander too close to a nesting area. (I crouched near a utility pole at a gas station to get my shot of a fluffy baby tern, which may be the cutest bird I’ve ever seen.) You can’t blame the terns for this defensive behavior when Glaucous Gulls and Parasitic Jaegers, both readily seen in coastal areas, pose a constant threat to their eggs and young. It’s remarkable to me that, in spite of their incredible pole to pole journeys, most Arctic Terns return to the area where they were hatched, often to the same colony.

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Dive-bombing adult terns keep predators (and photographers) from getting too close.

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Oh the cuteness!

Although they are common along the coastline in Iceland, especially in the summer, Common Eiders were the bird sighting that most surprised me when we first spotted them. We had just stopped for some hiking and birding at Jokulsarlon, a glacial lagoon that is one of the most spectacular, but barren landscapes I’ve ever seen. As luck would have it, the winds began to kick up and a cold drizzle started to fall as we set out. Undeterred, we were rewarded with two life birds almost immediately along the banks of the lagoon, Snow Buntings and Barnacle Geese, but after just 10 or 15 minutes of walking in the cold wind on exposed rock, we were ready to head back to the car. Every other sign of life had disappeared, hunkering down under what little cover could be found. Then we spotted some movement on the water. A couple of families of Common Eiders were diving and swimming among the icebergs, feeding on mussels and other hard-shelled crustaceans along the shoreline as if it were a lovely summer day, which I suppose to them, it was. Eiders, as you probably know, are the source of eider down, which is gathered by trained harvesters without harming or disturbing the birds. Those feathers have got to be warm to allow this bird to spend so much time in such icy waters! These hardy ducks winter largely in their breeding range, with only the most northerly populations wandering south.

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Eiders on ice

No summer trip to Iceland would be complete without seeing Atlantic Puffins. I planned a full day of our itinerary to enjoy these charismatic little birds. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when we arrived at the ferry terminal for our puffin excursion to learn that rough seas had cancelled the trip for the day. Although most of the world’s puffins are found in Iceland, where 60 percent of the population breeds, there are limited places to view them, and the only other colony in striking distance would take us 100 miles out of our way, much of it on a dirt road, on a day that we already had to drive 180 miles on winding mountainous roads to get to our next stop. Do you think we skipped the puffins? Of course not. When we arrived at the puffin colony in the Eastfjords, the wind was gusting and a cold mist was falling (surprise, surprise!), making the temperature seem much colder than the actual temperature of 45 degrees, but as soon as we climbed a few dozen stairs, we were looking out across a large colony of puffins standing guard at their burrows like soldiers and flying back and forth from their burrows out to sea to catch fish for their young. We were amused to watch a pair just 25 or 30 feet from us scuffling on the side of a cliff until one was knocked over the side and out of view. These amazing birds can dive for up to a minute and to depths of up to 200 feet, and the average catch is about 10 fish per trip. You have to give them credit for nesting in such harsh, remote places then spending the winter out at sea in the North Atlantic. I could have stayed and watched them for hours, but we had a long drive ahead and had to limit our time. In spite of the cold and wind, my husband and two teenaged children also counted the visit as one of the highlights of the trip, which made it that much sweeter for me.

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Silly and elegant at the same time!

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Puffin with feathers to line its nest

As we were leaving the puffin colony, my husband spotted a low bird flush from a rock along the side of the road—a Gyrfalcon. The largest falcon in the world, this year-round Icelandic resident nests on rocky cliffs in the open tundra where they frequently begin breeding and laying eggs while the temperature is still below zero degrees Fahrenheit. They also use these rocky ledges to scan for their primary prey, the Rock Ptarmigan (another year-round resident that eluded us). Fast and well-camouflaged against the cliffs, we had only a fleeting glimpse before it disappeared among the rocks.

During the course of the week, I added 36 life birds to my list, each one made memorable by the dramatic, beautiful, and harsh landscape around us. At one remote pull-off on our route, surrounded by black, basaltic rocks as far as the eye could see with only the sparsest covering of vegetation, I was astounded to hear a bird calling—a Common Ringed Plover. The birds that raise their young on the tundra have some incredible adaptations that allow them to live on a precarious edge in an often punishing environment. If you’ve never considered Iceland as a birding destination, add it to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your down coat!

