July 14, 2011

Birds have wings and they use them and Getting a better view

“Birds have wings and they use them” was the Zen Koan of my mentor Nancy. It is a statement so obtuse that it literally shakes the reader out of a slumber – as any good Koan should. Birds do not queue up in perfect light, perched in side profile with head held high, prey in mouth, feathers preened. In reality birds wobble under bushes, dart behind trees, and dive under water. Simply put, birds have wings and they use them.

As summer yawns long days full of haze and heat and the trees are all leaves and light finding a tiny bird can seem increasingly difficult. One trick for finding tree-buried birds goes against our natural stalking instinct. When the sound or movement of a bird can be seen mid to high up a tree it is often better to circle the tree in a steady circumference rather than actually walking up to the tree. While it would seem natural to get “closer” to a bird to see it, walking up to the trunk of the tree often makes it more difficult. The bird is suddenly at a higher angle, harsher on the neck, and is now above even more limbs and branches. If a bird is nesting in the tree the presence of a predator at the tree’s base may also flush the bird. 

Instead, walk a slow circle around the tree, holding a steady radius from the trunk. This allows small holes to open up, like some cosmic alignment, between the leaves and branches while the bird retains it’s height in the tree so we don’t loose sight. Also, by circling the tree towards the sun’s position, it is often possible to get the bird into “goodlight” by putting ourselves between the sun and bird. 

While this trick doesn’t always work and the bird may go unseen or even fly off practice Nancy’s mantra, “birds have wings and they use them” and you will find some semblance of peace.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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