Bluebirds? “Only in my mind.”

Nantucket Island

Due to winter weather, it took us more than nine hours to make I-195 Eastthe drive from New York City to Hyannis. As it happened, at least one of us (STFU) understood the need to be on Nantucket for New Year’s Eve, because such an opportunity truly doesn’t happen too often in a lifetime.  So we managed the drive, caught the fast ferry and arrived to a full panorama of downtown lights only 12 hours after departure. We enjoyed a midnight meal, plenty of good cheer, and a long leisurely sleep to usher in the new year.

Nearly all of the “new year” accounts I have read express relief for the change of year and also for the turning of the decade. Only one suggests that the future may be worse than the past. Daniel Gilbert writes in a NYTimes Op-Ed, “Ours may be the last generation of Americans to suffer for return — to remember events that took place when place still mattered.”

How place still matters

Optimism is reputed to be a survival trait; humor even more basic. I witnessed both in abundance at Nantucket’s annual Audubon bird count meeting on the evening of New Year’s Day. More than thirty serious birders gathered at the UMass-Boston Field Station to report tallies of birds sighted by volunteers who spent the entire day outdoors, scanning island skies, thickets, and beaches for hints of wing. I hardly qualify as even a novice birder, so the sense I make of what I heard is certainly suspect…nonetheless, as I listened to the rote calling out of bird-names and the response in numbers from each designated area’s representative, my attention was captured by the reactions of these hardy experts. An image began to emerge in my mind of an incredible ecosystem of avian life – I would love to see an accurate animation of bird flows over time, specific to geographic regions and types of bird. It would be beautiful, I’m sure. And alarming.

The concern with place presented by Gilbert has to do with the human ability to fix memories. As individualized shops give over, increasingly, to chain stores promising the same product everywhere, the ability to associate key events with particular places anywhere becomes blurred. We will still remember, he says, but in a displaced fashion:  “… reliving experiences that are located in time but dislocated in space. ” At the bird meeting, someone asked, “When’s the last year we had a bobwhite?” “I keep hoping,” was the scorekeeper’s reply, while someone else answered, “Thirty years.”  It looks like their range is typically south of Massachusetts, although bobwhites have been common here in summer. I was surprised by how many summer birds are in the count, such as 2,328 American Robins! Imagine the double shock when someone commented, “A little lean, that!” and another echoed, “It’s got to be low.”

“Anyone hear a fish crow today?” “No.” “Well said.”

I am sure I missed many jokes whose point was based on insider ornithological knowledge. There were more birds named that I have never heard of (especially varieties of ducks and gulls) than those I know I’ve seen, but I was pleased to be familiar with a bunch of songbirds, woodpeckers, and hawks. More than half of the reported bird counts did not inspire commentary one way or the other. Either the numbers were in the range to be expected, or whatever change was apparent did not warrant verbal exchange. Sometimes there was an audible sigh, or a slight deepening of silence. But most of the banter was intended to keep the mood light and you wouldn’t know (unless you know) that there may be cause for concern. Besides, some of the counts were higher than anticipated – evidence of adaptation that will yield its result only as changes (whether of climate or development) continue to unfold.


Note: this is not a full account of all
reported birds, only those to which
there was active response
from the birders.

There was “a pile” of black ducks (596), and a “crapload” of coots (@41?). I know there’s quite a developed scientific vocabulary for these things, so I checked technical terms for groups of specific birds. Nope. I was relieved – the whole meeting would not be conducted in jargon I couldn’t understand! “Crapload” would come between a covey of grouse, partridges, ptarmigans or quail and a deceit of lapwings. And “pile” is missing between a peep of chickens and a pitying of turtle doves. Isn’t language marvy?! There were 19 harlequins (“Wow! Nice count!”), and 24 gadwalls (“Holy cow”), but the Old Squaws seemed to have disappeared. “There was no flight this morning – that was weird.” “There were more than 22,000 over Barnstable the other day, where did they go?” “What?! Have you been drinking again??” “That’ll get ’em wondering.” “They’re somewhere, we just don’t know where.”

Good news first

There were 190 Lesser BlackBacked Gulls. “Is that a record high?” “First time we’ve had that.” “It’s pretty phenomenal.” “It’s up there!”  Seven Hairy Woodpeckers were spotted: “that’s of a lot of them, a lot for us,” and 91 Flickers: “Seems like a good flicker year.” There were also “a lot of crows here today” (704), and another potential high: 1,026 chicadees. Eleven golden-crowned kinglets. “That’s amazing; they’re kinda scarce.” Someone saw a tundra swan: “Who is that guy?!”

