On Flexibility

She came to me with the instructions. There was a picture of two people putting the bottom of the desk on the top. “You see,” she said, “it will take both of us.”

She had bought the desk from Ikea earlier in the day. The problem with most items purchased at Ikea is not quality, but that you have to assemble them yourself. Have you ever looked at the directions that come with such things? If they were directions to a geographic location, I’d give you even odds that you’d never arrive.

She assembled the desk herself, though at one point while taking a break, she decided to write Ikea and suggest that they provide free assembly for folks as old as she is. I offered, the mandatory, you’re not that old to which she replied, “putting together desks I am.”

She got it mostly right on the first try. A couple of railings for the drawers were upside down, and the hole in the top of the desk designed to allow cords from computers and such was in the back instead of the front. But those would prove to be simple fixes.

She returned, her rest over, to finish the job. “There is a lot of bending and twisting,” she said. “You need to be flexible to do this kind of work,” she said.

“Like tying your shoes,” I said.
“Yes like tying your shoes,” she said.

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If You Have to Ask

There is no poop fairy, or so the sign read. I was looking for a Clay-colored Sparrow looking mostly up and not down, so it’s good that the dog owners were heeding the sign, though one very large dog, not on a leash, chose to bark at me. His owner said he was just saying hello, but I recognize that tone of voice, and wasn’t so sure. He finally put it back on its leash. Why is it that every dog owner thinks their dog is perfectly trained and doesn’t need to stay on leash? Everyone knows that Mojo, David Wheeler’s dog is the only well behaved pooch in the state, at least that I’ve ever met.
There was no poop fairy, and there was also no Clay-colored Sparrow though to his credit Kenny stayed around in the searing heat trying to relocate it for us. So reluctantly I headed for home, a big dipper, not for the first time in my life. I considered going back later in the day, but rehydrating after my afternoon, and a comfortable chair kept me at home.
I check my email later and discover that Bryant and the Beyers have seen the bird and not wanting to look for it in the dark I resolve to be there first thing the following morning. I arrive about eight and spend a couple of hours birding. A couple of Spotted Towhees greet me, and a Brewer’s Sparrow gets my heart beating for a moment, but other than the ubiquitous Scrub Jays and a couple of noisy chickadees I don’t see much, and to my dismay the target bird. Matt joins me, and I decide to continue the search for a while longer. Matt I’ve discovered is almost as unlucky as I am, Blue-headed Vireos aside.

We decided that it was probably a one-day bird, and left the poop fairy to her admonitions. It was later that day, in the heat of the afternoon, the same time of day my initial fruitless search took place that Rachel reports she has relocated the damn bird. And so sucker that I am I return to Olympus Hills Park for the fourth time, figuring it was seen in the evening the day before it after being seen earlier in the day, an omen if ever there was one. But alas it was not to be. I’d had enough, I’d missed three times is the charm and a fourth try was an obsessive birder getting what he deserved.

I slept poorly, dreaming of what might have been, the following morning Doug Mead called, from the parking lot of the park asking for directions, I told him about the poop fairy but had no intention of returning. I couldn’t resist however the automatic, call me if you find it. He said he would and about 40 minutes later I heard my birder is calling ring-tone “I like birds.” I asked him where he was exactly and if he would be there. He promised he would and when Gail and I arrived 15 minutes later, climbed the hill past the poop fairy down to the oak by the bench, turned west and started down the trail we spotted Doug just up the hillside. He was watching the spot where the Clay-colored had landed and not yet left. It only took a few minutes before the Clay-colored and a much less patterned Brewer’s popped up to give us a good look. I grabbed my camera for a shot just as the bird dropped down, and then as I tried to get closer, I watched as it flew low and straight about 50 yards to the northwest. It was then Matt arrived and though we chased the birds around the hillside we didn’t succeed in getting a picture of anything but Brewer’s Sparrows. Sorry Matt, but that was only your fourth attempt for the bird, and as I learned it is the fifth time that is the charm, or maybe as the sign said there is no poop fairy and at least for you there is no Clay-colored Sparrow.

