I’m going to admit something to you. I’ve been on what amounts to a forty-year guilt trip. It all started when I was about fourteen years old. That’s when I seriously took up running in track and field and cross country. Much of the training for those sports takes place early in the morning or in the evening. Those also happen to be the best times for birding.
It didn’t get any better when cycling entered the picture, or swimming. Those activities also often require early departures or getting out of the house for pool time.
But when spring comes around each year and birds migrate through our area, I feel guilty if I let the spring go by without finding some interesting species somewhere along the way. That means getting out the door by 6:00 am to get on site in time for the dawn chorus, or the departure of ducks from the wetlands.
Yet something’s changed in the last year that is making my unnatural dilemma less conflicting. We moved to a house that backs up to a wetland. There are birds that come to that wetland that I once traveled miles to see. Notable among them are sandhill cranes. These formerly uncommon birds were once an annual treat during their March migration. I recall the first time my brother and I watched a flight of 400 Sandhills heading straight north over our house in St. Charles, Illinois. We heard them first. That’s often the case with sandhill cranes. Their voices carry long distances.
We stood there in awe as the giant silver birds passed over in a long see formation. Then we danced around in street because it was such a treat back in 1973 to see even a couple of these birds. A very few bred in highly protected spots here in Illinois. They were considered rare enough that their nesting sites were closely guarded secrets.
These days, thanks to environmental laws that have improved habitat availability and reduced poisons that harm wildlife species, sandhill cranes have made a successful comeback. They are quite common now even in Illinois.
Which is why two different pairs of the birds have been seen in our backyard. They have even walked up to our bird feeders for breakfast or lunch, depending on their mood.
So my guilt over not seeing any cool spring birds is partly assuaged by the fact that they now come to me. The same holds true with the formerly endangered wood duck, a classy-looking waterfowl that I’d see once or twice a year along the Fox River. Their numbers were quite low forty years ago. Installation of wood duck nesting boxes has helped the species grow in population.
Last year we had fourteen wood ducks marching from the wetland up to our bird feeders to munch on corn. They were wary birds but for some reason felt better about walking to our feeders than flying.
We also have hawks of several species and great horned owls that will sing throughout the night during winter or breeding season. On top of that there are sparrows and even warblers that can be heard singing in our backyard.
On top of our daily wildlife sightings that include coyotes and rabbits and squirrels, I regularly get out for nature hike. This past weekend the walk too me through Nelson Lake Marsh, an Illinois Nature Preserve about a mile from my home. And again, a trip to that property used to require a drive of 6-8 miles. Now I can actually run there, course through the preserve for four to five miles, and run home again. This is my scouting method, and I can often count 20-30 species of birds simply by hearing them and cover all sorts of habitats from wetland to woods to restored prairie. So the diversity is thrilling.
Come late spring the bobolinks return to the fields along with meadowlarks, kingbirds and sedge wrens. From the wetlands come the sewing-machine voices of marsh wrens, and from the woods the plaintive calls of wood pewee, one of several flycatcher species that call the preserve home.
I’ll trot through and survey the various habitats, then come back out with binoculars on a day when I take a break from running. That doesn’t mean I don’t still feel torn by running on days when the birding would clearly be fantastic.
Out on the bike it’s a different story. Covering so much ground in typically open country, there’s no real time to pause and look at a kestrel on the wire above. The landscape is a fauvism. One’s concentration is often focused on the pavement directly ahead.
But as I type this, the calls of forty cranes have come down from the sky above. They are moving on a brisk spring day, headed to whatever breeding grounds they favor, likely to the far north. Their voices are built on 60M years of evolutionary change and development. But perchance they do not sound much different now than they did 10M or 30M years ago.
So all the while this guilt trip over whether I should run or ride or swim or bird is really rather silly. Being able to access the things we love and enjoy in this very brief life we human beings have on earth is really the name of the game. Everything else and all the guilt-fed considerations are really an unnatural dilemma. We’re given this gift of life somehow, and those who treasure it get the most from their experiences. Those who can only snipe at others and blame the world for not giving them what they want will receive exactly the life they deserve. Fat of mind and stupified by their own narrow vision, they will hide in the self-proclaimed glory of their personal worth and never see that the world has much more to offer than what they are so determined to steal from it.
And that is the unnatural dilemma that faces us all.