David Holahan is a writer living in East Haddam, Conn.
I love to watch the birds, but some days I despair. After meandering for an hour about fields, streams and forests, I often see nothing — or the equivalent: only juncos, aptly named, or common sparrows.
I try to comfort myself with other natural sights and sounds, but my mind won’t have it. Where are the avian rock stars? Like those winsome warblers? Whither the preposterous pileated woodpecker (the real Woody Woodpecker)? If a scarlet tanager makes a cameo once a year, one is supposed to be grateful.
But I am not. Most birders are not. We want action, color and sweet melodies. Worst of all, sometimes delightful species are about, but they won’t stay put for a positive ID, much less a leisurely look. The very instant binoculars focus on them they are gone, higher in the canopy or behind a leafy branch. They must think I’m going to bake them in a pie.
Enter the golden-crowned kinglet, a plump little royal that is blissfully indifferent to the presence of hoi polloi. Kinglets will pose in plain view, sometimes even flitting closer to their stalkers. Birds that are this accommodating almost always are the drab ones, or the usual suspects, your chickadees and titmice.
The kinglet, however, boasts a rich palette of orange, yellow, olive, white, black and gray, all artfully combined in a unique design that makes identification a breeze. One once landed in a bush within arm’s reach, cocked its colorful crown and stared — as if it was adding me to its life list of curiosities.
Kinglets are not common here in southeastern Connecticut, and that’s a big part of their appeal. Also appealing is their eminent inclusivity; they don’t seem to care whom they hang out with, often flocking with other species.
If spying a kinglet or some other scintillating songbird makes for a successful walk, does that mean uneventful sorties are a bust? Now that I am retired, I have more time not only to ramble but also to ponder such riddles.
Why is it, for example, that I don’t note in my journal when I see bluebirds, but only magnolia warblers, indigo buntings and such glitterati? In fact, bluebirds are quite fetching, but they also are common hereabouts. There’s the rub. They used to be less so, and when I saw my first one years ago, I was smitten. Now we’re like old married people, barely taking note of each other as we go about our business.
In full mating plumage, male bluebirds are a brilliant azure blue about the head and back and brick red on the chest, with a white belly. The females are duller, and juveniles have a mottled look. They will sit on fence posts for minutes at a time, like practiced models. I vow to pay more attention to bluebirds in the future.
Bird watching is getting even harder because there are fewer birds every year. Two recent studies documented the decline: one, based on the annual Christmas count, reported that wintering North American birds are down by one third since 1966; the other predicts that unless conservation action is taken more than a third of North American bird species are at risk of extinction.
We take the environment for granted, assuming it will take care of itself and will always be there for us. We rarely stop and admire the bluebirds, even if we are out looking for birds. We just experienced two years of extreme electioneering during which global warming barely came up.
One doesn’t have to have a position on climate change to appreciate that our species is having a dramatic impact on the environment, as well as on fellow travelers aboard spaceship Earth. It isn’t just the iconic animals of Africa that are in trouble.
Even if we can summon the will to avert what virtually every scientist warns will be catastrophic warming, we nonetheless are leaving a much-diminished place for our children and grandchildren to inhabit, not to mention kinglets.
Why would we do that?