By Kathleen Murphy
My dad was a bird watcher. He could name species without a guide. When he passed, I saw my first blue bird and, of course, like every grieving human would do, I called out, “Dad!” I loved to look at the pictures in his guidebooks, but never had the patience to sit and wait for birds like he did.
Fast forward two years after my dad’s passing: this was the start of my family’s backyard clean up project. We decided that creating as much biodiversity as we could in our backyard was our goal. We were inspired by the film, “The Biggest Little Farm.” We consulted local arborists and landscapers and planted our first round of bird, bee, and butterfly attracting plants.
Now, I hear the birds.
More and more I’ve been sitting outside on the weekends and watching their behaviors.
Why don’t they wash in our bird bath? American Robins blend into the plum blossoms. I still don’t know the name of the small, black-headed bird that is the size of a Sparrow. I say tentatively aloud, “Chickadee” but I’m not sure. My dad would know.
About two months ago, I watched a hummingbird sitting so still on the very top of a bare branch. The hummingbird disappeared but I was still able to hear her. After nearly half an hour, I heard her singing as she left the branch; then she’d returned. She was circling and circling in the same pattern. As I watched her, I noted for the first time the behavior of this bird. She eventually flew away but left me with an understanding of what I had been missing up until that moment.
Last month, I saw a pair of birds that looked like the common Mourning Doves. As I observed, I realized these birds seemed very different. I swear, this bird had a long beak! I got up close to the window to watch. This particular bird had striped marks on her back and a body that was slightly bigger than a normal Mourning Dove.
This bird was something different and new; maybe a lost shorebird, though we’re miles from the Bay.
I work at a local school with a living lab managed by naturalists and scientists whom I admire. I asked our bird expert about what species this odd mix of dove and shorebird could be. She was perplexed and curious. She encouraged me to keep watching for this mystery bird.
On the first day of the shelter in place order, I saw the mystery bird again in our yard just as the video function on my Zoom conference failed to connect with my daughter’s teacher. My settings error was my lucky break. I decided to keep the video off and grabbed a notebook. I sketched terribly inaccurate details of this unidentified beauty. When the Zoom video finally connected, I mouthed to my daughter to talk with her teacher as I kept scribbling.
That’s when the bird turned its head toward me.
I saw so clearly a solid black half circle, a crescent shape, on her white chest covered in beautiful black markings. I saw tan and black stripes along her back. Her tail was about three inches long and an inch wide with a thick solid black stripe more than half way down that ended with a stream of tan and black stripes again.
I thought perhaps I could quietly open our back door to snap a picture with my phone camera… That’s when I heard my daughter’s voice, “Mom. Ms. G has a question.”
By then, the bird flew off.
But I had new information now for more research. It’s been over a week since my shelter in place sighting, and I think the mystery bird may be a Northern Flicker. I’m still uncertain, but I will make the effort during this sheltered time to find out.
Kathleen grew in in San Jose and lives in Oakland. She is the founder of Kámen Road and works at a local school. Her interests include sustainable design, green cities, birds, artisans, and artists. She is always grateful for nature and those who work to protect it.
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