How do you know if you’re looking at a Clay-colored Sparrow and not a Brewer’s? First you look in your Sibley’s. You note all the field marks that separate the Clay-colored from the Brewers. The lack of streaking on an all gray nape is a good mark. The white median crown stripe is also important, and the dark mustache is significant. But most important, you’re in awe of how boldly patterned the face is. The pattern catches you off guard like the first time you saw a Lark Sparrow’s face. In short if you have to ask, it’s a Brewer’s.

I was thinking of returning tomorrow for some photos, but Gail tells me we’re going to Clover Springs and scoring a really rare something or other. “Folks are starting to complain when they see us,” she says. Thanks for the Oriole they say and thanks for the Little Blue Heron, but what have you done for us lately.

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The Crowd

The crowd in the square is large.  Some of them are walking.  They are walking in 360 different directions.  Some are following a hypotenuse hoping to save time. Others stay in one place, though even those turn.  Those alone seem to turn away from the sun, though  a subset of those alone, more skimpily dressed face the sun, or rotate slowly as if on a spit.  Those speaking with others, of course, face those they are conversing with though they sometimes subtlety change their position trying to get their backs to the sun, and their conversant, being polite slowly shifts so that they continue to face the one speaking to them.  It is not clear if they are aware of the subterfuge, tolerating it without comment, or making their excuses and leaving on one of the 360 paths available. It begins to rain the square is soon empty.

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The European starling is a bully. There are only a few birds that will stand their ground when the starlings come round. A house finch or a chickadee will skedaddle at first sight. A robin will hold it’s ground for a time, but eventually yield. The scrub jays, on the other hand, will chase the bullies, putting them in their place. Still the starlings don’t yield easily or quickly; they are dogged. An accipiter, a cooper’s hawk, for example, would love an encounter with a stand-your-ground starling. A cooper’s prefers mid-sized birds, doves, and yes starlings. Unlike the falcons, a peregrine, for example, loves to eat the starlings brain and will use its beak to kill and then consume its favorite part, the cooper’s doesn’t use its bill to kill. It holds it’s prey away from its body and squeezes the life out of it. There are even records of cooper’s holding their prey under water and drowning it. I’d like to see that, not the squeezing or the drowning, but the result, a world with fewer bullies.

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Lost Keys

A pencil fell out of my trousers as I put them on this morning. I picked it up and put it back in my pocket. It was then I noticed that my car keys were missing. I checked the floor, the most-likely place, I surmised. They weren’t there. I asked my wife, if she’d seen them. She said the last time she saw them they were on the dashboard of the car. I checked, and sure enough there they were along with a crisp $10.00 bill. A thief would have been thrilled, a car with the keys in plain sight and money for gas.

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We make the now mandatory stop at Glover Pond, and reluctantly accept that the Little Blue Heron, who has been missing for three days now, is probably gone. We drive east on Glover to the frontage road and then south where we see two Swainson’s Hawks circling. There are also two rainbows, a double, and below Shyloh. He’s frolicking, lost in the moment, his Canon firing, trying to capture a double-double, the hawks and the rainbows.

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A Happy Accident

The Discovery

At exactly 2:19 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, while helping Inspector Maigret solve a mystery; I glanced up from my reading and watched as two birds flew in for a drink of water. Their arrival prompted me to abandon the fictional mystery, and the body at the hotel Majestic, for a real mystery of my own. What species is that bird?

One bird perched on the edge of the birdbath, the other below the lip of the bath, on the backside and out of sight. The one drinking was a Black-headed Grosbeak. It was the other bird that was the mystery. It was smaller than the Grosbeak, and its head, barely exposed over the top of the bath, was all black. When the Grosbeak finished drinking the mystery bird popped up. My heart started racing. I reached for my camera dropping my book to the floor in the process.

It wasn’t a Grosbeak, at least not like one I’d ever seen. It had a black bib and a dark crimson breast. The dark crimson extended all the way down. I started taking pictures and shouted for Gail to join me. The Grosbeak and the tag-a-long mystery bird left before she arrived. We scanned the yard, but didn’t see it and so returned to look at the pictures I’d taken.