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Common Ringed Plover among the lava fields

100 Birds or Bust: a 24-hour Birding Big Day

In one of my favorite movies, The Big Year, Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson give a comedic portrayal of three “extreme” birders competing to break the North American record of finding and identifying as many birds as possible within a calendar year. Loosely based on the nonfiction book by the same name, the characters chase birds to the far corners of the continent from the Everglades to the Aleutians. To win a “Big Year,” according to an article on Audubon.org, a participant should expect to identify more than 700 species, travel 270,000 miles, and spend 270 days away from home…The winner must be ruthless, not to mention have a photographic memory, a supersonic ear, and the fortitude to brave blizzards and garbage dumps.” On a larger scale, birder and author Noah Stryker set a new Big Year world record in 2015 by seeing 6,042 species of birds–almost 60 percent of known bird species–in a continuous round-the-world trip, traveling through 41 countries on all seven continents. That’s a serious birding trip. Closer to home, at a recent Atlanta Audubon meeting, one of our members described a no-frills pelagic trip he took to St. Matthew Island in the middle of the Bering Sea just to see a rare species of bunting, and I have several retired friends who think nothing of hopping in the car and driving five hours to the Georgia coast if a rare bird is reported in the state.

Although family, work, and finances preclude rare bird chases and off-the-grid trips at this point in my life, I had my first “hard core” birding experience recently when my friends Mary, Michelle, Dottie, and I participated in a “Big Day” challenge in order to raise money for Atlanta Audubon’s education and conservation programs. With a goal of counting as many bird species as possible in Georgia in a 24-hour period, our team, Owl Drink to That!, knew we couldn’t come close to the state record of 192 species or even to beat the other teams in the competition, so we approached the competition with a bit of a different strategy.

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Michelle provided custom koozies for our bird-themed adult beverages to kick-off our Big Day adventures.

After a cocktail on the porch of my parents’ mountain home, we headed for an early pizza dinner before our 7:00 PM go-time, meeting up with our birding friend Theresa who lives in the area. Dinner ended right on time, and we headed out to the parking lot, averting our eyes from the European Starlings we’d seen on the power lines when we arrived and directing our attention to the Barn Swallows nesting among the eaves of the building. (While beautiful, starlings are unfortunately a non-native species that competes with native species for cavity nesting sites, and we preferred to have a native Georgia bird to kick off our count).

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Barn Swallow at the Foothills IGA by Michelle Hamner

With the remaining daylight, we headed to a walking trail at some nearby meadows to see what we could find before nightfall, when we hoped to hear owls and other nocturnal birds. We picked up our first 20 species or so there, including an Eastern Screech Owl lazily peering at us from a nestbox in a tree along the trail.

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Eastern Screech Owl by Theresa Hartz

At dusk, we headed to Theresa’s house, where we were delighted to hear an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling on cue, but we didn’t have any luck getting a Chuck-will’s-widow or a Barred Owl to answer the calls we played from the bird apps on our phones. As we were heading back to my parents’ house, I saw a clearing next to some dense woods and suggested we pull over and try our luck calling a Chuck-will’s-widow again. I rolled down my window and played the call on my phone, and instantly we had our reply—right outside the car window–as if I’d magically conjured the bird–a lifer for my teammates. (I couldn’t embed my sound recording, but have a listen here.)

Back at my parents’ house, the Barred Owls I often hear calling were quiet as we sat outside listening to the insects and frogs, and around 11 o’clock my teammates decided to turn in for the night since we planned to be up again at 5:30 AM. Being a night owl myself, I decided to sit outside on the porch awhile longer. Wouldn’t you know?! The house had just gotten dark and quiet when I heard the call of a Barred Owl! Since the rules of a Big Day require that all members of the group must see/hear 95% of the birds identified, I began quietly stomping on the deck and calling out, “Owl. Get out here!” toward my friends’ bedroom windows, purposefully opened for this reason.

Of course, once my friends were back outside in their pajamas, the bird was quiet. So we waited, probably only a few minutes, but feeling guilty for “crying owl,” I began to wonder if I’d conjured this bird only in my head. Finally, just as we were giving up, we all heard the familiar, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” of a Barred Owl in the distance.

The next morning we were out the door before 6:00 AM. Our plan was to visit some mountain locations before making our way down to Phinizy Swamp Nature Park in Augusta, where we hoped to see some shorebirds since we wouldn’t have time to go to the coast. At various mountain roadside stops, we found many of the expected local species as well as several species of migratory birds just returning to their breeding grounds after spending the winter in the tropics. Anyone who isn’t impressed with the variety of beautiful birds in North America hasn’t been paying enough attention! How can you not be wowed by birds like Chestnut-sided Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings?!