A murmur greeted the single viewing of a pied-billed grebe, “a rarie” and “good count” for the 46 hornbilled grebes. One bittern: “Wooo, nice.” Eighteen Great Blue Herons was exciting (“Wow!”) There were six blackbelly plovers and a single snipe, “Good job,” and one Glaucus: “Way to go! Thank you!” Two dovekeys were seen, “Yea!” “Exciting!” “So dramatic!” and 252 Razorbills, “Wow!” “Whew!” “Woohoo!” “Sweet!” for seven seen Barn Owls, and another “whoo” for the single Longspur. And so it went, for about an hour, with these highs punctuated by lows intermixed with unremarkable counts in a syncopated rhythm larger than all of us.

Not such good news

DSCN0492Not a single killdeer, a fact greeted with a low groan followed by a few seconds of silence. At the news of only three Black Legged Kittywegs, there was a sharp, collective intake of breath. A bird whose name I missed had a very low count: “That’s pretty puny. Horrible.” No ringnecked pheasants had been seen: “Bummer. There are some around.” It was “too much to ask for” a blue wing shoveler, although there was a sole pine warbler: “Good job, they’re scarce this year.” No pippins. “Just thought I’d ask.” There was a veritable protest when no one reported a Kestral. “Ahhhhh!” “I thought we had one!” “It was a rumor.” “Who started that one?!”  Thirty-six redtail hawks, however, was “not so bad.” Overall though, “the songbirds are not strong. This is really weird. Songbirds are really down this year.”  Seven towhees. “That’s low too, isn’t it.” Field sparrow? No. “Oh, just checking.” Eleven savannah sparrows: “Really crummy.”

About halfway through the meeting, the group had a moment on the edge… there was an eider of a type I didn’t catch but the question was posed, “King or Queen or One Who Wasn’t Sure?” [Seen at the museum the next day: ‘Captain, the lad’s a girl!’ about a sailor who fooled the crew for eight months until she became sick.] Meanwhile,”We had a bird we think’s a hybrid,” regarding which they decided to count “1/2 of each.” Clearly, evidence of a natural drama is discernible between the lines of these birder’s spare and functional statements and dry humor.

Signs of Change

Erosion of the island has been occurring at an increasing annual rate for the past several years. Houses have been lost to the sea; others have been relocated to their innermost property line in order to persist as long as possible. Scientists suggest that within 600 years, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard both might be gone. Birds will find other habitats, of course. Unless they lose elements of native habitat required for survival. See “Life in the Boundary Layer” for a taste of what some of these elements might be.

The Gillmont? “Going once, going twice….count week.” It took me a few follow-up questions to understand the system.  The “week” of the official bird count is centered on a region’s chosen date.  For Nantucket this is January 1, which means the full week for the official, annual birdcount is December 29 to January 4, but because this is an inexact poll, bird species seen during the three days before and after count week can be added to the final tally. Last year, there were 134 species in the literal count and 142 with the additional days before-and-after. This year, so far, only 117 species have been counted during the official week, with another 8 that were seen in the three days prior to the start of the official week, that’s 125 total. If no additional species are seen before January 7th, the overall species count will be down by 17.

The Faraway Place

Despite the zero count for Tufted Ducks, “I feel in my bones there is one here. Stay on your toes.” Zero Egrets inspired a pun, “No regrets,” which got quite a chuckle, “It’s so late,” apologized the scorekeeper. No Common Mergansers drew a whistle (of dismay?) and the absence of Ruddy Ducks (“Uh oh”) led to, “We know what we’re looking for tomorrow.” As with many things in life, much comes down to being present at the “right time, right place” in order to see (as did one lucky soul) a Short-Eared Owl.

There will be a tomorrow. As these birders showed me – reinforcing life lessons from friends – how we get there (enduring the weather, teasing each other, sharing passions), and what we make of it once we arrive, is up to us.

9 thoughts on “Bluebirds? “Only in my mind.”

  1. Hi Steph – Rather a nice report I thought. You picked up a lot for a novice birder. Were you recording?

    Regarding the Fish Crow comment – which actually was “Un unh.” The humor there is that’s what their very different call sounds like. They don’t “caw” like American Crows.

    Nice to have you there and thanks for sharing. I’m going to pass your link around the 76 members of our Nantucket Birding e-mail group. — Ken

  2. Hey Ken,

    Thanks! No, I wasn’t recording, just taking copious notes. 🙂

    You busted me on doing ‘interpreting’ instead of ‘verbatim reporting.’ It’s a hazard: once I *think* I have the meaning, I’ve discovered that I sometimes written down a word that is more clear (as in, “no” rather than “un unh”) and then…. well. Do you know I took “fish crow” for a joke rather than as the name of an actual bird?! 😉 I have no idea what sounds fishes make but I’m sure they don’t crow!

    Anyway – at least I had some awareness that I was missing subtext!

    Please do share; I’m very interested in feedback on-going thinking about what any/all of this might mean. Best wishes and good luck to birds and birders everywhere.

