I spent most of today in the company of our local Master Naturalist training class, the Nature Nuts, learning about the birds of our area. Since one of the best ways to learn about birds is to see them, off we went on a bird-spotting trip led by enthusiastic members of the Mountwood Bird Club. I must confess that the 25-degree morning did dampen my enthusiasm a bit (and may have cut down on the attendance), but the sun was shining, the company was good, and the leader of our trip had packed two large containers of homemade biscotti. (I may need to join this birding club.)
Today's excursion brought four new-to-me birds, along with others both common and unusual. Hordes of ring-billed gulls swooped above and floated down the river as we watched them, dazzling white in the sunshine. Red-tailed hawks showed off their glorious white fronts nearly everywhere we went. Bluebirds flitted across the road as we drove past some local farms, near the spot where two white-crowned sparrows fed on the ground near some parked equipment.
There is something to be said for good equipment. The two large spotting scopes brought along by serious birders allowed us to see distant birds that were just blobs in my vintage binoculars. All brown ducks look like mallards to me, but the scope revealed a flock of mergansers (no hoods up, unfortunately) and a handsome male canvasback. My eyes could see a large nest high in a tree on a river island, and my binoculars picked out a definite white presence, but the scope allowed us an extended look at a pair of bald eagles already on the nest, and one of last spring's juveniles hanging out in the same tree. I had managed never to see a bald eagle in the wild in more than fifty years on this planet, and fifteen minutes from our house, saw three of them across from Aaron's Rent-to-Own in Vienna.
Sometimes, though, we didn't need the equipment to see the diversity around us. One of the most exciting birds of the day was a rose-breasted grosbeak, spotted in the brush next to us by nothing more sophisticated than a sharp human eye (not mine). Driving down a winding country road, our guide identified a tree sparrow by nothing more than a moment of song and a quick glance. Movement on a finger of land jutting into the Muskingum River revealed a fat American coot dining on an unfortunate shad.
All this richness was revealed in a three-hour meander within twenty-five miles of our very ordinary neighborhood, most of which I would not have spotted on my own. There is just something to be said for learning from someone who has both knowledge of and love for the subject being taught.