chatowsky Slow Down For Birds

If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself rushing from place to place, and from responsibility to responsibility, seldom lingering long enough to smell the proverbial roses. But I recently found out how much I overlook when I do so.

It has been 35 years since my childhood interest in nature blossomed into an all-consuming passion to observe as many different kinds of birds as possible. I plan my vacations around bird watching, and between trips I study up on the identifying features, habitat preferences and songs of the birds I hope to see.

Yet I learned more about birds last year – without leaving Rhode Island – than I did in the previous three decades of obsessively seeking out new species all around North America. All it took was a concerted effort to slow down and spend time getting to know each bird by watching it a bit longer than usual.

Charles Clarkson, who runs the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, calls it “slow birding.” It’s the strategy he recommends that atlas volunteers use to document the breeding behaviors of local birds. And it’s a strategy that has opened my eyes to so many new discoveries.

Like the day last May when I heard a red-bellied woodpecker repeatedly calling from high in a tree. It’s a sound I instantly recognized and have heard hundreds or thousands of times. But this time the bird just kept calling and calling every 10 or 15 seconds.

Rather than mentally check off the species on my daily bird list, I searched for it and eventually saw the bird’s head peeking out of a hole in an oak. Moments later, its mate arrived and they traded places – the male flew off to feed while the female entered the tree cavity to brood her eggs. I had never observed that behavior before, and yet days later in a different forest I heard the same repeated calls and saw another pair of woodpeckers trading places.

The woodpecker in the nest was apparently telling its mate that it was ready to escape the duty of keeping the eggs warm. Maybe it was hungry or bored or just wanted a break. And its mate obliged.

Why hadn’t I ever seen this behavior before when it is apparently so common during the breeding season? Probably because I wasn’t paying enough attention. I won’t let that happen again.

Last month I spent 20 minutes watching a group of tree swallows darting over a pond, one of which carried a small white feather in its beak. As it flew higher, the bird dropped the feather and another swallow snatched it from the air and repeated the process. This wonderful game continued for several minutes until one of them eventually deposited the feather in its nest.

I also observed a pair of black-billed cuckoos mating, after which one delivered a meal of a small dragonfly to the other. And I saw a female Baltimore oriole collect long grasses in her beak and use them to weave an intricate basket-like nest beneath a branch overhanging a pond. And three times I saw gray catbirds carrying large leaves to begin construction of their nests.

I had never seen any of these behaviors before, even though I see those species regularly every spring and summer. All I had to do was slow down and pay attention.

It’s a good lesson for all of us. Take your time, keep your eyes open, and there’s no telling what natural wonder you’ll see.

Naturalist Todd McLeish has been writing about wildlife and the environment for more than 25 years. His latest book is “Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.”

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