  3. Hi Steph-I believe we met after the count, I was with Renee on Tuckernuck the day before. While you were making your way to Hyannis we were in a shack on the west end of that island, taking a break form the weather. Thanks for sharing your blog. It brought me back to that night. I thought you’d like to know that the comment on bluebirds “Only in my mind” was mine, and the backround was that while we were on Tuckernuck I was feeling a bluebird (they are as close as Martha’s Vineyard, which is clearly visable from Tuckernuck)and in my attempt to conjure one up (which is a trick that I learned) the closest I could get were bluejays. Hence, they were only in my mind.

  4. Hi Steph:
    I appreciate your fresh look at Nantucket and the Christmas Bird Count. You have an eye for detail. Birding may be in your future!

    “Place” still matters to some of us. i have returned to live on Nantucket after an absence of six or so years because its sense of place has such a hold on me. Is it the brilliant quality of light, the sound of surf crashing that reaches me at my mid-island home, the stark beauty of the moors and the winter beaches? Or, is it the people who inhabit this faraway island? “Only in my mind?” The questions continue.

    Good wishes for your unfolding work. Charlotte

  5. Diane, I want to learn the trick of conjuring up a bluebird! 🙂

    One reason that phrase caught my attention is because of losing (some years ago) a pair of bluebirds due to an untimely delivery of firewood…they abandoned their house despite having already lain eggs. 🙁

    That tragic event came to symbolize a series of other losses for me, attached tightly to a particular place, which persists in time and relationships only in my mind. Bluebirds of happiness were not to be! Now, I didn’t have to come clean about this, but I think it matters – especially when one presumes to be in the business of “interpreting” – to recognize and admit the possibility of bias or misperception. So, now that I know the background of your comment, I think there was only a wistful note in your tone, which I magnified to mourning.

    I’ve been thinking about my occasional tendency of leaning to the grim, because when Ken sent the link to all of you birders he described your meeting as the “count down” – and I immediately took this as

    a) a label for the particular kind of meeting (distinct from other kinds of meetings you might have at different times of the year or for other purposes) and

    b) an ominous indication of birding knowledge concerning species extinction.

    Ken’s been emailing me spreadsheets and info on trends that I might try to organize into another blogpost or a comment to continue this conversation here (if anyone’s interested in pursuing it). I would be particularly keen to learn more views on place, like Charlotte shared, and also strategies for coping with unwelcome changes – which is the social element of the meeting that I appreciated so much.

    Charlotte, it seems to me that “place” needs to matter to all of us, the question is how to remind people of this relevance! I’m interested that you wrote “its sense of place” – indicating a sense that “Nantucket” itself has (owns? projects? gives? yields?) a sense of place. Does the island ‘give place’ or do the people on the island create it? I hope this doesn’t feel like an interrogation! I am honestly curious!

    I’ve just finished reading a phenomenal book by Keith Basso about the sense of place of Western Apache, in which Apaches speak place into being in such powerful ways that the land actually talks to them. My friends and I commented on the obvious playfulness of Nantucketeers in naming houses, composing signage, labeling a conservation section of heath the Serengeti, etc. In your description, though, of light and sound and beauty, it seems you are referring to a sensorial experience. This is what seems to be missing from many people’s lives – at least in the grounded sense of having a homeplace with (either) a future or a history…

    Anyway, I hope birding is in my future! I can’t predict whether I’ll turn hardy enough for the winter version, but I’ve been drawn to birds since the early 1990s. In Indiana, I saw some kind of grebes swim long distances underwater and watched sand hill cranes dance. Wow. I also noticed that as soon as I began birdwatching my visual acuity seemed to increase in terms of comprehending American Sign Language! Bird lore intrigues me, as well as what can be learned about people based upon our relationship (or lack thereof) with birds (who are everywhere, even in cities) and nature in general.

  6. Hi Steph-The conjuring trick can be applied to anything in life. It is based on the universal power of attraction. Be careful what you wish to attract, it can work with good as well as bad. It takes practice. Try it. LMK.

  7. 🙂

    I’ve been wondering if the personal disclosure ‘scared off’ a continuation of this conversation. Very un-Yankee of me, huh?!

    We actually witnessed Renee conjure the birds up out of the bushes on our last day there – it was quite something! I heard the call she did and will experiment with it. As to applying the universal power of attraction to life in general, yes, I know it’s true and believe me, I’ve been practicing! Not perfectly, however, as a few recent slips show.

    On the ‘un-Yankee’ theme, I was wondering if anyone read this letter to My American Friends? It’s from a European point-of-view, and quite nice in its articulation of the subtle effects of culture and place. And I have been thinking more about bird trends, and what it means to feel placed, to be in place – and know it. Hopefully I’ll get to writing those thoughts here soon.

  8. I enjoyed reading this account of your encounter with the birdwatchers’ community a lot, what a great example of ‘thick description’!

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