July 13, 2024

Following Our Feathered Friends

Rehoboth Ramblings


Acclaimed novelist Amy Tan has branched out (pardon the pun) in a new direction with “The Backyard Bird Chronicles” and has been making the rounds talking about her book. This non-fiction book is a lively journal of her bird watching over the past few years. Although her backyard is in Sausalito, there is a lot of overlap between the birds in California and those around here. She has also illustrated the book herself with charming drawings of these birds (in all their beautiful colors) and a number of humorous cartoons.

She explains how she learned to draw birds under the guidance of John Muir Laws, “a well-known and beloved naturalist, artist, author, scientist, conservationist, and educator.” She seems to have a fine natural artistic talent. My efforts at drawing birds (or anything else) would look pretty childlike, and not in a good way.

I like to watch wild birds as they flit around the backyard and perch on branches by the window but I’m not much of an expert, relying on my daughter and dedicated birder friends to fill in the blanks for me. While I’m not as blind as a bat, neither do I have eyes of a hawk. I’ve joked that I’d have trouble spotting an emu. But even I was able to see the aerial ballet of two bird visitors from the south swooping around our skies in May. A pair of swallow-tailed kites (birds, not the paper kind) have been seen numerous times, including in central Rehoboth, Attleboro and probably other local places. It’s easy to see why bird-watchers get excited over a sighting of unexpected visitors.

We first saw them in the sky over Bay State Road and then miraculously the pair made a brief appearance overhead just as we were going out our back door one day. They’re called swallow-tailed because though they are small members of the raptor family, they have forked tails like swallows. They certainly move fast! They are generally found in Florida and other southern locations.

After writing before about helping turtles cross the road, we missed one and later found the remains. Sadly, the driver who crushed this large snapper on the road did not miss hitting it (on purpose?).  There are ups and downs to nature-watching. The hummingbirds returned right on schedule and this year we were prepared. Last year on the first of May I saw a little bird hovering right by the window staring straight at me. I hopped up and got the hummingbird feeder out pronto. I could just picture our little visitor complaining about the slow service: “Do you know how far I’ve traveled?”

“The Backyard Bird Chronicles” includes an illustration of a red-shouldered hawk. We are familiar with this hawk since a pair of them took up residence in our neighborhood a couple of years ago. We call them Shrieky and Mrs. Shrieky due to their loud screeching. I assume they’ve consumed a number of songbirds around here, but that’s nature, red in tooth (or beak) and claw.

People have envied birds their freedom ever since there were people, but birds, like all wild things, lead precarious lives. We can envy a migrating bird’s ability to just take off for other climates (no luggage required!) but it is a grueling journey over long distances and even over large bodies of water. Then there are the stay-at-home birds who need to survive outdoors in the cold of a northern winter. Neither path is easy.

Still, we are fascinated by their lives and birds will always remain somewhat mysterious to human observers. Amy Tan writes that “Each bird is surprising and thrilling in its own way. But the most special is the bird that pauses when it is eating, looks and acknowledges I am there, then goes back to what it was doing.”

“The Backyard Bird Chronicles” is available at the library, as is another bird book worth reading, “Alfie and Me: What Owls Know, What Humans Believe” by Carl Safina, from 2023. Mr. Safina, who lives on Long Island, rescued an orphaned owl near death and managed to raise the little bird to adulthood and eventually to successful release in the wild.

In local bird news, six owls will be on display at the “Owls of the World” program at the Blanding Library on Sat. June 22 at 10:30. And the raptor weekend at the RI Audubon Center in Bristol in September is always worth visiting.


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