Friday, July 20, 2012

Confessions of a Bad Lister and Wanna-be Birder Poet

As birders, we all keep records of one kind or another. Some of us are daily dairy fanatics, writing down species by species, the numbers, places and conditions under which we observe our feathered quarry. Others have fallen fully into the "eBird" rage, documenting important information that quickly goes out on the quicksilver internet airwaves. I understand the importance of all of this and admit that I am not as dutiful a documenter as I probably should be. No, I am sometimes lazy with my lists and guess what? Sometimes I forget to write down what I saw and when I saw it!  I have a life list but at the moment cannot tell you how many birds there are on it--exactly.  Somewhere around 650---ish---I think here at home and maybe add in another three hundred or so on a couple of trips abroad?  My last lifer was a beautiful Kirtland's Warbler. I shared the sighting with a few hundred of my closest friends at Magee Marsh. And so I do have a date and time stamp for most of my birds. But just not obsessively so. I used to chase and list every single one but then something changed. Yes, I know. It is a shameful thing for an upstanding birder to admit to.One of these days I will count them all up. I have even promised to be a better eBirder. One day. I promise.  But I know that  my secret is safe with you all, right?

Another admission here. I journal in lyrical prose and verse. I am like many creative writers (perhaps most but among the few who will admit it) a wanna-be poet. I'm not sure why but so many of us want desperately to have the verse that dances in our brains be accepted just like the other stuff we write. There of course is plenty of precedence for birds in verse--from Poe's "The Raven" to Frosts "mid-summer and mid-wood" ovenbird, poetry gives us a way to express the wonder we all see in birds in a different and evocative way. I love the way Julie Zickefoose let's her verse fly from time to time. Nature sound maestro Lang Elliott and my artist friend John Muir Laws also write poetry that imagines birds in a very different way. Poetry lets me see, hear and feel the birds. I think that poetry is one of the most efficient ways to write in that it boils what we see, hear, smell, touch or even taste down into a concentration of words. Poetry, if done right, delivers a lot of emotional bang for the buck.  I want my poems and prose to still give you the data--what a bird looks like, sounds like,habitat, behavior or maybe some gestalt that makes the i.d obvious. More than that though, I want  to feel the bird in a different way. I want to remember some emotion outside of the ornithology.  And so here, as we settle in to the heart of summer. I've revisited some of my stuff and  thought I would share a little bit of  how I see a few of our feathered friends.

Ummm...again, if you don't mind--keep this little secret between you and me. I wouldn't want this getting out!

Here goes!

Warning to a Warbling Vireo
A nondescript vireo
Wearing a drably cryptic gray-green disguise
(speaking on condition of total anonymity)
Told me…
If I see you I will seize you and then squeeze you till you squirt
Rattled and a bit intimidated by the persistent threats
I left him alone to hoard the cache of brown bespeckled ovoid treasures
Safely nestled in a carefully crafted woven grassy vault.

My reply to the vexing vireo:
IF I see you - I’ll I.D. you -and then I’ll list you in my book!

Summer Swifts
A squadron of chimney swifts
Twelve o’clock high!
Focuses twittering attacks on a ruddy brick and mortar edifice

Reconnoitering a slatey summer sky
Targets for today – mosquitoes, mayflies and midges

A flight of three – breaks right, tight –
then rolls left-
a lead and two wingmen
Banking, climbing, diving!

Feathered fusiform fuselages move as one –
Dark forms piercing the heavy August air
Bring grace to the dog days of summer

The Lumper's Lament
An ornithologist on hearing
That the mighty A.O.U.
Had split a single species
Into twenty-two
Rejoiced in his longer list
Called a lab-coated friend
To thank him for the hair-splitting blade
Of the molecular –naming trend
“Old Darwin would be proud!” he said
To know that things have changed
We no longer need to see the beak
To know that things are strange!

A short three years later
At a meeting far away
The multiple species that had come to be
By vote---they went away.

The Union in its "wisdom"
Made many species one
Choosing to ignore the old idea
Of sexual isolation.
As tanagers become grosbeaks
And  the warblers re-arranged
He counted and reassessed his feathered tally
That waxed and then had waned

Other birders hearing the tragedy
All cursed the lumping shift
And vowed to find some other birds
To fill their waning lists.

Caesar’s Head Corvids (3.23.12)
Two Ravens
Hang on to the edge of the world
Daring the coldest north wind to blow them from it
With their dagger -toed feet grasping the clouds
They tilt an obsidian feathered finger -- just enough to make time stand still
They croak and tumble in the violent uplift like acrobats—
Coaxing gravity to pull them down to the reality that mires me to rock
and earth

Playing on wings borrowed from a buteo and emboldened by fearlessness foiled from falcons
They dance between the ethereal of ancient myth and the necessity of persistent legends
Tricking the zephyrs to take them where they want to be
I watch and worship their bold black being
Envying their freedom without fear
 and joy taken without regret


  1. Just delightful. Thank you for sharing your verse with us. I confess to not being the best lister, either. I try. Have little scraps of paper here and there, little notebooks scattered among my outdoors paraphernalia...ebird? Well, only if it's very rare for my area, do I take the time to document on e-bird.

  2. I found listing super fun when i started out but it was interfering with the fun of birding, so toning it down has let me continue to enjoy. I document all my birding outings on ebird and try to most days do a yard count.
    Very nice writing.

  3. Good stuff Drew! That Lumper's Lament was hilarious. Great imagery in the poems.

  4. especial liked The Lumpers Lament; great writing! As to 'lists' if it's hard work, I think .... why bother? If it's a 'list' that you need then you make a piont of doing just that. Just like an artist will buy the new tube of cerise to finish off the latest project perhaps. Sometimes, different people have different priorities and expectations to aim for and that's all good. It's what makes the world go round. Enjoy and make the most of the parts that make life interesting for us sounds good to me. Enjoyed your post!

  5. Ah, a kindred spirit!

    If I may, here's some of mine:

  6. FANTASTIC! I'm not a poet and wish I was. I'm also not very good at listing. I'm rather new at all this, but I've found that blogging is my way of listing. Thank you for being brave about your confessions.

  7. A very enjoyable post! I wish I was a better lister ... it's just difficult to find the time. I truly delighted in reading your wonderful verses. A most gifted poet you are!

  8. Great poem and article! I definitely feel like a "bad lister" when I cant I.D. a bird out in the field!

  9. Great poem and article, I confess about feeling like a "bad lister," especially when I cant ID a bird out in the field!