By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
It may be unfair of me to say, but, as of now, I find trying to learn the identities of birds by their songs disturbingly akin to trying to learn French in college by closing my textbook and just listening to my instructor.
I’m trying, damn it, but it’s hard. And I don’t want to give up, as I did with French.
In the 1980s at the University of Montana, after two and a half years of German and one year of Spanish — two languages that sound the way they look — I decided to tackle French. In the first class, our instructor told us to put away our “livre de langue française” and simply listen. At that point, she ceased speaking English and spoke only French. She pointed to herself and said, “Professeur.” We dutifully echoed her word. Then: “Bonjour, classe!” That was an easy one. We responded with a chorus of, “Bonjour, professeur!” But each subsequent sentence or expression grew increasingly complex, and the more visual learners among us became increasingly perplexed learners.
I dropped the class after only one term.
Flash forward more than 30 years. I’m in Dillingham in mid-May, I’m with friends on a chilly early morning “bird walk” — my very first — and I’m doing my darnedest to follow the chorus of whistles and cheeps and tweets and chirrups that some of my companions are identifying faster than I can process the French words for “totally confused.” (That’s totalement confus, by the way.)
I realize, of course, the near necessity of learning the musicality of birds, particularly the LBBs (“little brown birds”) that frequent the forests and tundra and waterways of Alaska. To begin with, with the exception of robins and thrushes, most of the LBBs have a body the size of a golf ball, so they’re tough to see well unless the light is perfect or they happen to land on a branch next to one’s face. They also don’t stand still long — they dart, they flit and they zip. The moment I’d raise my binoculars for a closer view, they’d be gone. They also prefer deep cover — the branches of spruce trees, for instance, or tall grass or thick brush — so their sounds can appear directionless, almost coming out of nowhere.
So learning birdsongs is the best alternative. If one can learn their individual tunes, one can nail down the species — even if, like the French words in my textbook I wasn’t allowed to use, one never sees the actual bird at all.
HOWEVER, confounding the whole process is the fact that nobody seems to have informed these LBBs that it’s not polite for all of them to talk at the same time.
When I lived in Soldotna, I mostly watched birds, instead of listening to them. And I became accustomed to an established guest list when my bird feeder began receiving visitors. There were common redpolls, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos and chickadees, plus the occasional pine grosbeak, crossbill and gray jay.
Depending on the time of year, I did some listening, too. I heard the squawking of gulls cruising the Kenai River, the kraaahs and brrronks of ravens eyeing scraps in the Fred Meyer parking lot, and the melodies of American robins, varied thrushes and white-crowned sparrows bounding or fluttering around my yard. I also heard the hooting of great-horned owls and the cries of annoyed bald eagles in the aspens behind my house.
I mostly ignored LBBs. They were too fast, too numerous and too much alike for me.
Not so for the folks on the Dillingham bird walk, particularly Lisa and Michael, two avid birders with decades of experience and remarkably acute hearing. We hadn’t been outside more than five minutes before the two of them had identified at least half a dozen birds I’d never seen before. They were rapidly dissecting the symphony and naming the first-chair players on every instrument. To me, it seemed as if everyone in the band had a different set of sheet music and was playing everything simultaneously.
Michael perceived the notes of a ruby-crowned kinglet. “Hear that?” he asked. All I could hear was a Super Cub taking off from nearby Dillingham Airport. Lisa’s ears pricked up at the call of a fox sparrow. I heard a Knik Construction truck rumble past on Aleknagik Lake Road. Michael discerned the song of a distant yellow warbler. I heard the chatter of my companions and the rasping of the wind in my ears.
I had to step away from the main group and closer to the edge of the woods to better block the ambient noise and focus on the song selections. Still, I heard more of a chorus than a selection of solo performances. I couldn’t separate the piano or violin music from the whole concerto.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group — seven others, all in rubber knee boots and several layers of clothing — caught up with me. Lauri was examining her copy of “The Sibley “Guide to Birds,” and with two others was discussing minutiae concerning the differences among several species of sparrows. I peered over their shoulders and frowned to see more similarities than differences.
Avid birders enjoy the mystery of figuring out what they’re seeing — the subtle ruddy streaks on the breast of one bird, the slightly darker forehead on another, the flash of white in the wings when fully extended. I hope someday to enjoy that mystery, too. But for now, as someone in the group noted, solving the riddles of similar species occasionally feels like a matter of opinion — like a group of wine connoisseurs discussing the qualities of a pinot noir.
A week earlier, Yvonne Leutwyler and I joined a University of Alaska “Birds of Alaska” class for a trip south to Cape Constantine, where Nushagak Bay meets the Bering Sea. Out there on the windy coast we relied mainly on sight, rather than sound, for our identification. Still, there were times when we had to admit that we just couldn’t be sure what we were looking at.
Even with photos, we couldn’t tell if that bird on the tundra was a whimbrel or a bristle-thighed curlew. (We wanted it to be a curlew because they’re a much rarer sighting.) Even with a spotting scope we couldn’t be sure if those were greater scaup or lesser scaup out on the rolling sea. And even with binoculars at close range, it was tough to differentiate the species of a sandpiper as it darted through grass at the edge of a marsh.
Then Nathan, our instructor, began describing their calls as the difference between a diesel engine and a gasoline engine, and when the bird vocalized before flying away, he was delighted to nail down its correct identity as a least sandpiper, instead of a semipalmated one.
Now, to people who aren’t obsessed with birds, all of this fuss over identification probably sounds a little nutty. But the activity can become addictive, and the birders themselves can become passionate in their pursuit.
Besides, I’ve known people who obsess over the subtleties between truck engines, garden flowers, firearms and artwork, and be every bit as loopy as the bird nerds with whom I’ve been making acquaintance.
Some people even obsess over nuances in language — perhaps even French. But these days, I’m choosing yellow-rumped warbler over la linguistique française.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.