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My Life’s Birds: #463-468

January 26, 2011
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August 3, 2008Wyoming – The line between birders and non-birders in my family runs right down gender lines.  I’m sure that’s a situation that many others can attest to as well, as there have only been a few female birders I’ve run into in the course of my career.  At least that’s if you define “birders” as the sort of single minded, listing, counting, borderline Asperger’s Syndrome version of birding in which many of the “serious” birders one runs into participate.  As you might imagine, this distinction often expresses itself in random times and places.  My long-suffering mother, having mostly abandoned any hope of vacationing without at least one stop for birds, deals with it like an old pro – usually with a book, a c’est la vie attitude, and a flexible interpretation of estimated time of arrival.

My younger sister however, without the years of experience and with a healthy dose of the sort of ingrained sibling antagonism that never really goes away no matter how many thousand miles you live apart from one another, is not so flexible.  For her, when on the road there is only the place from whence you came and the place to where you are going.  Anything in between is superfluous and bothersome and should be traversed as quickly as possible and with minimum time wasted (birding is definitely considered time wasted).  As you might imagine this attitude does not jibe with the mindset of the birder, for whom beyond every new horizon, no matter how desolate, is the possibility of something new and different.  Even in – nay, especially in – the wastes of south and central Wyoming, where I found myself with my immediate family (sans wife, the great peacemaker) traveling from Denver to Grand Tetons National Park discovering that old family dynamics die hard.

So it took some cajoling to get the family car to pull over in what looked to be a fairly convincing representation of a short-grass prairie just south of Laramie, Wyoming.  A patch of flatland that, according to Oliver Scott’s Birder’s Guide to Wyoming, was a decent bet for Mountain Plover or Greater Sage-Grouse or something like that.  Being the middle of the day didn’t help nor did having to limit our stay to the bare minimum to appease non-birders, but the raptors were flying and right out of the gate I spotted a Golden Eagle way up in the stratosphere, followed quickly by a stunning Ferruginous Hawk low over the prairie just above a few Pronghorn.  I suppose that’s enough of Wyoming for the time being.

No, birding had to take place on a different schedule.  The California Gulls on the shallow pond off the interstate were lifers taken at 75mph, hardly soul-satisfying but countable all the same.  Better was a stop at a roadside rest area along a creekbed in a dry wash.  The only spot of green in dozens of miles produced a Sage Thrasher foraging on the lawn, and a pair of Brewer’s Sparrow in pile of scrub.  Two new birds in about 10 minutes, but when you’re in a new place those sorts of things happen, and we had places to be if half of my family had any say in the matter.

We arrived just outside of Grand Tetons National Park, to the lodge where we would spend the next few days, before sunset.  The rest of my extended family was already there, gathered to spend some time together following the diagnosis of my Uncle John with a particularly insidious form of brain cancer.  We came here together to join him in one of his favorite places in the world just in case the worst happened and trips like this wouldn’t be possible in the near future.  So it was something of a bittersweet reunion, and charged with emotions beyond those you’d expect at being in one of the most dramatically beautiful places on the continent.  But even as I greeted all of my relatives from Kansas and California and Pennsylvania who had made the long journey, I noted the little Mountain Chickadees foraging in the pine trees around the cabin.  The birds are always there for someone with a little extra awareness, and I was struck by how families can facilitate birding even as they might deny the ultimate expression of it. Not that that’s always a bad thing.

But that’s old news to most of us who live that reality every single day of our lives.

FERHAW by Alan Vernon via flickr (CC BY-2.0)
MOUCHI from wikipedia

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4 Comments
  1. BirdTrainerRobert permalink
    January 26, 2011 10:55 am

    Man, I love Mountain Chickadees. I had tons of fun watching flocks of them forage out in CA this past summer.

  2. January 26, 2011 1:32 pm

    All of which would be lifers for me, as well. Great tale, Nate!

  3. Nate permalink*
    February 3, 2011 11:29 am

    @Robert- They’re great birds. Have you heard they might be split? I don’t know quite what to think about that.

    @Kyle- Thanks Kyle! Sounds like you need to get west! 😉

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