If your shy and self-effacing blog writer may be allowed to say it, I was once a fairly competent birder. Royster Lyle, my best friend, was my teacher and inspiration. In turn, Royster was inspired by Dr. Joseph James Murray, pastor of Lexington’s Presbyterian Church for over thirty years, and also a formidable and outspoken (but laconic) authority on birds of Rockbridge County. According to Royster, if some birder identified, say, a red-bellied woodpecker’s call as that of a pileated woodpecker after Dr. Murray had specified a red-bellied, the Pastor would quietly say with the firm confidence he was known to possess, “That’s a red-bellied.” I can at least say that my progression as a birder had strong inspiration from the pastor through Royster. And on a couple of occasions, solemnly have I wished to possess Dr. Murray’s authority to correct someone’s proud and mistaken self confidence. (The Pastor published a small book on birds of the County.)
But my life list is long, containing birds sighted in Rockbridge County but also in Nicaragua where our daughter served in the Foreign Service, in Hawaii, where my brother lived for a long while, and in the Everglades as we traveled to south Florida on my wife’s business. (I recall getting within 100 feet of an alligator as I tried to view some exotic Floridian. And getting even closer to huge swarms of mosquitoes.)
I’m much pleased that both our son and daughter took up my interest in birds, and that my wife’s was enhanced. But, alas, though my life list is long, my life has changed, and turned to other interests. For awhile I believed that I had a future as a guitarist and immersed myself in the instrument. (Want to buy a good and only slightly used one?) And then I became very active as a Master Gardener. Now Joyce and I have a small business—a booth at Duke’s—with picking and fixing to absorb many hours per week. But with great fondness do I recall spying cuckoos very near our house here in the county. The number sighted on this single occasion seems to have increased as the years have passed. Could this be my memory making sure I don’t forget the phenomenon? (A fact you absolutely must retain: The Greek word for the cuckoo, kokkux, is related to our word coccyx, the tailbone, which is curved downward like the bill of a cuckoo,.)
And every day I watch a great variety of birds at the feeder not far from the house. For a long while I heard the call of a bob-white daily, from a distance away. Unfortunately, foxes, hunters and snakes all dine on them or their eggs (from nests always on the ground), so I hear it no more. But I’m still able to love all the birds, exult in their movements and greatly respect their smart behavior.
And who fails to love birds? They are beautiful, after all, even the brown-headed cowbird. One of my favorites is the chickadee. It is not colorful, but the delineation of black and white is striking. Of course, a male cardinal in the snow is enough to drive away the blues. But not the blue jays, which often travel in flocks, and though common bear an intricate pattern of blue and gray.
The most unusual bird to appear at the feeder was a towhee, one of the prettiest of the winged critters. Joyce spotted it first, and I, unable to reassemble what was once a useful amount of bird-spotting knowledge, corrected her. “Get serious,” said I. “That’s just a robin.” Well, it wasn’t the first time I’d lost a disagreement at our house, but it did inspire an interest in redeveloping a birder’s eye. Wish me luck.