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Rose-breasted Grosbeak

On our way to Augusta, we pulled over a few times in random places—adding Cooper’s Hawk and Purple Martins to our list, among others. My friend and coworker Dottie was extremely patient chauffeuring three people who were regularly pointing out the window and exclaiming, “what was that bird on that wire/house/fence?!” We almost missed our birding “hotspot” outside of Athens, an unmarked dirt road in the middle of nowhere that is popular with birders in the area. We had hoped to squeeze in a visit to the county dump (which is known to attract gulls, birds of prey, and other surprises) but were told that it wasn’t open to the public on that day of the week. After a quick bite to eat, we were on the road again headed to Augusta, right on schedule to arrive for a few hours of birding before our 7:00 PM cutoff. Just as we were approaching the swamp, we passed a promising spot beside a large lake called the “Mayor’s Fishing Pond.” After only a short time outside in the now steamy 90+ degree heat, our energy was starting to wane. Then Dottie spotted a pair of interesting looking birds circling overhead that Michelle and Mary identified as Mississippi Kites! We all forgot about being hot and tired and were practically dancing—an unexpected find and a life bird for my three teammates! We all felt reenergized and ready to continue our birding quest.

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Phinizy Swamp Nature Park

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is a lush and lovely place, and being the first time any of us had visited, we were excited to explore and see what we could find. As soon as we entered the parking lot, we were surrounded by birdsong. From the boardwalk trails, we saw egrets, ibis, and herons, as well as a colorful array of migratory songbirds like Blue Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles, and Northern Parulas. At the end of the boardwalk trail, we were faced with a decision to make; trails leading into the wetlands stretched ahead in opposite directions, and we were still several birds shy of our goal of 100 species. Neither trail looked very inviting, stretching into the distance with no cover from the scorching sun. With the clock ticking down to our final two hours, we decided to take the trail that we thought would get us back to the parking lot sooner, hoping to pick up a few final species. We plodded along, scanning for birds who were wisely taking cover from the heat. An adorable family of grebes were the only birds we saw until we finally made it back to the tree line and collapsed in the shade, very close to calling it quits.

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Pied-billed Grebe with one of her babies on her back.

Just then, Ruth, one of the park’s environmental educators that I had recently met at a conference, pulled up her SUV. She had heard that we would be visiting and had decided to try to find us to say hello before leaving work. What a savior! With just one hour left to go, we weren’t even sure we would make it back to our car by 7:00, much less find more birds. Ruth not only offered to give us a ride back to the parking lot, she offered to take the scenic route past much of the wetlands that we had missed! In that last hour, we picked up several additional species–Bobolinks, Painted Buntings, Glossy Ibis (a lifer for Dottie and Michelle), Spotted Sandpipers, and Wood Ducks. When Ruth dropped us off at the parking lot at about 7:01, our checklist was at 98 species. We were a little bummed we hadn’t met our goal, but we were all excited about the amazing birds we had seen.

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Tired and dirty, but still smiling at the end of our 24-hour birding bust…

As we sat and cooled off with a bird-themed beer, we reviewed our list again. Happily, we had miscounted! We had met our goal of 100 species after all. (Although truth be told, Ruth identified the distant flying Wood Ducks for us, so they wouldn’t count for an “official” Big Day, as outlined by the American Birding Association.) With a three hour drive to Atlanta ahead of us, we were ready for a good meal before getting back on the highway, but with less than four hours of sleep, I was struggling to keep my head off the table after a few bites.
The ride home was easy, and it was fun to reflect on all of the highlights of our 24-hour birding extravaganza—both the highs and the lows. I learned that a Big Day is a lot more about chasing birds than seeing birds. We spent several hours in the car (still birding!), and I’d guess that we identified at least half of our birds by ear only, rather than by sight. The pace is tiring, with little time to stop and “smell the roses.” (In fact, I got “fussed at” a couple of times for pausing to take photos of wildflowers.) Will I do it again next year? Absolutely! The colorful warblers, the nesting screech owl, the conjured Chuck-will’s-widow, the lifer Mississippi Kites, the family of grebes—all these amazing birds are right here in my very own state. Being outside with all senses tuned in to nature while exploring new places and having adventures with friends—all for a good cause–sign me up! Maybe you’d like to sign up next year, too?!

 

Empty Nest Syndrome

For the last handful of years, my family has had the good fortune to have a pair of Eastern Bluebirds grace the nest box in our tiny suburban backyard. When we set up a box this spring in our new backyard (a suburban oasis I wrote about here), I feared we might not see any action this year because several dead trees on our property provide natural cavities. Typically, we see males start to check out the box for a period of days beginning in February, perching on top, fluttering their wings, and flying in and out carrying nesting material. Once a female is sufficiently impressed, she takes over all of the nest construction and egg incubation, and the male delivers food to her while she is on the nest. I only saw a bird fly into the house once or twice after we set it up, and never with nesting material, so when I peeked in the box in mid-April, I was surprised to discover not only a nest, but five gorgeous blue eggs.

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Eastern Bluebirds generally lay four to six eggs which are incubated for about two weeks.

