Consider me humbled yet again by the birds and those who love them.
When it comes to my backyard, I’m an expert. Nobody’s around, and the birds are relatively easy: Northern flicker, robin, blue jay. I also feel pretty darn good about myself on an adventure through Sondermann Park with my 10-year-old nephew and 9-year-old niece, who look at me with something I’ll call awe when I can identify five of the seven birds we see. Yes, this is me preening my peacock feathers.
However, get me out of my comfort zone and watch my birdwatcher extraordinaire facade crumble to pieces, like so much suet at my feeder when the raccoons outstealth me after dusk. I become, yet again, a bird neophyte.
Take, for example, this past Tuesday morning. The day grew sunny and unsettlingly hot, surely one of the warmer November days on record. The birdwatching group I was to join gathered by the shore of Prospect Lake in Memorial Park, where waterbirds had been at their swimmy game for hours.
Kip Miller, a naturalist, birding tour leader and volunteer for the Aiken Audubon Society, stood at the ready with his spotting scope to unknowingly take me down a few notches. Just kidding, Kip. You can’t help that you’ve got a fresh and boisterous brain that readily absorbs details like tail shape and beak length and I sadly do not.
He was joined by two other bird-loving ladies and we set out to conquer the waterfowl in Aiken’s new Prospect Lake Tuesday Waterbird Walks. The guided walks are free and run through Dec. 8.
“This is a semi-arid region, so wherever there’s water, it acts like a magnet for birds,” Miller said.
Identifying waterbirds is not my strong suit. Surely you’ve seen a Canada goose, the biggish, occasionally crabby bird that hangs out at the local watering hole. Did you know there are such creatures as lesser Canada geese? And also there are cackling geese, which are smaller, stubbier-billed versions of Canada geese. If you asked me to pick one out of a geese lineup, all those birds would be released back to the mean streets.
I declared my desire to see a grebe, knowing nothing more about the bird than that I liked its name. Miller, bless his birding heart, honored my request: “Well, let’s go find one.”
While we waited for a beautiful, long-necked Western grebe to come floating along, Miller identified an American coot, a black bird with a white beak who does this hypnotic head and neck bob and emits a cackly call: “That’s where ‘crazy as a coot’ comes from,” said Miller. This guy dropped knowledge bombs on me all morning like nobody’s business.
Next up: a bufflehead duck. I’ve never even heard of this, but there he is in the center of Miller’s scope, all tuxedoed out, with his white and black head and body. These are tough winter ducks, according to Miller. And speaking of, I can’t help but anthropomorphize all animals, including birds. I fret about the impending cold weather and frozen lakes. I imagine making little waterproof capes and bonnets and them queuing up in one long duck line so I can put on their little outfits. Miller doesn’t seem concerned, though. He seems, how shall I say, excited?
“It’s best when the lake freezes halfway,” he said. “It concentrates birds in one spot.”
The same instinct burbles up in me when our group spies an orange-beaked cormorant that appears to have a bum wing and can’t fly.
Me: “There’s nothing we can do for him?”
Miller (likely groaning inside, but being very kind): “No, there really isn’t. But if he’s on open water, he should be fine.”
Insert sad, dramatic sigh here from yours truly. OK, onward and upward. Let’s find a bald eagle, which are common around the lake, as those raptors enjoy gobbling waterbirds. Though honestly, it would be my worst nightmare to watch a bald eagle swoop low and snatch up an unsuspecting duck. I’m 100% sure I would cry real tears for that little guy and his little family who watched him become a snack.
Halfway up a shoreline, right after I dramatically gasp and point at a large, flying crow thinking it might be some sort of raptor, and therefore causing Miller to swing around and peer at the sky (“People do that to me all the time,” he said), one of our group members spots a small shorebird stalking along the waterline, poking his long beak into the sand for tidbits. It was a greater yellowlegs, not to be mistaken, of course, for a lesser yellowlegs.
We quietly watched him, binoculars glued to our faces, oohing and aahing. True to its name, this little guy had long, skinny, yellow legs: “It’s like walking on stilts,” said Miller, who urged us to be still so the bird might walk right by us. No luck. We watched as he got close, paused to decide whether we were safe, concluded no, we were definitely not safe, and retreated. We laughed. It was a birdwatching bonding moment.
“You can share the beauty of a bird with the group,” Miller said.
Ruddy ducks, Bonaparte’s gull, merganser, ring-billed gulls, canvasback duck, eared grebe, American wigeon. We saw a whole lot of waterbirds during the 90 minutes it took for the 1.25-+mile walk around the lake.
I can’t lie — the difference between a Bonaparte’s gull and a ring-billed gull is still murky. But I now know all those ducks at watering holes might not be just mallards, the most common duck in the U.S. There are definitely different ducks afoot among us. I’ll need a few more outings to polish up my duck game.
Contact the writer: 636-0270