Thursday, November 6, 2008

Spark Bird

Bird Watcher's Digest recently asked me to write a short story about my "spark bird". For those unfamiliar with this odd-sounding term, it refers to a species that sparked a person's passion for birds and birding. For many of us, the spark bird was profound and a true event. Perhaps a flashy male American Redstart, garbed in the colors of Halloween, bursting out at eye level at an unsuspecting and unaware non-birder. Roger Tory Peterson's sparker was a Northern Flicker - good choice, Rog. If you are a birder, you probably have your own tale.

My story, and a few others with more to come, can be found on these pages. But just scroll down and you can read about my spark bird right here.

Great Blue Heron, image courtesy Marty Sedluk.

I don't know that I had an epiphany that suddenly ignited an interest in birds. Something in me is hardwired to be smitten with nature, and birds were my first source of fascination. This passion for all things feathered was already imbedded in my psyche by the time I was in early elementary school, maybe 7 or 8 years old.

The closest recollection I have to a "spark bird" involves nothing outrageous, and everyone reading this has seen scads of the first species that probably truly inflamed my imagination as a youth.

In those fantastic boyhood days, when everything was an enormous mystery and adventures lurked around every corner, my favorite place was the Olentangy River in Worthington, Ohio. We lived a block away from this strange world of jungle-like forests buffering a winding ribbon of clear water filled with fishes, turtles, and snakes. Many other interesting animals dwelt along the Olentangy, but it was the birds that really caught my curious pre-adolescent eye, and drew me back to the river time and again.

A kindred spirit and best buddy, Jeff Held, and I lived for our Olentangy River safaris. We'd dart off to the river at every opportunity, like callow Indiana Joneses. Our moms would have gone into conniptions if they had known our modus operandi for river exploration. Jeff and I would find the most buoyant, seaworthy log we could, toss it into the current, hop on and head downstream: modern-day Jim and Huck Finn. Oops-my mother will probably read this. Hopefully the statute of limitations on inappropriate pre-teen behavior has expired.

And our favorite bird-the one that always drew our oohs and aahs and was first on our list of big game trophies? The great blue heron. To us, coming upon one of these impressive beasts was like discovering a living, breathing pterodactyl. We'd round a bend on our trustworthy log, in a place as wild as the Amazonian jungle in our minds, and suddenly: GRAAAAK! Flushed from the riverbank, one of these gargantuan fish-spearers would launch itself into the air with cumbersome rows of those massive wings, uttering god-awful, frightening croaks.

We were impressed. And back for more we'd go. Jeff and I never tired of looking for those herons. To us, they epitomized the majesty and mysteriousness of a natural world we were only discovering, and to me, helped permanently cement a deep love for birds and an unquenchable thirst for learning more about them.

In the years since those early days of adventure, I've seen countless thousands of great blue herons. I still look at each one, probably a little more closely than I do other species, even those of considerably more glamour. The herons' gangly long legs, sword-like bill, inscrutable reptilian stare and overall dinosaur aura, and horrifying sound effects made an unshakable impression in my formative mind. Plus, those great blues stood nearly as tall as this cow-licked, freckle-faced fourth-grader! How could I not have been amazed?

Jeff's gone now, lost at a tragically young age. His memory, and thoughts of our Huck Finn days, nearly always flits through my mind when I cross the path of a great blue heron. In a way that only I'll understand, this magnificent heron piqued not only my interest in birds, but always will be a living tribute to the memory of one of my best friends.

Thanks in part to the great blue heron, I began a lifelong love affair with nature. Initially, I wanted to know all of the names of the birds I saw. Then came an insatiable desire to seek out those I hadn't yet seen. After that, I wanted to learn more about each species, just as friends want to get to know each other. After a while, I began to wonder what kind of plants my birds were perching in. Eventually, I became a botanist and just as smitten with flora as birds. Now, there is nothing in the natural world that won't captivate me, at least briefly, and I only wish I had a bigger brain so I could learn more about it all.

Thank you, oh great squawking fish-spearers.

I was sixteen in 1978 when the inaugural issue of Bird Watcher's Digest came out, with artwork of eastern screech-owls adorning the cover. I still have that issue, and BWD was and is a big part of my enjoyment of birds. As a youth I devoured the words within, as I still do. It almost seems surreal that now my own words appear here, and I couldn't be more honored.
Happy 30th, BWD!

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