Every few days, I checked on the nest to monitor the progress of the clutch. Aside from my personal interest in the nest’s success, I had registered to monitor the nest with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program, a citizen science program that provides scientists with hard-to-get data about the survival rate of backyard birds. Nestwatch scientists also visited my home recently to band some of my backyard birds so that I can monitor them and record sightings into their database. Participating in such programs is a great way to spark curiosity and excitement for birds in kids and adults alike, as well as a way to contribute valuable data that scientists can use to guide conservation measures. If you have an accessible, active nest in your yard, I encourage you to register with Nestwatch and record your observations, but do make sure to read the important nest monitoring guidelines first so that you don’t hinder the success of the nesting efforts.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian’s Nestwatch program visited our home in April to catch and band birds for us to monitor. The program provides valuable data for scientists about backyard bird populations.

Bluebird babies take about two weeks to hatch and just another two weeks to fledge. As with all babies, they grow up way too fast—in just a blink of their sleep-deprived parents’ eyes. Every three days or so, I’d watch for the parents to fly off, then take a quick peek in the nest and snap a photo.

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Newly hatched–5/3/15

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Five or six days old–5/8/14

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Getting bigger everyday–5/11/15

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“Excuse me, could you move over a bit. It’s getting crowded in here!”–5/14/15

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Last photo before they fledged. So shy!–5/16/15

Watching the adults bring food back to the nest was fascinating. Each afternoon after work, I sat on our front steps to enjoy the show from a distance. Mama bluebird brought back much larger prey items than Dad did, and she was also more reluctant to enter the nest box while I was watching than he was. I watched her bring various large flying insects or earthworms back to the nest on several occasions, but I rarely saw her go in. I’d take my eyes off the box for just a moment only to turn back and see her flying off out of sight. One afternoon she even brought a lizard back to the nest!

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Daddy Bluebird was an attentive father. He brought smaller food items to the nest, but seemed to make more frequent visits.

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The female pounded and pounded this hapless lizard on the top of the nest box! I didn’t notice until I cropped my photo that the lizard appears to have already dropped its tail—so much for that defense mechanism. I’m not sure, but I think she gave up and flew off with it rather than feed it to her young. It would have been quite a mouthful!

As the chicks neared two weeks of age, I frequently saw them poke their heads up to look out of the box.  I knew their time to fledge was approaching and hoped it wouldn’t occur the day I would be out of town for a work event. In spite of careful observation in past years, I’ve never seen the babies leave the nest, and I was hoping this year I might get lucky. When I checked the box first thing in the morning after my work trip, I was crushed to discover that the nest was empty. Not only had I missed their departure, they had chosen the first cool, stormy day in almost three weeks to do so. I looked high and low in all the surrounding areas. In my experience, baby birds typically hang around low to the ground for a day or two, or at least up in the trees in the area near the nest, but these baby bluebirds were nowhere to be found. I listened for their begging calls and could detect nothing, and I saw no sign of the parents. I worried that a snake had taken the whole clutch before they even left the nest (which is exactly the reason why birds leave the nest as soon as they are able, often when they haven’t mastered flying yet).  I worried that a predator had gotten them after they left the nest.  I worried that they had gotten wet or gotten lost and succumbed to chill. Feeling disheartened, I headed to work.

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The babies are almost ready to explore the world. Their heads popped up each time their parents visited. 5/15/15

When I returned home that afternoon, I immediately set myself on the front steps with my binoculars. After several minutes I saw the male fly in and grab an insect from the ground and fly off into some distant trees. Several minutes later I saw the female do the same, but I couldn’t make out where they had gone. Surely the babies weren’t that far away? Were the adults just returning to business as normal? The sinking feeling returned. Determined to know more, I watched several more minutes until the male returned to the yard again. This time as he flew off, I changed my vantage point and watched as carefully as I could with my naked eye as he landed at the top of a tremendously tall tree. I could just make out the fluttering of wings and distant begging calls. The babies were safe—and apparently very well equipped to get off the ground!  Phew!  As much as I had hoped they would hang around a little longer, I was relieved and happy to see them safe and sound—the best cure for empty nest syndrome. If I’m lucky, the parents may return to raise one more clutch before the summer is over!

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Empty Nester–Daddy Bluebird poses for the camera.