There is always a moment, if you have a camera nearby, when you see an unusual bird where you debate, whether to take a picture or just get a better look through your binoculars. The bird was gone, but I had pictures. When I started checking them, I discovered, to my dismay, that they were out of focus. They were fuzzy overall, and the bill was distorted. The bill is almost always an important field mark. Damn! I checked my field guide. It looked most like an Orchard Oriole but when I checked the range maps there seemed to be no way that could be right, even the migration paths didn’t pass this way. But birds do have wings.

It was 2:42 p.m. when I posted the first blurry picture. “Out the window and out of focus, ” I wrote, “ I have my thoughts but would appreciate yours.”

It wasn’t long before the birding community started responding, at 3:06 p.m. Eric wrote, “Looks like a male Baltimore oriole to me. Party at Norm’s house to see the oriole.”

Like gambling, birding is addictive. The element of chance combined with intermittent rewards keeps you hooked. One more roll of the dice, one more spin of the wheel, and you may be a winner. In birding, it’s five more minutes, another 100 yards up the trail and you may get a once in a lifetime bird. An Orchard Oriole is a common bird, but not in Utah, in Utah it is what is referred to as an accidental. It is unexpected and out of its normal range.

I got an e-mail from Jeff, asking me to give him a call. I did; he was excited. He assured me my blurry bird was an Orchard Oriole having seen one the week before in Chicago.  Really, do they have blurry orioles with distorted bills in Chicago too, I wondered. He asked if he could come over. I said sure. I gave him my address and directions. He was walking up the driveway as I replaced the phone in the cradle. We had just begun our search for the bird when Stephanie arrived. I didn’t know how she knew where I lived. It turns out, she looked me up in the white pages, pretty old school, but effective.

Meanwhile, the e-mails continued to arrive, at 4:26 Bryant wrote:

“I’d go with a male ORCHARD ORIOLE! over a Baltimore, which is even more rare, one accepted state record. Where exactly was this bird?”

We exchanged a couple of quick emails.

“My backyard,” I wrote.

“Your address, he pleaded.

I don’t get off until six,” he said, “keep it there.”


Another email from another birder:

“So what’s the verdict, Baltimore or Orchard? Have you seen it since? What’s your guest room situation?”

I posted another out of focus picture, this one a side view.

And more responses came in, “That is definitely an Orchard Oriole. No doubt,” Matt wrote.

Megatick 1

Meanwhile, Jeff and Stephanie were scanning the trees in my backyard
“I’ve got it,” she said.

They were both doing squats, trying to get a good angle to see the bird flittering in the tops of the trees. The bird was active and they were having difficulty in keeping on him. He was a major league skulker. “Look over the top of the feeder and a little to the right,” she said. They were both on it now, and doing their best to get a picture, more entries in the “Big Foot Gallery,” 2 it turned out.

We watched as it moved about in the tops of the trees and then it flew, Jeff rolled over on his back and slithered across the lawn all the time keeping his hands tightly wound around his binoculars and trained on the bird. It landed at the top of an elm in the yard to the east. We began scanning again. “I saw it go in and I haven’t seen it fly out.,” Jeff said.

In the meantime the twitchers 3 and other bird lovers were frantically gathering their gear and heading for my house. The subject line of the e-mails had changed to, “Orchard Oriole – Yes.”

Jeff continued to keep the community informed. “Just had it with Norm and Stephanie," he wrote. “Good looks. Awesome bird. Flew away but trying to relocate. Shyloh just got here too.”

Jeff is an excellent birder, he’s quick at locating and locking on a bird. He was doing his best to describe exactly where the bird was, seventy-five feet above our heads in a wind-blown elm. Shyloh finally got on the bird a piece at a time, the head, a wing, a tail, and then the whole bird. And now four of us had seen the bird.

