It happened: A female Allen’s Hummingbird actually fed from the feeder I put out a couple weeks ago. I don’t know for sure that this was her first visit (having long since given up my tortuous vigil), but I think it was. I happened to be at the kitchen sink first thing in the morning when she flew up to the feeder, briefly hovered a couple inches away, then landed and took a sip. She flew off quickly, but later I caught her just sitting there, possibly having sated herself already. This time she stayed long enough for me to take a few of my trademark, barely recognizable iPhone + binocular photos.
She seemed to like the way the world looked from there. Insofar as a creature with a pea-sized brain can “like” something.
Anyway, there you have it: I win! I successfully gave food to a hummingbird. Meanwhile, I wasn't just sitting around waiting for her to show up - I started offering seeds for the local finches and sparrows. Stay tuned for that story, which is gonna be off the hook.
I’ve gotta shit something awful. – Dave
The birding community is going to be very keen. – Brit Woman
Recently while stuck inside and looking for entertainment, I had the thought to watch that big mainstream birding movie that I never got around to seeing, The Big Year. But I found no trace of it on Netflix, and as usual gave up at the first sign of difficulty. Then I was struck by a thunderbolt of inspiration: Why not just search Netflix for the word “bird?”
By and large, the results had little to do with birding and were pretty unappealing. But one description caught my eye:
How had I not heard of this? An actual movie with a birding-related plot and a big-name star?! This was a no-brainer: I had to see me some Rare Birds.
It turns out to be a bizarre Canadian farce about two middle-aged men in a remote seaside town. I call it Canadian because it’s set in Canada, was made by Canadians, and shows what I take to be a uniquely Canadian sensibility, in that it is kind of boring and makes absolutely no sense. No offense, Newfoundland, but Hollywood you are not.
Briefly, the premise is this. Our protagonist Dave (William Hurt) has a seaside restaurant that nobody eats at anymore, and a wife who has left him. His neighbor Phonce (short for Alphonce, played by Andy Jones) is the interesting one. Phonce is some sort of inventor or mechanic with a strange accent, who believes that corporate spies are after the submarine he’s built in his basement. Why build a submarine? To sell tours for birdwatchers, those “geezers” who spend their time looking for birds “they’re not even gonna eat.” Phonce is a consummate capitalist. In addition to the submarine, his home contains the following:
1. A slinky young sex kitten of a sister-in-law (Molly Parker), who’s in town for an extended visit.
2. A prototype of some sort of magical, luminescent paper. (“It actually breaks the energy equation,” he explains to a rapt Dave.)
3. A huge stash of cocaine that he found washed up on the beach.
Phonce would like Dave, who may have some contacts left from his “bohemian” days, to help him sell the coke. Dave takes a sample home, ostensibly to get it appraised, but it turns out Dave kinda likes cocaine, and it all goes up his nose. This has no apparent consequences for anyone.
More importantly, Phonce has a plan to breathe life into Dave’s restaurant. They’ll report a sighting of a rare bird nearby, and the geezers will pour in to see it. Once there, they’ll have to eat, right? Voilà!
And so it goes. Soon after they call in the fictional sighting to a popular radio program about bird identification (is this plausible in Canada?), the first birder arrives, a sweet, earnest British lady who appears to be about 90. Thank you for that, filmmakers. Many more soon follow, and they prove quite persistent in their search for the bird, despite the lack of any sighting by anyone who knows about birds. They search and they search, and they gobble up Dave’s cooking. Dave snorts coke and enjoys the company of the young beauty. Life is grand.
Of course, there are complications – but I’ll let you discover those for yourself, if this has managed to whet your appetite. If you’re a birder looking for a movie about birding, keep looking. Birders are as marginalized in this movie as they are in real life, and considerably dumber. But if you like rustic maritime scenery, un-relatable characters and nonsensical plotlines – or just want to see William Hurt’s butt – then by all means, toke up and settle in for some Rare Birds.
With few exceptions, birders love lists. We make lists of the species we’ve seen in each country, state, and county we visit, and in each year (hence the concept of a Big Year). Granted, it’s a little weird, but adding a species to any list is a moment of triumph for a birder. As I type the name of my latest avian conquest into my sightings database, weary from a long morning of intense gazing, I feel something akin to what the earliest man must have felt, having used all his cunning and strength to slay the woolly mammoth and drag it home to his burgeoning family. The nap that follows is fantastic.
It’s a feeling worth chasing. But the longer your lists get, the less likely you are to find something new on a typical outing near home. So how do you get your fix? You turn to the internet. When a rare bird shows up, word spreads quickly online, and birders descend on the spot from far and wide. They stand a solemn watch for hours if necessary, waiting for one precious glimpse. If the bird appears, some are truly elated, others merely relieved. Still others appear completely stoic, muttering “Got it,” checking a box on a checklist, and promptly driving away, in a hurry to proceed with what must be joyless, burdensome lives.
Even for those of us who aren't dead inside, some of the joys of regular birding - of exploring the outdoors, not knowing what you might find - are lost in this sort of drive-thru list-augmentation. One wonders whether this sort of behavior gradually turns genuine nature-loving birdwatchers into the sort of drones who put their lists above all else. (I appreciated Maeve Kim's treatment of the subject in BirdWatching magazine.) Not to mention the awful possibility of moving mountains to get yourself there, only to have the bird fail to appear. It's all enough to give pause to any (sane) would-be rarity-chaser.
