Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bird Count and Bath Time

Today was the Youth Christmas/ Winter Bird Count held annually at Swan Harbor Farm through the Harford Bird Club. The farm is a northern Chesapeake birder's hot spot and people come from all over to hike it's shoreline, wander the woods and fields, and circle the wetlands in search of rarities, vagrants, regulars, and migrants. It never disappoints. But when the winter youth count comes around, we are filled, standing room only with children in the classroom, their parents, teachers, and Harford Bird Club volunteers who lead their small groups with patience and - dare I say - love. 

My dear friend Al and our small group "The Rockin' Pigeons"

Sure, us grown-up birders love the thrill of a rare bird chase and we'll even get downright competitive about it. For some of us, birding is a lucrative and profitable aside as we guide locally or lead tours to far away places. I will admit that in my days as a coastal naturalist working for less than minimum wage many years ago, the tips I made for my sea island bird tours saved my bacon. It literally paid to be a very good guide! Just last week, on a nasty, cold day, as rain began to fall and arctic winds blew across the farm, a few birding friends and I ran out the door in time to see a rare migrant (it literally walked up to us) before the front carried it further south to hopefully catch up with its mates in Central America. We cheered at our good luck as many others had been out that day and had missed seeing it. We were giddy, pumped our fists, danced, and acted - well - like kids!

Long-billed Dowitcher at Swan Harbor Farm

As our bird club president stood before the children gathered in the classroom, he introduced himself and the other club birders as young at heart, that we we might look grown up and much older, but that really were just big kids. "Birding does that to you," said Bob, "It keeps you young! There's always an adventure to be had!" The kids were clad in their winter coats, hoods, and hats, and clasping their binoculars hung 'round their necks, and eager to go. We received our groups and hiked out to our assigned habitats. Al and I took our group to the large wetlands for a walk around. Other groups went to the old mansion, down to the shoreline, or through the woods on the high bluff overlooking the Chesapeake. After a practice session with the scope and binocs, it was all I could do to keep our kids from running on ahead. They saw birds everywhere and we dutifully tallied our species and numbers on the clipboard. 

A silver male Northern Harrier and its golden brown female mate.
We had spectacular looks at a pair of marsh hawks or Northern Harriers, and a wickedly fun pigeon chase as the silver male drove the rock doves (pigeons) from his wetlands. Bald eagles, a wild turkey, a dozen bluebirds, and fifteen species later (with over 160 birds counted) we headed back in to learn what the other groups saw. They ooohed and aaahhed as the smallest birders on the easy stroll around the mansion witnessed a Cooper Hawk take an American Robin and guard it from any takers. They were thrilled! The older kids found a mated pair of Bald Eagles high in a shoreline tree snuggled together in wind and bright sun while everyone with a camera captured their portraits. 

You could hear a pin drop as Ruth submitted our list and we waited for the 'ping!'

Listening to their stories I saw how muddy some of us were! Gobs of mud stuck to our boots. There were big broad smiles. Sitting on the edge of their seats as cookies and hot chocolate were passed around, the tallies were made. Species and numbers of bird were  logged into E-Bird. We all watched in anticipation for the live 'ping' as Swan Harbor Farm's list was submitted to Cornell. Our location flashed up on a global map, projected on the wall, and our group joined birders in Australia, India, Ecuador, and Maine who pinged at the same time.  A little "Yes!" whispered around the room, a few claps, and suddenly, like geese lifting from the fields the whole room took wing. " I want to do this again next year!" "This was fun!" "Do we have to go home?"

Deer Creek on its way to the Susquehanna River, First Day Hike 2016.

The kids' comments on the way out the door affirmed to me, again, that experience is worth more than things. Time does not slow down or stop for any of us and as the old saying goes "You can't take it with you." No X-Box or computer game can come close to watching a wild hawk hunt, kill, and guard its prey just yards away. That memory will stay with those young children longer than any computer game score or another night out for pizza. I wonder how many of the kids in our group might go on to make birds and birding a life-long passion? How many will travel to have adventures? How many will hike long trails with the little they really need packed neatly into a backpack? 

Young sycamore, First Day Hike 2016.

I came home after our morning adventure to give my old coonhound Annie her weekly bath. She's been a good dog, big and gangly all her life, but now in her very senior years, unable to go on long hikes. She can barely make it down and back my country street most days. She languishes in the bath, dreamily closing her eyes as I direct the warm shower on to her aching hips and wobbly back legs. She leans and stumbles, startling herself and shivers. I hook her backside over my left arm, supporting her as I gently rinse, lather, and massage her. I know the time is coming when I will have to say goodbye but as I hold and snuggle her I remind her of all of the great hikes through  snowy river hills, long swims in the creek, and nights trailing furry beasts through the woods. The sound of my voice, warm water, and massage of soap calms her. I hold her for a long time so she feels safe and steady, then lift her slowly from the tub to towel off with another luxurious massage. I think I will always remember these long warm baths with my old dog, how I look forward to Saturday nights as much as I think she does. 

Skunk cabbage in bloom, First Day Hike 2016.

One of the young boys in my group today was telling me about his old dog. We were walking back to the classroom to join the other groups and everyone was chatting with friends and parents. "Lily is very old," he said. "Lily was my dad's dog when he was in college. He was allowed to have a dog in college! I was born when Lily was five. Now I'm ten. She's very old for a dog." I listened the whole way back to the classroom. "I wish she had been able to go with me today but she has a hard time walking, so I will just tell her all about it. She will love the smell of the mud on my boots!"  

As I helped Annie back into her cozy bed near the pellet stove, I told her about the kids and the birds we saw and let her smell the mud on my boots which occupied her for quite some time. A lovely ending to a lovely day. Kids and dogs and birds and old friends. Happy New Year!