Birding and Hiking: I know the two can work well together and I’m going to make it a goal of mine to get more Birders into hiking, and more Hikers into Birding. It was about 15 years ago that I went through a period of my life where I had an acute interest in Birding. I was active in my local Audubon chapter and went on regular birding trips with groups of Birders around the state. I don’t want to call this a phase, but I did slowly step back from my involvement in the organization, and I gradually lost contact with many of my Birder friends.
I’m sure, if pressed I could come up with a hundred reasons why I backed away from this active interest in birding, but the one at the forefront would surely have to be a simple lack of time. I must however say that Birding is somewhat akin to riding a bicycle; you don’t really forget how to do it. Sure, if you don’t keep up with the Warblers every spring it takes some time for them to come back to memory. I was back then… and I think I still am a pretty good “Birder by ear”, and that is something that just doesn’t go away because you don’t actively go out Birding. When I walk into the summer forest I hear the Hermit Thrush and the Yellow Throated Vireo, and know exactly who they are. I hear the Scarlet Tanager singing high in the treetops and will always know his song. I don’t call myself a Birder, nor am I out actively birding, but I still make note of the birds that I hear and see, and I suppose I always will because they are a major part of nature as a whole.
Enter the spring of 2012 and a renewed interest in birding. The trials and tribulations of life have put me out in the woods a lot this spring trying to clear my head and recharge my batteries to face another day. Nature is drug and I’m quite the junkie. Rob happened to hit a like on a Facebook page called Northern Michigan Birding, so I followed suit. I’ve been exchanging photos and comments with a couple of ladies on that page this spring and they have sparked a renewed interest in birding in me. I remember some highly technical birders that I used to run into while birding that just seemed to take things way too serious. These ladies are relaxed and have made chasing birds fun for me this spring. We’ve cooperatively identified a few pictures of birds that we have taken, and we’ve made almost a game out of it.
I try to find someplace new to hike every weekend and I happened to be looking at a DNR website last week that gave information on the Kirtland’s Warbler Habitat restoration that is going on in Clare County. I brushed up on my Kirtland’s Warbler song and took a drive out to the area to do a little reconnaissance for an area to hike. I found that getting off the road is not allowed in the nesting habitat, but many of the roads in the area are seasonal, and don’t amount to much beyond a trail anyhow. As I was driving along a two-track I heard a bird that caught my ear. I shut off the truck and just sat listening to the unmistakable song of the Kirtland’s Warbler. I was out of the truck in a flash and I stood in the road for 20 minutes or so until the bird left the area. I never saw the bird at all, and I thought to myself that no one would ever believe me, but I somehow didn’t care because I knew what I heard, and I was 100% positive of it.
I found what would make a great loop hike that would take me down a sparsely used road through a mile of prime Kirtland’s Warbler habitat, and then I would turn north heading up a seasonal road that looped back to the west and eventually back to the area where I parked. The sun was still low in the eastern sky as I parked and grabbed my daypack heading east down the sandy road. This truly was a great day for a hike, the sky was clear and various birds were singing in every direction. Now what I’m going to describe here all took place in the blink of an eye, but I’m sure I can drag it out forever.
In the corner of my eye I caught a bird flash past me within just a few feet, perching on a scrub oak branch 20 or so yards off to my right. I immediately grabbed my binoculars but dropped them just as fast, because I didn’t need them! This bird started singing right after landing on the branch leaving no doubt as to his identity. I’m a deer hunter and I don’t recall a case of buck fever that ever came close to the intensity of this case of Warbler fever that I was experiencing. I fumbled to get my lens cap off my camera and the stupid thing turned on before the bird flew off. It was one of the rare occasions where I hit the “on” button on the camera, and the lens cap didn’t fight me to come off, and I was able to start snapping pictures as the bird was singing. It was about then that the unthinkable happened… the bird flew out of my viewfinder! The thing is it didn’t fly off in some oblique direction, it flew right at me. It landed about 20 feet behind me on the branch of a small tree that was near the edge of the road. I got off two shots before he decided to leave the area, but I was a happy hiker and didn’t need anything more.
I think that if we expand our interests as Hikers we can have a more fulfilling experience while hiking. And likewise, had I been in the area just birding, I have to wonder if I would have been walking in this particular area, or would I have been just driving through and stopping for a short foray here and there? I truly feel that without the combination of both my interests I never would have had the experience that I had today. “Free your mind and the rest will follow”, the “rest” being experiences that are beyond what you can imagine. My experience came in the form of a rush of adrenaline, and a beating heart because of the sight of a tiny little bird that happens to be extremely rare. This makes me want to strive to be a well-rounded Naturalist, and to look for other opportunities to combined my interests in the natural world. ~Mark~