Was there a childhood birthday when you woke up excited beyond description for what you hoped that day would bring? It was like that when I turned six. I couldn’t wait for my father to take me to the store where I’d pick out my first pet: a parakeet. I’d begged and begged for one. I was enchanted by birds then, and I am exponentially enchanted now, which is why I woke up so excited last Saturday.
It was to be a day filled with birds…more than I could even count, although I had to try.
Global Big Day, you see.
World Migratory Bird Day, to be more precise, a global celebration occurring on the second Saturdays of May and October. As defined on the WMBD website: World Migratory Bird Day is an annual awareness-raising campaign highlighting the need for the conservation of migratory birds and their habitats. It has a global outreach and is an effective tool to help raise global awareness of the threats faced by migratory birds, their ecological importance, and the need for international cooperation to conserve them.
In the common interest of science, conservation, and celebration, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology invites bird lovers around the world to count all birds seen or heard on Global Big Day and to enter this data in official checklists.
And so I joined Team eBird with my friend and fellow blogger-poet, Kim Johnson. She’s in Georgia, I’m in North Carolina, but we are birds of the same feather in countless ways, equally excited for this bird-counting day.
It began when I woke up to birdsong early Saturday morning. Lately it’s been a mockingbird, which, I’ve learned, is usually a male singing while the female incubates eggs.
This day, however, the dawn singer was a robin.
I threw on my robe and went outside to start my count as the earth swelled with bird chorus.
Here’s what Merlin Sound ID (a Cornell Lab app on my phone) told me I was hearing out front and on my back deck:
There are also some regular bird friends whose voices aren’t in this mix. Back in the house, a fluttering at the window…
My male ruby-throated hummingbird visits periodically throughout the day, and this day was no different; he arrived early and was off in a flash. I added him to my list.
Then there are my eastern bluebirds.
They’re a mated pair which nested in a birdhouse on the deck before Easter, attempting to be as furtive as possible, until the first week of May when they went stark raving territorial. The female flew and flew at the kitchen bay window. Both of them became obsessed with cars in the driveway; one morning I watched the male killing a worm on top of my son’s car. I am still not sure what prompted the sudden change in behavior, but I suspect their babies fledged and flew, resulting in fierce protectiveness of the habitat. All I can say with certainty is that these two birds believe they reign over the kingdom of my yard.
Because they do.
Her Royal Highness, taking over the hummingbird feeder
Never fear, Bluebirds Dear; I added you both to the list. And you don’t know it yet but I bought a “snake” camera to check your nest in the birdhouse, to see what exactly is in there. More on that later…
Other birds awaited on this Global Big Day. Off to the lake I went, in hopes of seeing eagles.
I didn’t see any. But I did see two great blue herons, separately, standing still as statues, as elegiac as poetry, in all their strange and ancient beauty.
They remind me that birds are the last living dinosaurs.
One of the two great blue herons
Over at the dam, a giant nest is protected by government fencing and two fake owls, which don’t seem to bother the two nesting ospreys at all.
One of the two ospreys
After duly noting the ospreys, I made a note to self: Get a good digital camera ASAP. The zoom on the phone can only do so much.
The trip to the lake yielded over thirty species of birds. In addition to those I noted at home, Merlin Sound ID picked up scarlet and summer tanagers, pine warblers, a Swainson’s thrush, Eastern phoebes, brown-headed cowbirds, white-breasted nuthatches, Eastern wood pee-wees, red-bellied woodpeckers and downy woodpeckers, Eastern towhees, chimney swifts, ovenbirds, and the American goldfinch.
Then a huge bird fell straight down from the sky and landed in the brush few feet in front of me.
A red-shouldered hawk. With its beak it grabbed a little snake I’d have never seen otherwise. And then the hawk ran—yes, ran!—into the woods.
I added the hawk to my list as I headed back to the car, exhausted but elated with my bird inventory. I was pretty much done.
But the hawk wasn’t done with me yet.
A little farther down the wooded path, a sudden loud “screaming” of birds— an unmistakable warning of danger, as the hawk sailed by to land on a low pine branch.
