Diary of a day in search of rare birds

birders, Kelp Gull
Early birds.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m not a morning person. I could make a career out of sleeping in. Not this day.

I was the official driver of a group of guys in search of a couple of rare birds that had inexplicably showed up in northeast Ohio. I love to bird this way, with friends who happen to be expert birders going in search of uncommon species.

Up at 5 a.m. and out the door 45 minutes later, I was dressed for the seasonably chilly weather. After two stops, the troops were gathered, and we headed north in the thick blackness of the morning.

We arrived at the natural lake near Akron where an unusual gull had been spotted. To see it, you had to be there early in the morning or late afternoon. A dozen vehicles already filled parking spots in the little park on the lake’s south shore.

Early birders lined up along water’s edge, scouring the area through the pre-dawn dimness. Light snow amid a foggy haze above the lake made it difficult to identify the birds even with expensive scopes and powerful binoculars.

We were looking for a Kelp Gull, a bird that should be in the Southern Hemisphere. Somehow it ended up here with thousands of other gulls, mostly Ring-billed. The gulls’ familiar squawking rang out across the silvery water and through the snowy fog.

The gulls began to circle tornado-like over the water. Even for expert birders, it was difficult to distinguish one species of gull from the other in the haze of the morning’s twilight.

The gulls swirled in a chaotic chorus and sailed southeast for unknown destinations. If the Kelp Gull was there, we didn’t see it.

birding, birders, Brambling
Line of birders.

From there our group traveled a few miles northwest to a residence to see a Brambling. Like the gull, no one could say why this Asian bird had landed adjacent to a small county park in northeast Ohio thousands of miles from where it belonged. It just had, and avid birders near and far were thrilled.

This beautiful bird had arrived amid flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinches. The homeowner was a retired park director who immediately perceived the rarity and had his finding verified by noted birders.

Once the word got out, there was no stopping the entourage of birders wishing to add this avian curiosity to their life list. Birders came from as far away as Mississippi and New Jersey to see this bird. We were among them.

To keep the bird and birders safe, observers lined up along the county road opposite the feeders where the Brambling frequented. We climbed the slanting roadway and instantly spotted the bird. As I aimed my camera for a shot, a neighbor scared us all with the harsh sound of scraping off the hard frost from his windshield.

brambling
Brambling and an American Goldfinch.
The birds flew for cover. No one admonished the man. Good birders know to be patient. Sure enough, seed-eating birds began to return to the feeders munching the scattered black oil sunflower seeds.

Like humans, birds behave in routines, too. The Brambling flew to a small, stunted bush by the chimney of the house, checking its surroundings. Soon it again fed on the ground among finches and Northern Cardinals to the clicking of cameras and satisfied smiles of birders whose ages spanned three generations.

Even though we had missed the Kelp Gull, it had been a productive morning seeing the Brambling. The blessings lay not only in observing rare birds but in the company of congenial birders, too.

I’d gladly alter any morning’s familiarity for such delightful diversions with kindred companions.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

A beautiful morning well spent

By Bruce Stambaugh

It was a gorgeous morning for what my son and my wife had conspired to do. The project itself was both practical and uncomplicated.

Of course, they needed me as the gopher, as in go for this and go for that. As it turned out, I will remember that beautiful morning for a long, long time.

Our son came to help build a pair of tomato trellises, since we will share the eventual bounty with him and his wife. My wife had found a magazine picture of just what was needed for our heirloom tomatoes.

Last year, the heirlooms flourished. But as the blossoms turned into baby tomatoes then plump fruit, the plants gave way to gravity even though they had been staked. If we didn’t get the tomatoes before they hit the ground, the dry rot did.

The main problem was that the tomato patch quickly became a vegetative jungle. It was difficult finding the ripe ones that hung hidden in the leafy overlap. That problem needed to be remedied if our two families were to fully enjoy the fruits of our labors.

readying the site
My son and my wife readied the site for the tomato trellises.

The proactive plan seemed simple enough. The growing tomato plants would be safely tied to the wooden trellises, which would better distribute the weight than the previous individual supports had. We had the perfect place to erect them, the south-facing plot next to our bricked garage wall, the scene of last year’s prolific patch.

The needed materials as shown in the picture were easy enough to come by. My wife had already obtained the sturdy oak stakes. I retreated to the neighbor’s farm for baling twine.

Using a measuring tape and a container of flour, the experts measured and marked where the supporting sets of three stakes each would go. Our energetic son climbed the stepladder with sledgehammer in hand, and the seven-foot posts were pounded into the fertile ground at an angle so they crossed near the top. Not wanting to look too professional, we just eyeballed the angles.

After each set of stakes was thumped into place, we attached the crossbars, again three on each side. We secured them to the stakes by crisscrossing lengths of twine around and around and tying them off. I think I can tie square knots in my sleep now.

tying twine around the stakes
Baling twine was used to secure the horizontal and vertical stakes.

Each bar was leveled in place. A top bar, which according to our son was purely for looks, was laid in the cradle of where the angled stakes intersected.

pounding in the trellis stakes
Our son pounded in the stakes that formed the trellises.

Once the first trellis was completed, one would think the second would go easier. Somehow that didn’t really happen. Still, it turned out all right, just a little off skew. The tomatoes won’t care.

In the process of all this measuring, climbing, pounding, angling, leveling and tying, we threw in a little kibitzing as well. You know how mother, father and son, and husband and wife can be. Personal, profound, picky, sarcastic, vulnerable, venerable, loved.

This constructing trio was all that and then some on this lovely morning. While we worked beneath a cerulean sky, robins, nuthatches, house wrens and blue birds called and fed and gathered nesting materials all around us.

Building anything isn’t exactly my strong suit, unless it’s memories. Indeed, this morning well spent fit that definition like a gardener’s glove. In truth, we had built more than tomato trellises.

Creating productive, valued, lasting recollections with family seemed a most appropriate way to prepare for Memorial Day. Come late summer, when the heirlooms are heavy laden but securely ripening, memories of a different flavor will be made.

the tomato trellises
The completed tomato trellises stand against the garage wall.