Note about bluebird conservation:

I’ve commented in the past that I must have walked through the first four decades of my life with blinders on not to have noticed the beauty and diversity of bird life around me, but I think that even had I been paying more attention growing up, I wouldn’t have been likely to see an Eastern Bluebird in my backyard. Eastern Bluebird populations steeply declined in the early part of the 20th century as habitat loss and competition from introduced species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows made nesting holes increasingly difficult for bluebirds to claim. Fortunately today, in spite of the tremendous pressures facing birds, the Eastern Bluebird seems to be doing just fine. The establishment of bluebird trails and other nest box campaigns beginning in the late 1960s helped Eastern Bluebird populations rebound by almost two percent per year between 1966 and 2010.* The success of these efforts is an important reminder that when we work collectively to make small conservation actions, we can effect significant change. So, leave those dead trees standing (60 species in N. America are cavity nesters!), or put up a nest box or two (make sure it is designed to keep out the larger non-native and more aggressive starlings). I’m doing my part!  *www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Bluebird/lifehistory

Suburban Safari*

I can’t believe it has been more than six months since I wrote my last blog post.  It hasn’t been for lack of inspiration. Aside from the demands of careers and raising two middle-schoolers, my husband and I have been busy settling into our new home on 1.6 acres after the long process of zoning, designing, and building (and keeping our old house in pristine condition until it sold). Our “subdivision” (four lots, two currently undeveloped) also has shared access to a one acre lake and adjoins a large wooded park of more than 100 acres. I am in wildlife heaven. Although minutes away from conveniences, when I pull into our driveway at the very end of our street, I feel like I’ve entered a small patch of wilderness.

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The view from the lake looking toward our house

The backyard is a small “meadow” of untamed grasses and wildflowers that run down to a brushy area along a small stream, and towering trees surround the property. I have enjoyed watching all of the different plants and trees come into bloom and trying to learn what they are. We have lots of beautiful and beneficial native plants, which I’ve written about previously, although we also have invasive English ivy and Japanese honeysuckle, unfortunately. (I’m considering renting goats to tackle this problem). We’ve added our own mark to the landscape by planting blueberry bushes and fruit trees, including a native persimmon tree, which I’ve heard is a favorite with wildlife. The edges between the yard and wooded areas are lined with wild blackberry bushes, their blooms the promise of summer cobblers if the birds are gracious enough to share. The first shrubs I bought and planted were three native red buckeyes, which I’d learned are an important early food source for migrating hummingbirds. I had to laugh at myself when they bloomed a few weeks later—along with the dozens of other red buckeyes in the woods around the house. (If you want some, I can hook you up!)

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Wild blackberries are abundant in the yard. Hopefully the birds will share.

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One of the native red buckeyes I planted (then discovered we have them everywhere!) This is an important early food source for hummingbirds on their northern migration.

Wildlife viewing is a daily pursuit in our new home. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks live nearby, and two Barred Owls call almost nightly. Four white-tailed does regularly pass through the yard, occasionally accompanied by a buck. Recently, we saw two gray foxes gamboling about in the backyard early one morning, though our occasional sightings are typically of a single individual, usually after dark. We’ve heard them rustling in the brushy area on the side of the house during the day a few times lately; the alarm calls of the chipmunks and squirrels give them away. Are they hunting during daylight hours because they have young mouths to feed? In addition to the foxes who share our home, we frequently find coyote tracks near the stream, as well as the tracks of opossums and raccoons.

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Coyote track

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Raccoon tracks

The yard is bustling with bird activity, offering boundless opportunities for new discoveries—-my yard list is already up to 66 species! The thickets attract towhees, thrashers, wrens, and cardinals, while the tall, grassy areas attract sparrows, finches, and doves. Dead trees provide a bed-and-breakfast for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, as well as snags for flycatchers to sally out to snatch insects in midair. Having the lake nearby means we never know when we might see our local Great Blue Heron fly through the backyard or hear the rattling call of kingfishers. Spring migration brought some delightful and unexpected surprises like Indigo Buntings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and a few species of neo-tropical warblers.

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Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In sexually dimorphic species, the female is more camouflaged in order to blend in with her nest.

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak–the brighter the better as far as the ladies are concerned.

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Male Indigo Bunting passing through on migration. This species will nest in the mountains of North Georgia and all the way up to southern Canada.

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Northern Flicker, a local resident. This bird has gorgeous yellow feathers underneath its wings. Unlike other woodpeckers, it often feeds on the ground.

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I wonder if this is the Song Sparrow that serenades me every morning. His morning song is different from the one he sings later in the day.

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Hairy Woodpecker on a tree snag. Dead trees are actually “trees of life”–they provide food, shelter, and nesting places for birds.

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House Finch, another local resident. House Finches are not native to the Eastern United States. Captive birds were released on Long Island in the 1940’s by pet shop owners selling them as “Hollywood Finches” who wanted to avoid being persecuted under the Migratory Bird Species Act, which prevents citizens from keeping any native bird in captivity without a USFWS permit. The birds flourished and spread and are now naturalized in most of the United States.

