Sunday, May 24, 2009

Beginning Birder Chronicles Part One: The Life List

One of the things that many birders do to document their birdwatching is keep a life list. A life list is basically a checklist of species of wild birds that someone has seen.

Jove and I have both started our life lists. For mine, I printed out a checklist from the front of a bird guide of the approximately 800 birds found in Eastern North America. For the birds I see everyday like House Sparrows and American Robins, I just checked the box and for less common birds I am recording the date and location that I saw it. Jove's list is a small notebook we made where he has written down the names of the birds he has both seen and knows how to identify. Jove's booklet is really more of a self-made bird guide than a life list, but I feel like we can wait until he is a little older for him to maintain his own life list. I also keep anecdotal journal entries about birds that we see: their field marks, behavior and the weather conditions and location where we saw them. I am not including birds that I know I have seen in the past, although I am not sure if you are supposed to or not.

Field marks, such as colors, patterns, shape or size of a bird's head, beak, feathers, etc are what birders use to positively identify a bird. You probably already know what a robin looks like, but how do you know what a robin is? The rust colored breast feathers, the white tips on its wings when it flies, its yellow beak, its size, its hopping behavior. It is useful to notice the field marks of common birds to get used to knowing them on uncommon birds. Field guides include color drawings of birds that emphasize field marks that allow you to distinguish between birds that could easily be confused.

Here's my life list as of right now:

Mute Swan
Canada Goose
Red-tailed hawk
Wild Turkey
Rock Dove (pigeons)
Monk Parakeet
Ruby-Throated Hummingbird
Common Flicker
Eastern Kingbird
Tree Swallow
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tufted Titmouse
Northern Mockingbird
Gray Catbird
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
European Starling
House Sparrow
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Red-Winged Blackbird
Northern Cardinal

Jove told me we should keep a life list for everything, not just birds.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

a bird's nest

Yesterday we went on a nature walk with my mom's group and I talked about birds and nests and all of the kids who were old enough built their own nests out of rocks, sand, seaweed, marsh grass and shells. Jove has really internalized the idea that birds build with whatever materials they have available: rocks, grass, feathers on a farm, moss and lichen in the forest and mud and clay near rivers. We watch the sparrows on our street carry grass clippings and littered paper up to their nests. Ah, city birds...

Today we went to a grassy area to play and Jove started collecting grass clippings to make himself a nest and play baby bird. He hatched, was fed by Miranda and pretended to fly. Then he found a branch and used it to make his own nest. I told him it looked pretty authentic and he told me that he could sell them to birds. I mentioned that birds don't have any money.

I am always wondering how much of everything Miranda understands (Jup says she understands everything) and today it seemed that way. She grabbed a handful of grass and was calling, "Here, robins. Miranda helping robins." These interactions are so amazing and entertaining to see.

Watching and learning about birds, I feel like I am a part of a common human experience. Imagine the first basket weavers and clay bowl builders getting their inspiration from birds.

Lately almost all of our learning takes places this way, we read about something and Jove has an idea about how he wants to do it. Nature, books and Jove's imagination are pretty rich sources of inspiration right now.

Friday, May 8, 2009

the right place at the right time

Today, I took the kids on our first outing to look for birds and we saw many birds and heard what seemed like thousands. Jove was most interested in the birds he could follow for awhile and were familiar like robins and red-winged blackbirds. Miranda was most interested in ducks and holding Jove's binoculars and pretending to look for birds.
We saw a large, reddish bird darting from the grass to the trees and it had a big patch of white feathers on its backside that were visible when it flew away. Just as it flew out of view, a car with park rangers in it pulled up beside us and said, "Did you see the Flicker?" I described what I had seen and they told me it is a flicker, which is an interesting woodpecker(the only one with a brown breast and the only one that eats on the ground). I hope a car full of rangers pulls up next to me the next time I see a bird I don't know.

I watched a pair of birds nesting in a bush and saw quite a few species I had never noticed before. Since it is the height of Spring migration and nest building, birds are everywhere. I am hooked. Jove and Miranda were very entertained being outside, Miranda with her dandelions and Jove with his earthworm castings.