Such was the case for me this weekend, when someone found a White Wagtail – native to Europe, Asia, and Alaska – in Los Angeles. I had seen one before, but never in North America, which meant it was absent from my most doted-upon list, my ABA Area life list. I don’t often go chasing reports like this; generally I'd rather find lots of "old" birds near home than try to see just one new one that was already found. But this time, the coolness of the bird (really rare in the Lower 48) and the convenience of the location (under 40 minutes away) were compelling. Early Sunday morning, I decided to skip my tame little neighborhood stroll and make a run at the White Wagtail instead. It was on.
I cruised down the 110, reliving my Guitar Hero glory of the night before with a spirited rendition of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So,” this time in a scratchy morning-after baritone. I was giddy with anticipation and making great time. Anyone who saw me then would’ve been convinced that I was happily living in the moment. And yet, even then, I couldn’t help wondering what it all meant. At the end of the day, if all goes well, what will I have gained exactly?
Tough to say, but the thought-clouds parted as I arrived. I practically ran down to the beach, following the precise directions always demanded by the birding community in times like these. Sure enough, there were birders. I saw four people with big fancy-looking scopes and cameras, and charged right up to them, bearing a huge grin that said: “Hey! We’re all birders, isn’t that great?!” For whatever reason, they were having none of it. Though my business there was obvious, they volunteered no information, and wouldn't even make eye contact. (Occasionally, birders are not cool.) But I could tell they were not looking at The Bird anyway. I looked around and quickly spotted a larger group up the beach. Phew.
This new group was much more receptive, and more importantly, they were on The Bird. Within seconds, I had ABA life list entry #514 in my binocular view. Ka-ching!
I watched it flit around for a bit, eavesdropping as the more advanced birders discussed the subtleties of identification – how old was the bird, was it the Alaskan type or the Japanese type, etc. When it flew down the beach, I didn’t follow, but started checking out the other birds in the park. It was a pretty nice place actually, one I probably never would’ve seen if not for this one lost bird, and the culture of reporting and chasing rarities that had given me hope of seeing it. So, I had that going for me... which was nice.
And of course I also had the pleasure of presenting the proverbial mammoth (i.e. new bird) to my family (database). But I still can't fully explain my own feelings vis-à-vis rarity-chasing. Anyway I guess you shouldn't spoil your own fun by trying too hard to understand it. Amirite?
Bottom line: Would I make the same choice again? Absolutely. Just not for a White Wagtail. That box is checked.
At the heart of the American Dream is a yard with a white picket fence, and in the dreams of American birders, that yard is filled with birds. We all love to wander the great outdoors, but sometimes you just can’t. Sometimes you have the flu, or you have visitors to entertain, or you’re expecting a very important delivery of fancy cookware you do not understand how to use (i.e. wedding gifts). Why shouldn’t those times be birdy too?
In that spirit, we birders put out feeders, hoping to lure the birds in by appealing to their laziness. I’m not a homeowner, nor do I have a proper backyard – it’s more of a concrete slab – but for the first time in my adult life, I have outdoor space of my own. Not only that, but I live in an area replete with interesting birds. So I decided it was time to get in on the feeding act. Encouraged by the near-constant presence of the local hummingbirds, I opted to start with a hummingbird feeder.
The idea of a hummingbird feeder is simple – a cheap plastic container, brightly colored so as to mimic flowers (the birds’ natural food source), filled with a mixture of sugar and water. The birds hover over it or sit on a perch, and use their long tongues to lap the nectar out. Bingo – easy calories for them, a convenient place to watch hummingbirds for me. Everybody wins.
So I picked up a feeder at the local backyard nature store, and today during my lunch break (I work from home), I mixed up some sugar-water, filled the feeder, and hung it from a branch in my backyard. Open for business. Let the drama begin.
Since I see Allen’s Hummingbirds many times during the course of a typical day, I’m confident there will be action soon. I move my desk to the most advantageous position so as not to miss a thing. Warily, I get back to work.
Nothing happens for a little while – not too surprising, since the “yard” is small and the birds seem to roam around the neighborhood. But twenty-five minutes in, a female Allen’s Hummingbird zips in and perches on a branch. She’s maybe four feet from the feeder, but facing away from it. My heart pounds. I watch her sit there, getting a close look through my binoculars, searching her tiny face for some sign that she recognizes her good fortune. Just take the food. Are you too good for your food? After a few seconds she lifts off, turns around, and hovers at a small flower as if to feed – a flower directly above the feeder. It’s not even brightly colored for chrissakes, but some withered-looking little brown thing. She pauses there for a second or two, then buzzes straight out of the yard, out of sight, as quickly as she came.
So close. But after that, it’s quiet. A birdless hour goes by, and paranoia creeps in. What if they never come? What if they have all the food they could want already? What if my whole life is a farce, and the reality is that the hummingbirds actually built my home so as to lure me in, and while I stare out one window at the pointless feeder, they’re staring in through another window, marveling at this odd human behavior? A quick glance around at the other windows fails to confirm this, but I know it doesn’t disprove it either. My countenance darkens.
The days are short this time of year, and as the afternoon winds down I realize it’s probably not happening today. After a restorative walk around the block, I return to find the feeder still unoccupied. Ah, well. The sun is setting, and I’m at peace with my failure, which when you think about it really just means the birds are too dumb to figure it out. (Yeah!) Whatever, it’s cool. Tomorrow’s another day, and unless the superintelligent hummingbird legislature has adopted a resolution to boycott my yard, there will be more chances to see them.
For the sake of my inner calm, though, I might move my desk away from the window.