March 2009

Return of the dodo

By David Feela

The sandhill crane is a very old bird, some 9 million years according to fossils unearthed in Nebraska, but I’m not such a bird brain as to drive to Nebraska in January just to say I’d seen the oldest crane. No, I said to myself, I’m going to impersonate a snowbird and go to southern Arizona, down near Mexico’s border, where sandhill cranes migrate each winter in reported numbers that exceed 20,000, doing what ever cranes do best in that lush mush of grass and soil along the San Pedro River.

That was my plan. Until I spotted the flycatcher.

A vermillion flycatcher, to be specific. Actually, I don’t know much about bird identification. I stared at the little puff of red through my binoculars, all ruffled against a stiff breeze blowing off the surface of Whitewater Draw. It had rained all night and in the morning the earth was a thick reddish paste that stuck to my boots, increasing my height by at least an inch in my first 100 yards of slogging toward the viewing platform.

I saw plenty of cranes, and they were inspiring. They waded in the water, foraged in the fields, flew in crane-like formation across the horizon. I thought I’d seen it all.

But the flycatcher caught my eye. Compared to a crane, it was a tiny bird, but such an unmistakable bright red against the drab grays and browns of the season. My binoculars brought it close enough to study every detail, from its small bill to its short, stubby tail. I stared and stared until I realized I was looking at something I’d never seen before.

Back at the San Pedro House, a BLM-supported birding facility and gift shop, a dry erase board hung outside on the porch with black maker notations under the heading “Recent sightings.” I scanned the list: over 50 birds since the beginning of January, including a dusky flycatcher, a gray flycatcher, a Hammond’s flycatcher, but no vermillion flycatcher. Aha! I thought, so I went inside to let the world know.

A sincere older couple dressed in matching orange fleece vests approached the desk while I browsed through the identification guides on the book shelves. They walked straight to the counter and explained in a kindly manner that they’d spotted a Painted Bunting, which, according to guide books, was not due to arrive in the area until early summer.

“We thought you’d like to know so you could include it on your list outside,” the orange-bellied man chirped.

“I’m sorry,” the person in charge cackled, “that list is for people who know what they∂re talking about.”

I had never seen a vermillion flycatcher, much less one in a wild and natural setting, so that tiny bird, though hardly endangered, will always be a rare one for me, but to the bird woman of San Pedro House, birds were a specialized business, which might explain why so many species eventually become extinct. The fascination with seeing something for the first time is woefully underrated. We are only obsessed with seeing it for the last time.

It’s also true that too many people have no interest in seeing the world with fresh eyes, which might explain why every mall across America contains nearly the same outlets. If shoppers were the equivalent of bird watchers, their daily sightings list would be the map beside each escalator assuring them that another Starbucks is only 500 feet from “You are here”.

When the couple turned to leave I followed them out the door, keeping my vermillion flycatcher to myself. They wandered across the parking lot toward their car, laughing the entire way. I didn’t doubt they’d spotted exactly what they described, and judging by their laughter, they recognized the cackle of a dodo when they’d heard one, too.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.