When we were going into the backyard to eat pizza for dinner, I noticed what looked like a clump of eggs on my tomato plant. Jove and I looked closer and realized they were spiders emerging from their eggs. Over the next few minutes, many spider hatchlings started moving away from plant and spinning little strands of silk. It was amazing to watch. Jove says, "I've never seen this before in my life." Jup and I both tell him," Neither have we."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

these days

These days I am smelling the lilacs I cut from our yard and thinking of the lilac bush outside my bedroom window growing up. My smell of Spring.

These days I am exploring the world of birds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and with field guides. I identified a mockingbird that visited our front fence.

These days I am enjoying every moment of sun in a mostly rainy week and every moment with our friends who are moving in a couple of months.

These days I am singing "Little bird, little bird, fly through my window. Little bird, little bird, fly through my window. Buy Molasses Candy." You can hear Pete Seeger's version here.

These days I am in thinking that I need to start recording all of the hilarious things and very interesting questions the kids say everyday like this mom and this mom.

Monday, May 4, 2009


The best part of spending my days with my children is that I get to enjoy their moments of wonder and joy and, perhaps, through connecting with them as children, experience the world as a more beautiful, timeless place.
What really matters to a child? The present moment and the love and excitement they feel in it.

Today, in a brief respite from the rain we walked to the library to pick up bird books and a CD by Elizabeth Mitchell called "You are my little bird." This music has us all dancing and singing around our house all afternoon. I am a big fan of folk singers and have been playing a lot of Pete Seeger's children's songs for the kids. This music is very similar, but her voice is so magical.

So have a listen, wherever you are, especially if its raining.

Elizabeth Mitchell got her inspiration from working in a pre-school in New York City.

If you listen to them, they will teach you so much.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Spring Days

As we spent part of our Earth Day inside making Earth necklaces, my friend says to me, "You would think that they would have made Earth Day in May instead of April so that it would be more likely to be a warm, sunny day than a cool rainy one." So true. We have had our share of pleasant, cool Spring days; a few insanely hot days and many rainy days.

I find that this time of year my mood is so affected by the weather. After so much time spent indoors with the kids all winter, I want to spend every day outside smelling the flowers, planting, catching snails and exploring.

Our days outside are spent going to natural areas, playgrounds, a lot of time in the backyard making huge messes (the kiddie pool was brought out last week when it reached 90 degrees) and riding bikes and trikes at the nearby schoolyard. It truly all seems so exciting because we haven't done much of it in months. I keep wondering if Spring Fever only refers to how crazy people have gotten historically waiting for Spring to arrive (or is that Cabin Fever) or how ecstatic people become when they can finally live outside again.

On rainy days, we have to be more creative and thanks to the Universe for our friends so we all have companionship on days spent inside. Miranda can entertain herself endlessly with dressing up which usually involves shoes, a hat of some variety and a "pretty" dress put on over her clothes. She is also dabbling in the chest of dress up clothes and runs around in a cape saying "Miranda superman." Since we started potty training, the dress up activities also involve underwear and pull-ups and did I mention that she likes to change her socks about five times a day and requests to change all of her clothes after she poops. I am sure you can understand why I want sunny days to be able take them outside...

Today was a rainy day and we spent the morning running errands and having a "play-doh" lunch with a friend.

In the afternoon, Jove and I did an invisible ink activity that I remember doing with my mom (thanks, mom!!).

I must have been older because I remember it so vividly, holding my invisible message up to one of our living room lamps waiting for my message to appear. Jove painted a mystery word in lime juice to mail to his friend and painted some dinosaurs and other pictures.

Miranda discovered my stash of new paintbrushes that we got at the craft store and she wanted to paint. Out of clean-up avoidance, I set her up to paint with water on the blackboard side our easel. She loves painting with water and did it a lot last year outside on the back patio and sidewalk. It is really a perfect way to allow them to paint more often without the set-up and clean-up of water colors or acrylics. She pointed to her work and said "nighttime."