Prime Time?

I’m not ready for it. I don’t know if I will ever be ready. Oh, I greatly admire, and hold in awe, those with the knowledge and confidence and better eyesight than I have who can say, yes, that is an Anna’s Hummingbird. And not a Rufous Hummingbird. As it moves and the light flashes on this or that side, it changes color and is at once very dark looking and then…not. I can’t seem to see it whole. It seems to be a male; it’s so brilliantly colored. The Rufous in the guidebook is quite red, as would befit its name, with a light colored belly, so maybe then this bird is an Anna’s. Am I sure? If I were a real birder, wouldn’t I know this by now?

In some lights this hummingbird looks almost black but then it moves and there is revealed an iridescent red that makes you gasp.

And then there are the sparrows. Males and females who are so variable in streaks, blotches and head stripes, all shades of “brown” or grayish-brown, yellowish-brown, reddish-brown, more or less all the same size, certainly all eating seeds and scratching around in the same manner. I saw three, pretty sure, white crowned sparrows but whose white stripes were kind of dirty looking, not yet committed to real white; perhaps its too early in the season and the males have no need yet to be showing off their crowns for the ladies. Fun to watch though, when I let go of the idea that I should know one bird from another.

Can you see it? A grayish bird with darker markings scratching the ground between the bricks for seeds. It is barely visible but there are two dark stripes on its crown with a faint lighter stripe in the middle. Not yellowish but white–sort of. So, a white crowned sparrow and not a gold crowned sparrow?

And that bird on the telephone wire with its back to me. It looks like a big ball of feathers! I can see that it is all puffed up and grooming itself with its beak but I can’t make it out at all. It looks so much bigger than all the juncos and other little brown birds. But not as big as a crow, not black, but blackish. How mysterious. Maybe something really different and unusual! Until it turned around and even I could see it was a robin. A case of wishful thinking?

Definitely a robin under the bird bath! But as for the small grayish bird enjoying its morning splash, a ubiquitous unknown sparrow?

What brought on all this angst? I had a garden teeming with birds, all I could want. I had already seen a flicker, a Downy woodpecker, more Bushtits than I could count.  Plus my usual chickadees and dainty juncos, a flock of robins, and several Western Scrub Jays. If I waited awhile, I would see nuthatches, towhees, crows flapping by, and maybe even an eagle. Once—a lucky moment—I  saw a hummingbird and an eagle in the same glance! (It made me think of Great Danes and St. Bernards and Shih Tzus and Chihuahuas …can they really all be the same species?) I should just be enjoying the show.

I was so challenged because this President’s Day weekend, from Friday to Monday, is the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, sponsored by the Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The idea is to engage ordinary people—well, ordinary people who know their birds—to identify and count them and then report their results to a designated website. The aggregate results would be tabulated and from this massive input of information, this cumulative snapshot of birds seen all over the country over the course of the same days, scientists would be able to gain a big-picture count of the birds, where they are, how many there are, and how they are. It’s another version of the Christmas Bird Count run by Audubon since the earliest years of the last century, one of the biggest and longest-running citizen science projects that gathers information in an organized way using the extraordinary powers of observation by ordinary citizens. The results are a deep dive into the state of birds and can be used to shape policy and wake up the world to the plight faced by these creatures that we love. It is a very worthy endeavor and something, though seemingly small, that has a big impact. I applaud such efforts with my whole heart.

Which is why I am not signing up for it. Not yet. The dry run I gave myself today was so inconclusive, so tentative and with so many caveats in my attempts to nail down just what I was seeing in my own garden that I decided, no, not yet, my results are too shaky to be of scientific use to anyone. But I could have it as my goal that by next year, say, I could really learn to identify one sparrow from another, to know what is a finch, male and female, and not just see a small grayish, vaguely striped—or not—bird poking about in the bushes. At any rate, it will be fun trying. Bird by bird, here and there. I’ve already learned so much in the short while I’ve been trying.

But if you feel ready for a lively challenge, check out the Great Backyard Bird Count, by all means! They ask that you watch birds for “at least fifteen minutes.” You probably do that every day. And they tell you how to submit your report. They make it easy! And so worthwhile. I’ll join you some day.

Here is a link to the Cornell website:

8 thoughts on “Prime Time?

  1. I took an Audubon class many years ago – the instructor referred to these little birds as LBJs – Little Brown Jobs – I fall back on this description : )


    1. Me too! Except they were LBBs, little brown birds. And how about “gulls” or “ducks”…we’ve got the big picture but Cornell has higher expectations for us beyond just loving them all. Sigh!


  2. When I volunteered at PAWS in the bird nursery, the unidentified little ones also were referred to as LBBs – or little brown birds. It was also interesting to take note of how the labels of the particular birds might change as they aged. Some little ones were brought to the nursery completely naked, not a feather or color to be seen. The naturalist only had the size of the bird, and its beak etc to ID it. There were times when I came in for my shift a week later, the original name had been crossed off and a new one written it. Some times, over time, there were several revisions. Even the experts who were seeing things up close were struggling.
    Like you Anne, I am unsure of the hummers in my yard. And like you, I can ID a bunch of the common ones. But often, whatever is at the feeder, is just a flock of LBBs!


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