Confessional Trip Report - Old River/Lost River Bird Count
by David Portz
I guess it’s time to confess that though something of a bird-count junkie, I think I always see the same Great Blue Heron.
Different bayous, swamps, meanders and oxbows – wherever I go – the same great gray-blue bird flies away at my approach. Sometimes I’m with a gaggle of paddlers and the bird scares off quickly. It spreads its great blue wings for a decisive down-sweep, lunges forward, swivels feet back. It leaves behind always its very same squawk. If I’m alone and stealthy, I glass the bird and inventory its sameness against all my other Great Blue Heron sightings - in number approaching “countless”:
Gray and yellowish bill. Check.
Ornate black stripe above eye ending in plume at back of head, hanging off like bad toupee. Check.
Dark crescent on leading edge of wings when folded, on gray fuselage. Check.
Brown pantaloons, gray legs & knees, white fore-neck mottled with dark streaks. Check. Check. Check.
Wingspread six feet when inevitably flying away. Check.
Same bird. A mature male.
I confess I have the same thing going with a mature Bald Eagle.
Perhaps I should confess that I’m an immature bird counter, a novice. My function is solely to sing out “there’s a bird!”, point somewhere, and let a seasoned birder identify it.
Still, this limited function gives me great pleasure.
Sometimes the one Cardinal I know darts through willows. Sometimes my Cedar Waxwing pillages berries with its colleagues from a single hawthorn tree on the bayou’s bank.
I feel bad about this syndrome I’ve got, and here’s why: I’m obviously missing something. Is it the differences in their appearances? Some birds are molting, some are females, some are young, some have schmutz hanging off their bills, or a wing which doesn’t fold properly. With great binoculars and a lifetime of bird-watching behind me I might see variations in individual birds’ coloration, or peculiar colors of certain of their knees, or how they’ve coifed their crests. (In the same way as, in Fifties, one might have seen plumage variations in teenagers’ slicked-back hair.)
Or if I was a different kind of developed birder I might see differences of personality. I’ve heard that even spiders of the same species have different personalities. Observe five spiders and you’ll find one who goes on strike if you make noise, another that goes on strike at bright light, another that is just plain lazy, one who charges at you, angry, and now and then a dynamo - a busy, outgoing spider. In other words, nervous, shy, morose, choleric, and then the occasional elevator-talking spider. If spiders are not your organism, then consider the flamboyant range of personalities among chimpanzees – their senses of humor, outrage and honor. The abashedness, sometimes, of your dog.
To the keen observer there must be all manner of Great Blue Heron: wisecracking ones, wallflowers, show boats and peacocks, those dumb as rocks and those rocket scientists. I bet I’d see all kinds of personalities if I was a keen observer.
You laugh, I can see you laughing, but I will offer this. When you read a novel, or when you go to a party, aren’t you looking for the souls who show personality? Doesn’t personality in a co-worker distinguish him or her – and you spend your off-hours puzzling the person out? Who are the focused-on sports-figures? The cherished celebrities? Is not personality the spice of life? It is for the protagonist’s personal qualities that you are reading that novel next to your bed. At the dinner table with a bunch of strangers, admit it, you’re looking for a good laugh from someone on a roll, or even better, an embarrassing anecdote, a personally meaningful morsel.
But with the Great Blue Heron, I’m an amateur and can’t perceive personality quirks nor differences in appearance. Because of my lacks, I scrutinize the top of the tree and always see the same Bald Eagle.
If I saw the Bald Eagles as different birds, some with Eagle obsessive-compulsiveness, some with Bald humor, if I experienced them with all their opinions - how she likes to land in the nest just so, left foot first, or how many hours one should ripen a catfish carcass ... or if I could perceive how a gray day affects the Bald Eagles compared to the blue sunny ones or pugnacious windy ones, think how alive I’d be. If I knew each bird’s life story, each one’s in all its detail, I’d be like an all-seeing God that knew absolutely every particular. Bird-feeder people, over a long course of time, perhaps come to obtain this level of omniscience. They become godlike, watching from their kitchen windows.
I confess I don’t have the needed breadth of understanding in the other direction either – away from the particular. When I see the one Great Blue Heron which I always see, I don’t say to myself, “we are One.”
I think it would be sound to say this, recognize it out loud. Finding One-ness would keep me and others like me (hominids) from throwing plastic forks out the car window, and Whataburger boxes that eventually darken and choke the waterways. I’d avoid toting things out of the store in a plastic bag if I thought “we are One and tatters of this polyethylene will eventually clog my throat -- We will gag ensemble.” The one plastic bag that’s bagging-and-tagging us all. To the great plastic bag in the sky. Even more unthinkable than 100 million wrens each having its own personality is the whole globe being a biome, living and breathing one life. I’m just incapable of thinking of that when looking at a bird. One-ness is harder to swallow than a plastic bag. The usual approach to nature is in the particulars - if one’s sensitive enough. One-ness isn’t as fascinating as particularity. One’s never really sensitive enough for Oneness.
When people look at me, they say – that’s one weird bird. I’m a sad case. I can’t perceive sufficiently. Not unity nor individuality. I see only one Great Blue Heron.
The author, David Portz