Essay by Dan O'Brien, Photos by Jill O'Brien
I didn’t know this until a week ago, but every year The Nature Conservancy organizes a bird count on the lands that they protect by either outright ownership or through conservation easements. Our ranch is protected from development or exploitation by a TNC conservation easement so we are eligible to participate in what they call the "Bird Blitz". The idea is to count as many bird species as possible in a twenty-four hour period. This year the day of the Blitz was May 18.
The idea of counting birds on lands with a dedication to conservation intrigued me. But, sadly, I was hampered by two issues; first, there was no way that I could dedicate anywhere near twenty-fours to such a project and second, I am not a skilled birder.
My knowledge of birds is very pedestrian. I can recognize some of the more common birds by sight but have no ability to identify birds by their songs. (Sometime in the last fifty years, identifying birds by their songs came into vogue. The young people got really good at it but my hearing was so poor by then that I was left behind.)
But still, I wanted to give it a try so I dedicated a few hours in the morning strictly to bird counting. I called into work and told them I’d be late. I set my alarm for five o’clock instead of six.
Turns out, I didn’t need the alarm. My senses must have been tuned to birds because, for the first time this year, I was awoken by the chattering of the female kestrel in the nest box thirty feet from my open window. She was being fed by her mate who hung on the side of the bird-box and offered her what looked like part of a mouse.
It had rained hard the night before so the world seemed extra fresh as I settled into my favorite chair with a cup of coffee and took the time to study our birdfeeder. There was a mini blizzard of goldfinches and pine siskins around the Niger seed feeder. Redwing black birds battered with common grackles for sunflower seeds. I scribbled down their names on a beat-up pocket notebook.
I was outside doing my morning chores before six o’clock. Instead of rushing through bringing my horse, Winchester, in from the pasture and tossing grain to the homing pigeons, I took my time. Killdeer scurried across the bare ground in front of me and barn swallows stooped at the first raft of mosquitoes to raise up after the rain. The bird dogs were bouncing in their kennels, surprised at the early start of our morning walk.
Again I took my time. Instead of three miles we set off on a six mile loop that took us along the edge of the pasture where the buffalo were grazing. Brown headed cow birds (more properly called buffalo birds) rolled to stay ahead of the moving herd.
They were watching for the insects that the buffalo hooves stirred up as they moved. Lark buntings by the dozens whirred along the fence lines and long-billed curlews drew the dogs away from their nests with mournful cat-calls and Oscar worthy impersonations of crippled, easy to catch birds. I marked them all down in the notebook.
I needed one of those sharp eared young ornithologist to help me with the raft of small sparrow-like birds that exploded from the grass. I couldn’t identify many of them, but that imaginary young ornithologist could have sorted them out of the cacophony of bird songs rising from the grass all around me. The playa was full from the night’s rain and several species of ducks chortled about in ecstasy.
The dogs and I made the entire circle of a buffalo pasture and came back to the ranch after eight-thirty. It was an hour’s drive to town and the Wild Idea office so I knew I had to go. My 2018 Bird Blitz was over but I made myself a promise. I would not wait an entire year before I would bird blitz again!
The Bird List