Clearly I have plenty of inspiration for writing, yet what little free time I can carve out of my day is often spent just sitting outside on the porch quietly watching and listening to my surroundings.  Who wouldn’t rather be outside enjoying nature than sitting at a computer writing about it anyway?!  I feel gratitude daily for the opportunity to live in a place where I feel rooted in nature while staying connected to family and friends in our suburban community. I am thankful, too, that I can share this small patch of wildlife-friendly habitat with my wild neighbors. Creating such patches, even on a small scale, is one of the most important and empowering conservation actions that individuals can make, and collectively our actions can provide tremendous benefits for wildlife and the environment. You can even have your yard certified as a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, a designation I plan to pursue (once the goats take care of that invasive honeysuckle!).

I look forward to having lots more “wild” stories to tell. We’ve had some real excitement here this month watching the pair of Eastern Bluebirds that nested in our birdhouse, so stay tuned for an upcoming post documenting their story. You won’t believe what mama bluebird brought to the nest for her babies one afternoon! Thank you for sticking around, and look out for my next post soon.

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I’ve been watching this male Eastern Bluebird and his mate closely as they tend to their young. Stay tuned for a post about them soon!

*Note: Suburban Safari was actually the first idea I had for the title of my blog, but when I did a search for the name, I discovered that it was already the title of a book, which I proceeded to check out of the library and enjoyed reading very much. A review on Amazon says this about the book: “The suburban lawn sprouts a crop of contradictory myths. To some, it’s a green oasis; to others, it’s eco-purgatory. Science writer Hannah Holmes spent a year appraising the lawn through the eyes of the squirrels, crows, worms, and spiders who think of her backyard as their own. Suburban Safari is a fascinating and often hilarious record of her discoveries: that many animals adore the suburban environment, including bears and cougars venturing in from the woods; how plants, in their struggle for dominance, communicate with their own kind and battle other species; and that ways already exist for us to grow healthier, livelier lawns.”

Carrion, My Wayward Bird

Happy International Vulture Awareness Day! Today marked the 6th annual observance of this day that celebrates these vital and fascinating birds and brings attention to the serious threats they face worldwide. I guess there really is a holiday for everything, haha!  Seriously, though, as one of nature’s most successful scavengers, vultures provide an array of ecological, economic, and cultural services that are immeasurably valuable to humans and our environment. They deserve this celebration, along with our gratitude and respect.

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These Turkey Vultures, like other members of the vulture family, provide essential environmental sanitation services. And, believe it or not, I think they are also beautiful.

North America is home to three species in the vulture family—Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and California Condors. The only known obligate scavengers among vertebrates, they play a vital role in sanitizing the environment. The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear, a reference to the way it feeds on carcasses; however, I prefer the scientific name, Cathartes aura, which originates from the Greek words for “purifying breeze” and alludes to the tremendous ecological service that vultures provide. They patrol the air, finding and ridding the land of carrion, which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease. These birds are uniquely adapted to their scavenger lifestyle, having keen eyesight and wings built for soaring flight. With a wingspan as large as an eagle’s, they can soar for hours and rise to heights of 5,000 feet in search of food. Their featherless heads (easier to keep clean) and highly acidic digestive system also equip them for their dining preferences. Studies have shown that diseases as potent as anthrax, botulism, and rabies do not survive passage through a vulture’s digestive system. These free sanitation services benefit humans ecologically and economically.

Turkey Vultures, one of the few birds to have an excellent sense of smell, provide another invaluable service to humans by helping identify natural gas leaks. Natural gas is by itself odorless, so gas companies add the unpleasant smelling chemical ethyl mercaptan to it so that people can smell gas leaks. As it happens, ethyl mercaptan is also one of the chemicals emitted by putrefying animal carcasses, so leaks in natural gas pipelines often attract great numbers of Turkey Vultures. Because natural gas pipelines often cross out-of-the-way places, a congregation of Turkey Vultures circling overhead is often the first to sound the alarm, alerting humans of the problem.

Fortunately, both the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture have healthy populations, and the California Condor, once driven to brink of extinction, is making a slow, but hopeful comeback, though it is still a critically endangered species. The greatest threats to these birds arise from the consumption of carcasses that have been poisoned or killed with lead shot. In other parts of the world, however, many species of vultures are critically endangered with disastrous effects for humans. In India, for example, vulture population declines of more than 95% have occurred in the last decade, largely as a result of the use of anti-inflammatory drugs in cattle, on whose contaminated carcasses the vultures feed. This decline, which has caused an increase in other scavenger species such as rats and feral dogs, has been linked to an increase in the transmission of deadly diseases such as rabies and bubonic plague. Clearly, human and environmental health is intimately connected to these unique birds, making their conservation critically important.

