We huddle in the fall woods between the C&O Canal and the river, stage-whispering "pish, pish, pish," and making a squeaking noises by kissing our forearms. In a tree, high above our group of a dozen adults and twice as many kids, sits a flicker, a kind of woodpecker. We are trying to "pish" it down.
"Pishing is one of the really fun things about birding," explains naturalist Rich Bray of the Audubon Naturalist Society, who is introducing the group of neophytes to birding. "What we're doing is distress sounds. Birds imagine that one of their comrades is caught by a snake. So they come down and give their distress signals. When you find a "good spot, do a little pishing."
"Oh, look at that one!" says a kid, straining to be heard over the signals. Sure enough, we are attracting more birds, although most of us don't know what birds.
"Were those chicadees?" asks an adult, leafing hurriedly through a paperback Roger Tory Peterson field guide. Yes, confirms the group's leader, Neal Fitzpatrick: Carolina chicadees, and a few thrushes.
Knowing what you're looking at is what birding is all about, but for novices birds fly too fast and look too much alike. Back at the parking lot where we all met at the crack of dawn, Fitzpatrick and Bray bring out some stuffed birds, give us each a field guide, and turn us loose. The flicker's easy: "Has it got a conspicuous white rump?" hints Ray.
"I just picked up the book and it fell open to woodpeckers so I found the flicker; but how would I have found it otherwise?" asks a man.
"You'll begin to develop some discriminating skills," Bray assures him. "I went through my book and marked some birds I hoped to see. Peterson recommends just leafing through the guide. Pretty soon you'll get a feel for the different families."
To get us used to the guides, Fitzpatrick has us go through and find a bird that's yellow -- Lawrence's warbler or a yellow rail; a bird with really long wings -- a heron or plover; and a bird with a yellow eye, a hering gull.The kids among us have learned, by focusing on the stuffed birds, to adjust their binoculars. But this is the real thing, with live birds flying past in such rapid succession that before we can identify one, another has grabbed our attention.
"It's brown, sort of, with black wings," six-year-old Reece Rushing describes a bird that's crossing to Virginia.
"Twelve o'Clock in the big sycamore tree -- what is it?" shouts someone else. "Has he got a speckled breast?" Bray asks a boy who has climbed up on his father's shoulders.
"What's going across there now?" asks Fitzpatrick. "See that udulating flight -- and it's got white on its back, a perfect field mark. Look under woodpeckers," he adds, giving it away as a common flicker. By the time the sky clears briefly, we've seen a heron, an osprey, ducks, chickadees, thrushes and a warbler. Identifying birds on the wing is a skill acquired and sharpened through observation and practice. One way, Fitzpatrick suggests, is to set up a backyard bird-Feeder and to get to know the birds that visit it; and to use your ears -- to get to know birds by their chipping and singing.
"For the next fifty seconds count the number of bird sounds you can hear," says Bray, and everyone tries to block out the whush of bicycle tires along the towpath. "I heard about 40 chips, from about four different species. They called about 40 different times, but the calls aer what we call chips, not songs like you hear in the spring. What is it they're doing in spring that makes them sing?"
"Courting," says one child. "Mating," chimes in another. "Nesting and having babies," pipes up a chorus of kids.
Since the kids seem to know all about the sex lives of birds, Fitzpatrick pulls out some jars of stuff that show other things about birds -- like pigeon wings and bird skulls.
"Birds have holes in their skulls and in all of their bones," he says as the kids pass the skull around. "This makes birds very light."
"They're probably as light as in my book about the floating princess, but she wasn't a bird," comments five-year-old Kate Miller.
Meanwhile, Margy Wadell, 14, has spotted vultures in a dead tree across the canal. "How are they holding their wings?" asks Bray. "They're holding them up - they're soaring," answers Margy. "That makes a big difference when you're vulture-watching," says Bray. "If they're soaring, they're probably turkey vultures."
"Look at the petrol hawk!" shouts Fitzpatrick, and we all dive into our field guides. But in a few minutes the roar in the sky makes us look up and laugh at the joke: An airplane is flying overhead.
If we're consummate amateurs -- and who else would fall for a gag like that? -- the society wants us to see what some advanced birders are doing, and we carpool to the Adventure Bird Banding station to meet Margaret Donnald, who has banded about 33,000 birds in the past eight years.
"Hey, there are birds in those bags -- and in that box, too," says Reece, and Donnald takes the birds one by one to show them to us and to explain the banding process.
"Hi," says Donnald to a catbird that's already been banded. "He's a young catbird, just born this summer. His eye is a dull grey-brown. When he's an adult, he'll have a deep-purple eye." When she releases the bird, it flies toward us and everybody ducks.
"Oh, I like that one," says a little girl, but attention is already riveted on the next bird, a Swainson's thrush."He's been eating spicebush berries -- you can tell by the orange on his stomach," says Donnald, blowing the bird's feathers apart to show the fat underneath. "As soon as the weather is right, he'll take off, so he has to put on some fat."
A tiny black-throated warbler is next, and to determine its age Donnald looks at its skull with a magnifying glass to see if it's ossified. Noting the age and weight, which will eventually be fed to a Department of the Interior computer, she uses a pair of small pliers to fasten a numbered band around the bird's leg. "It doesn't hurt," she assures the kids. "It doesn't even touch the bird."
The next bird to be banded is a myrtle warbler, and at the end of the process Donnald turns it over and puts it on its back in the outstretched hands of eight-year-old Janet Miller. The bird is so calm and the girl's hands so still that it seems as if the warbler will stay their forever. "Maybe he's taking a nap," another kid suggests, and when the bird finally takes off, Janet is the envy of all.
"Feel my hand, Mom, " she yells. "It's still hot."