by John Colgan-Davis
I am a bird watcher. I have been one since the early 1970s, and it truly brings me both exquisite calmness and excitement. Some of the most pleasurable and memorable moments of my life have involved birding. I can recall specific places where I saw a particular species for the first time; I can see in my mind the view from certain hills and mountains and lakesides.
I can close my eyes, inhale and smell certain marshes and forests and trails. And I can recall the sense of wonder of seeing puffins or owls or eagles or warblers in the wild. Summertime is normally a great time for me to go birdwatching; I am not working full-time, and I do not have too many competing commitments.
So I can usually get out to Heinz Refuge near the airport, take trips down to Cape May and walk Carpenter’s Woods in the Wissahickon, but I only went birding exactly three times this past summer; only three times. That number is so small compared to what I usually do.
There are logical reasons for my lack of birding last summer: the oppressive humidity, and I had a lot going on in other parts of my life. But what surprised me even more about that small number is that I didn’t feel as if I had missed going birding. And that was because I found other ways to do it.
I was unable to leave the house for several weeks at a time last summer, so I spent a lot of time at explore.org, a non-profit website that, among other things, puts webcams in a lot of different natural environments and allows people to watch. I was able to watch an osprey family pretty much from egg laying to the feeding of the hatchlings to the hatchlings’ first flights.
I came to know the family and to know the way the mother fed the chicks, the way the chicks treated each other and more. It was an incredible thing; normally I would glance in at various webcams over a few weeks, but my conditions meant that I could watch them for hours at a time and really come to know that family.
It was a true gift; I could watch the evolution from egg to fledgling. And I saw their puffin cam, where they looked inside a puffin burrow and watched puffins at work and play off the rocky shores of Maine. I saw the sad death of one of their chicks and saw their wonderful antics on the rocks.
Of course, a webcam is not a replacement for actual birding, but it definitely added to my knowledge of ospreys, one of my favorite bird species. The web made it possible for me to see them and come to know them in a way that I couldn’t before. So if I couldn’t go to the birds, I could temporarily brings the birds to me.
The other way birding happened was on those mornings and evenings when it wasn’t too humid or too hot; our garden is a wonderful place of refuge and wonder for me, and at no time was that more appreciated than this past summer.
We get a fairly wide range of birds: cardinals, house finches, blue jays, mourning doves, goldfinches, the occasional woodpecker and nuthatch and more. But I particularly love the hummingbirds. Since I was a kid, they have fascinated me, and last summer I got to watch them rather intensely.
We have two hummingbird feeders in different parts of the yard, and we have had hummingbirds showing up for years now. Despite their cuteness and aerial acrobatics, they are not sweet birds at all; hummingbirds from different families swoop and dive bomb each other to keep them away from a feeder. They also will sit in a tree near a feeder while their kid feeds, and try to keep other hummers away.
Our two feeders are on opposite parts of the yard, but it doesn’t matter; they are strongly territorial and are not above dive bombing, angrily chattering and driving rivals away. They are cute as all get out, though, and that contradiction is fascinating.
So I did get to go birding last summer; quite a lot. It was different from the way I usually do it, yet it led me to greater understanding of a few things. And as I get older, I find that a lot of life is like that: adapting to things I can’t necessarily control and living comfortably with those things.
It is a new awareness, born of necessity.
I will probably go to Carpenter’s Woods this week sometime, but I am also very glad that I have the option of other ways to have something so important to me made so readily available.
John Colgan-Davis, 62, is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher, member of the fabulous local rockin’, bluesy band, Dukes of Destiny, and one of the world’s greatest harmonica players. He says that “Spiritually, I take things from Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism,” but he has “no particular ideology or theology.” You can reach John at firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about upcoming Dukes’ performances, visit www.dukesofdestiny.com.