What rare birds can teach us about all of life’s opportunities
Yesterday through email I learned there was a sighting of a relatively rare bird, a Smith’s Longspur, in the vicinity of our house. We back up to a wetland, so there are plenty of birds around day-to-day. But this bird was on its way north to the far reaches of Canada for summer breeding. It would likely only stay a day or two and then be gone.
For those who don’t go birding it’s a bit difficult to describe why the bird is such a prize to see. Illinois is on the eastern edge of its migratory path. Typically to see this species, birders in Illinois drive into the flat plains of central Illinois where they like open ground. The draw might be leftover farm seed or simply the drifting remnants of last summer’s wild seed stock.
But they like it in open country, and scrubby. It so happens the property that backs up to the wetland behind our house consists of plots prepared for new homes. Those patches of ground have been sitting dormant ever since the recession clobbered the real estate market eight years ago. The owner is a wealthy developer who must still be paying taxes on that land. Not fun for anyone.
In the meantime, the topsoil was removed and what remains is hardscrabble clay and a sandy surface. Weeds grow in profusion each summer, but they mow them down by city code to keep the place from looking too awful.
So the environment resembles the gravelly stretches of the far northern tundra. That’s where Smith’s longspurs are headed to breed.
On a lark
Some astute birder spotted the longspur because last year an interesting bird also showed up on that area of land. That was a Lark sparrow, and they apparently hung around to breed last summer as well. That makes me feel like a dummy when it comes to birding. Here was a beautiful species of bird not 300 yards from my house and I never noticed it there.
A running encounter
I should know better. I run past that development perhaps once a week. It backs up to another subdivision that is already built out. Last night I decided to do a three mile loop and jog past the spot where the birder had identified the Smith’s longspur the day before. I have not run much the last week as my knee awaits surgery for a torn meniscus, but as long as I keep my toes pointed straight ahead the knee does not act up.
So I enjoyed my little run as twilight started to fade to darkness. Then I cut through the ‘undeveloped development’ while counting the plot numbers up from 18 to 26, which is the place where the bird was originally spotted.
Stepping off the road, I walked onto the flat clay surface and sure enough, the bird lifted from the ground and flew a bit to the west. I could see the distinctive dark center tail feathers bordered by white. Even in half-darkness, the overall field marks were evident. After forty years of birding, one develops an innate sense of what to look for when a bird lifts off the ground. Where most people see a blur, a birder’s eyes instantly create a frame of reference around its size, relative shape, manner of flight and if possible, the colors that close the deal. It is these field marks that produce an “identification” of a bird.
But having seen the longspur at twilight, I didn’t want to disturb it any further. So I trotted the rest of the way home and wrote an email back to the birder friend that had sent me the notice. “I found it. But I’ll check for the Smith’s in the morning,” I told him.
When Sue and I got back this morning from running at the indoor track, I pointed out to her a small line of cars visible across the field. I’d told her about the bird and the fact that I’d head over there after we got home from the workout. On my way to work, I stopped and rolled down the window to talk with one of the birders sitting inside her car. This is how we birders do business. We use our vehicles as portable blinds.
She admitted there was no sign of the bird, a fact I had already gathered because the cars were spread out around the drive circling the property. See, birders have telltale behaviors as well. Typically they cluster together when they find something good. But if it doesn’t show up, people drift apart in hopes of being the lucky one to find it again. This can be both good and bad for the birds being studied. But that’s a topic for a different day.
Better days, and a better place
It would have much nicer for me to have seen the Smith’s longspur in broad daylight. It’s a thrill to see a rarity like that, especially a bird that one has never seen before. That brings the mystery of the world just a bit closer in some way. A sense of wonder returns in that moment. It perhaps sounds pathetic to say, but the basic idea of saying “I’ve just seen something new” is enough to make the world seem a better place.
But it is just as joyous to see familiar things in a new way. Such was the case on the day that I took that photograph of a great blue heron fishing in the aftermath of a dam. Every feather on the bird seems alive, does it not?
The experience of seeing something new (whether common or rare in nature) is much like setting a PR in endurance sports. There’s the thrill of doing it. Then the joy of sharing it. It brings back your sense of wonder.
Sometimes we have to adjust our notions of what constitutes a “new” accomplishment. As we age, it is no longer possible to break or lifetime records. I could no more run a sub-31:00 10k at the age of 60 than I could expect to flap my arms and fly to the moon. It isn’t physically possible any more. My heart can’t pump the blood that fast. My muscles have changed. I’m heavier. All these factors make it impossible to perform like I once did.
But last spring I ran 6:50 pace for a 5K, and it was thrilling to feel that fitness level despite the fact that my PR is almost six minutes faster for that distance.
We all need to look at the opportunity to do something “new” as ‘rare opportunities.’ That is, we can rediscover ourselves through a will to find new ways to enjoy what we’re doing. Just as it is still a thrill to see an entirely new species of bird in the field, it is fun to add up the miles of training and go out to perform the best I can on a given day.
Because when you think about it, life itself is a rare opportunity. You only get one chance at it. Make it a new one every day.