Tim arrived a few minutes later. He lives only a few blocks away and knew where I lived. We weren’t sure exactly where the bird was when he arrived, we hadn’t seen it for about 20 minutes, but we hadn’t seen it fly either. Tim is a great birder by ear and heard the bird’s intermittent two note call near the very top of the elm which led to a few more fleeting glimpses, or as Shyloh put it a few more crappy looks.

Describing where in a tree a bird is located is hard, and the larger the tree, the more difficult it is. If you haven’t seen the bird, it can be maddening listening to descriptions that make sense to everyone but you. “See those two branches, no not those, the ones on the left side near the top, “ someone will say. Then just as you begin looking in the spot you believe they are talking about the bird will fly a few feet to the left or right or up or down, and the process begins again. You worry that you are going to miss the bird that everyone else has seen, and so you keep looking and asking for help until you finally get on the bird.

We were all in the southeast corner of my yard lined up along the fence, binoculars fixed to our eyes looking straight up. The neighbor in the yard to the south came out on her deck. “What are you looking at,” she said. She sounded disappointed when we said birds, a rare bird. Jeff later remarked” too bad she doesn’t know what we know.?

Tim and Jeff looking straight up maybe 75–100 feet were taking beautiful pictures of leaves fluttering in the breeze and bits and pieces of an Orchard Oriole, a head here, a tail there, a wing, and then again nothing but leaves. The bird flew again.

We continued to scan the trees, as the Sommerfields arrived, and soon the Beyers and Pomera arrived We hadn’t seen the bird for a while and so we exchanged stories of other rare birds that had visited Utah. Speculation that Steve’s lack of a cigar was the reason the bird was gone, was the working theory, or maybe it was enough that somebody named Sommerfield was there and so no bird.

More birders arrived, Doug and Ned arrived from Utah county and Bryant, his two hour wait until he could leave work having passed, a very long two hours. At seven Matt and Josh arrived, the bird had been missing for an hour now. Some had left, and others were beginning to get antsy.

While we watched and waited, Doug told me about his trip to Magee Marsh, Ohio and the guide he had, and how an Orchard Oriole was one of his target birds, a target he missed. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” he said “if I got it in Utah.| A little later he said that he and Ned should be leaving but if the bird was relocated I should call immediately and they would return. I promised I would. Three minutes later I happily dialed his number.

It was Steve who saw the bird fly back into the same tall elm it had been in earlier, proving that the Sommerfields and Steve’s lack of a cigar had nothing to do with the missing bird. And so the excitement began anew with descriptions of where the bird was now. The birders, once again with craned necks, searched the top of the elm. We eventually got some good looks at the bird, and even pictures that were in focus. All those who visited on Saturday saw the bird. It was a life bird for most and a new Utah bird for all but one or two. It was special for all and for one birder also a significant milestone, her 400th Utah bird.

The Aftermath

On Sunday, a few stragglers came over on the off chance that the bird would still be in my yard. They would be disappointed that they missed it, but that is the nature of the game; birds have wings, and they use them. This migrant off base, off track and unexpected was appreciated by all who had the pleasure of seeing him. We wish him well.

An email arrived from David late on Sunday:

“Hey there, guys! Man, I just looked at my e-mail after several days and saw that you guys had an awesome yard bird. How do you do it? Please, please, if you see it again, give me a call.


I had planned on going birding Saturday, but slept in, and so missed the Gray Vireo I might have seen on Soldier Pass Road. I slept in and so missed the birds I might have seen elsewhere. But birders will tell you that we never stop birding even when we are at home enjoying a good book and only occasionally glancing out the window. And birders know that fortune shines on those, the lazy, the lucky, the diligent, and the dedicated, who keep their eyes and ears open, and tuned-in to the sight and sound of the birds we love. It’s several days later now and I just looked out the window, the one where I first saw the Orchard Oriole, half expecting to see him again. Seeing an Orchard Oriole in my own backyard was outstanding, a happy accident.

  1. A very rare bird. You’ve got a picture, right?
  2. Bad pictures of good birds. Pictures that you could never use to verify a sighting. Like the pictures taken of the mythical Bigfoot.
  3. A birder who will drop everything to chase a rare bird.
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