Personally, I find vultures beautiful and fascinating. They are spectacular in flight, and up close, their silly, bald heads are endearing. Having worked with them in rehabilitation and education programs, I can attest that they are smart birds and can be quite charming. A non-releasable black vulture at the wildlife rehabilitation center where I volunteer (AWARE) quickly learned the routine at the center when it was time for his cage cleaning and physical therapy. He figured out our hand signals indicating where he was to perch and also how to sneak dead prey items intended for other birds when his caregivers’ backs were turned. He became rather cantankerous when someone would try to make him move or retrieve stolen food, but his grunting was rather comical. So far, I’ve never met a vulture I didn’t like.

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Fabio, a Black Vulture at Amicalola State Park, teaches the public about the important benefits of vultures. Isn’t he adorable?!

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Orphaned Black Vulture in rehabilitation at AWARE Wildlife Center. He’ll grow into his good looks.

In some parts of the world, vultures are sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform. They regard vultures as precious animals that release the soul from the body.  (To me, this sounds more appealing than being preserved and buried in a fancy, oversized coffin in the ground.) Hopefully, the celebration of these birds on this unique holiday will help more people to appreciate the vital services they provide.  Happy International Vulture Appreciation Day!

Other interesting facts about vultures:

Unlike true birds of prey, their feet are flat and poorly adapted for grasping, and their beak is less hooked and relatively weak, being designed for tearing partially rotting flesh rather than fresh meat.  Because the talons are almost useless for defense, vultures will either play dead or projectile vomit on their attacker if threatened while nesting or roosting.

Vultures lack a syrinx (vocal organ) and can only communicate with hisses and grunts.

Vultures cool off by defecating on their own legs. The water evaporates to provide a cooling effect, similar to sweating. This habit is the reason their legs often appear white.

Although the Black Vulture and California Condor are non-migratory, some populations of Turkey Vultures annually migrate in huge flocks to Central and South America.

A group of vultures has many collective nouns, including a committee, a vortex, and a wake of vultures.

Here’s another great post about vultures from an author and blogger I admire: Why So Many Vultures?

A great source of information about vultures and other North American birds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/

The Right Place for a Robin

Today I had another one of those moments where the universe put me in the right place at the right time. I had spent the better part of the week conducting a professional development workshop for teachers, training them how to use birding and ornithology to teach science concepts and integrate them with other courses. These workshops, which take place over the course of four days and three nights at a North Georgia state park, are lots of fun, but intense, starting with a bird walk at 7:00 AM and ending with a documentary about birds at 8:00 PM. One of the highlights of the workshop was taking a bird walk with a few of the teachers during our afternoon break and seeing a fledgling Blue-headed Vireo hidden among some low branches, an unexpected gift we would have completely missed had we not heard its faint begging calls and paused to take a closer look. You’d think after four days of doing little but looking at and talking about birds, I would have had my fill of birds for a little while, but luckily for another little fledgling, this wasn’t so.

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Fledgling Blue-headed Vireo

At the conclusion of the workshop, I drove over to my parents’ mountain house about an hour away to spend the night with my parents and my two children, who were spending the week with their grandparents and attending day camp. The next afternoon, while running an errand with my parents at the grocery store, I noticed the sound of birds chittering above the parking lot. When I looked up swallows were circling. Nearby, more than 25 Barn Swallows were perched on the roof of the building, and several nests were tucked up under the eaves. Since we needed to hurry back to pick up the kids from camp, I couldn’t spend a lot of time observing, but I did snap a quick photo of some nestlings before leaving.

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Barn Swallow nestlings

In the evening, as I passed by the grocery store on my drive back to Atlanta, I decided to pull in for one last look at the swallows before making the drive home to go to work the next day. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I noticed a small fluttering movement in the shrubbery along the side of the road. Unable to resist the temptation to have a peek at what I assumed to be a fledgling, I decided to pull over to have a look. A baby American Robin was flapping its wings while the parents circled and called anxiously, but the bird didn’t seem to be able to move. When I stepped closer to have a look, I saw that the poor bird had his foot tangled in some thread that was snagged on a bush.

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Fledgling American Robin caught on a bush

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Removing the thread

Fortunately, a nice clerk inside the grocery store loaned me a pair of scissors, and once I relocated the baby (who at this point must have been following his parents’ orders to stay stone still), I quickly cut the thread that was caught on the bush. Removing the tangled thread from the bird’s foot was more complicated as it was tightly wound around the bird’s ankle and toes, and I worried that the constriction may have caused injury. The bird’s parents flew about making a fuss, but the baby was quiet and didn’t struggle. I think he knew I was helping. Fortunately, once the baby was freed, he was able to perch in the nearby tree where I gently placed him. The parents immediately flew over, as did a Gray Catbird, who must have wondered what all the racket was about.

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Back where he belongs!