I stood as still as I could, videoing that bird for over two minutes while he cocked his head, observing me (does he have a checklist, too?). Smaller birds clamored all around the whole time; some were quite near the hawk, almost like groupies. I couldn’t take my eyes off the hawk long enough to see exactly what the other birds were; Merlin later told me “robins.” Really? I have read that robins are the birds whose warnings make all others take cover but I have never heard them so loud, in such stereo sound. I’d already counted robins, fortunately…then just like that, the hawk took off and the wild screams followed right after him…Elvis has left the building.
The red-shouldered hawk, celebrity of the day
Back at home in the evening my family gathered ’round to celebrate my birthday… even more bird-wonder in this day!
Books on birds and birding
Books to share with my granddaughters, ages seven and eighteen months
Finch earrings from my son
I settled down to bed that evening, counting my years, counting my birds, counting the many blessings and love in my life….all in all, the happiest of birddays.
I opened one of the new books, The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human, to read the opening sentence:
Imagine what might happen if birds studied us.
Imagine? There’s no need to imagine...
I know without question that they do.
His Majesty, looking in the window
with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story writing challenge
to Kim Johnson, for always inspiring me
to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for its amazing mission
to all who help protect birds
and to birds, for all the awe
and the lessons we need to learn
about tending our Earth
7 thoughts on “Happy Birdday”
Happy Birthday!! Your slice is a gift to me. I am so glad I could celebrate your day with you via your observations and photos. I ended vowing to reload my Cornell bird app to my photo and purchase birdseed to refill my birdfeeder. A while back I was a novice bird watcher for a bit. Your slice reminds me there is still so much more to know of this species and I can restart by slowing down to observe my backyard!
What a lovely way to spend your day–Happy Birthday! And what an array of birds. We share almost all of your backyard birds here in Central Texas, which emphasizes just how widespread their territory is. Our neighborhood hawks help keep the squirrel population in check.
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Fran, your slice brings us to your moments in such powerful ways through rich description and sheer emotion. As I looked at your photo of all the birds from Merlin, it reminded me that birds connect people. I felt it when I re-read Janisse Ray’s description of Bachman’s Sparrow and the way that Audubon himself named the sparrow species for a new friend. I felt it when I saw your birds, knowing that those same species were being observed right here, chattering away to reveal themselves to us so that we could seek their beauty. There is deep, deep connection through birds. What a joy to celebrate your birthday, Mother’s Day, and Global Big Day all in the same weekend – and what lovely gifts that show how much your family loves you and how well they know the things you enjoy so much. Those books for the little ones show me the power of the legacy you are building with your granddaughters. They are blessed. You are blessed. We are all blessed by this post that shares the magic and wonder of birds and their ways. I love that a hawk may have a checklist, and I love the royalty titles for those stunning bluebirds. Fabulous, Fran!
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Happy Birthday and Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Bird Day, all three in one weekend! Congratulations on hearing, seeing, and identifying so many birds. On my walks I note the birds I see. I’m not as avid a bird watcher, though, than my mother-in-law once was. She has a metal box of index cards. She and my father-in-law when he was living would take “birding” trips. He was the photographer and she the watcher. Sounds so romantic to me. Thanks for sharing your experience to brighten my day.
A bit of good bird news: I have a baby board book coming out in 2025 titled “What’s that Sound?” about the sounds of the birds on the bayou. I’m beyond excited!
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Thank you, Margaret! It was a big and beautiful weekend. I can picture your in-laws on their birding trips – romantic, indeed. My husband went with me to the lake; he had hoped to see a hawk and was elated to get such a good look for so long. Congratulations on the board book of bayou bird sounds! How exciting and what a great idea! I will certainly be watching for it.
Happy Birthday and Happy Birdday, Fran. Your love of birds is so contagious. I want to stand by my neighbor’s birdfeeder tomorrow and just watch the flow of traffic. Even the bunnies and the mallard duck partners enjoy the food that falls to the ground. Thanks for entertaining me with another side of nature. Love the photos, too.
I love this paean to our bird friends, and especially the pics you shared. Happy three celebrations weekend.
We have a bird who kept building a nest under the deck and someone (raccoons probably) kept tearing it down. It made us so sad and then we saw a lone egg on the wood. The boys wanted us to keep it safe for her. We had to explain there was nothing we could do. 😦