As I mentioned in my previous post, birding forces us to slow down and be attentive to our surroundings, be they nests hidden under the eaves of a grocery store or a small flutter or call from a nearby bush. Even when the birds aren’t cooperating, being outdoors with a birder’s frame of mind will bring unexpected and incredible discoveries and gifts. I guess you could say that baby robin was lucky that I drove by with my eyes open for birds, but I’m the one that was richly rewarded.

**This experience serves as a good reminder of the importance of not littering, even when we think that an item is small, harmless, and/or biodegradable. Sadly, far too many animals suffer needlessly or die slowly and painfully by becoming ensnared or stuck in our castaway items like six-pack rings, fishing line, aluminum cans, glass bottles, etc. Marine life suffers when they ingest trash like balloons, plastic bags, and other disposable plastic items. Please dispose of trash responsibly.

What Birding Has Taught Me

As I write this, I am flying back to Atlanta, having spent the weekend in Summit, New Jersey for my 25th high school reunion. Excited as I was to spend time with old friends and to visit old stomping grounds, perhaps the highlight of the weekend was escaping the dinners and the small talk and going birding with one of my oldest and dearest friends in our old neighborhood. Although I spent the first 18 years of my life in New Jersey, I don’t recall having any curiosity about the birds in my backyard. It must have attracted them, with its towering old trees and expansive lawn surrounded on all sides by thick tracts of rhododendron. Just beyond our fence lay hundreds of acres of woods, part of the Watchung Reservation. I suppose I could identify the pigeons and crows seen in town, as well as a few of the regular backyard visitors like cardinals, blue jays, robins, and mourning doves, but I certainly didn’t know about warblers or vireos. Visiting my hometown with a greater awareness of the birds around me was immensely rewarding. Strolling along the streets in my old neighborhood, I was treated to spectacular looks at Baltimore Orioles and Black-and-white Warblers. The Blue-winged Warbler at the nearby Audubon Sanctuary was a life bird for me. How fun to see Black-capped Chickadees and note their different song. By looking carefully for the birds, I also noted many other beautiful things about my hometown that I took for granted growing up.

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Baltimore Oriole–what brilliant color! How did I overlook this bird growing up?

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Blue-winged Warbler. Like many warblers, these insectivores are elusive and in constant motion. You have to look carefully and be patient to see them.

I only discovered the joy and excitement of birding a couple of years ago. Feeding injured and orphaned birds at AWARE Wildlife Center spurred me to want to learn more about them. I attended Bird Fest at Unicoi State Park in the spring of 2012, and I was hooked after the first bird walk. I was astounded that the small group of knowledgeable and convivial birders on that walk spotted 45 species in just one morning (and now realize that was a respectable, but not exceptional number). How could I have been so oblivious for so long?! Now I never leave the house without my binoculars, and my birding adventures have taken me from such birding hot spots as Dauphin Island in Alabama to Denali National Park in Alaska. I study my field guides and keep eBird lists. My yard list for my tiny suburban backyard in Tucker is currently at 50 species.

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Getting ready to release a Northern Parula (a warbler species) at a banding station on Dauphin Island. What a spectacular bird and memorable experience!

Birding makes life so much richer. It teaches us not only about birds, but also teaches us many other life lessons and skills. Birding teaches us to be in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of us. It demands us to slow down and pay attention to our surroundings–to notice the dappled sunlight in the trees, to hear the birdsong in the air, to feel the rustling wind on our face. It helps us to recognize the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of protecting natural habitats. Birding also helps us to sharpen our observation and recall skills. In order to identify a bird, we must quickly process a lot of information–color patterns, call notes, the shape of the wings and bill, and so on. Such sensory workouts help develop mental acuity and keep our brains active. In addition, birding entices us to explore new destinations, from the park down the street to remote corners of the earth, enabling us to take in ample fresh air and beautiful scenery. From New Jersey to New Zealand and beyond, birds allow us to admire and enjoy all of the beauty and diversity of our remarkable planet.

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Looking for birds forces us to slow down and notice details about our surroundings–like the sunlight in the trees at my local park.

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This Pondhawk (seen during my recent trip to Dauphin Island) would have been easy to miss!

Having some reflective time during this trip to my childhood home reminds me how significantly my life has been enhanced since I really discovered the birds around me. I invite you to pay closer attention to the birds around you. I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that your life is enriched when you do.

Note: Earlier this year, I started working as the Director of Education for Atlanta Audubon Society, a dream job that allows me to share my passion for birds and nature with others. This piece was originally written to share in the AAS newsletter. I encourage you to find an Audubon chapter in your area and get involved. Audubon chapters often provide free bird walks and other opportunities to learn and to gather with fellow nature lovers, and they do important conservation and advocacy work.

A couple of great articles about the benefits of birds for further reading:

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/can-bird-songs-boost-your-brain

http://us.cnn.com/2014/05/30/opinion/doherty-save-birds/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter