Mar 3, 2017 - By Robert H. Peckq First tip from the experts: they're 'bins,' not 'binoculars.'
One weekend in mid-February I downloaded the Audubon Society's iPhone app.
It has several options on its home screen, overlaid over a photo of a wide-eyed American bluebird: the "Birding and Photography" section had overviews of basic birder behaviors and guidelines.
"Add a Sighting" and "My Birding Locations" were there for experienced watchers who wanted to log when and where they'd seen a rare avian; "Gifts for Bird Lovers" was an option if one had really been taken in. I
made my way down to "Birding and Photography," and was met with this:
"If you've been considering joining the ranks of the 47 million birders in the United States, there's no better time than the present to take the plunge--or at least dip your toes in.
This handy primer will give you the tools you need to venture into the field with confidence. (First tip: Always casually refer to binoculars as 'bins.')"
Forty-seven million birders? The statistic made me question how tightly Audubon defined that term. Forty-seven million would mean one in every seven people was a birder--they're all around us every day, and we don't even know it.
Every football team has one and a half birders in its starting lineup, all out on the weekends with their bins. Reading on led me to information on which types of bins to buy, how to focus and aim with my bins, and when and when not to use my bins for best results.
I had a small, old pair of Smith & Wesson binoculars in the back of my car for some reason, there for as long as I could remember, so I took them out and played with the focus. The end where your eye goes had lenses mounted on little extendy tube bits that went in and out when twisted; fully out, I determined, should be my setting. A wheel in the middle, between the eyes, controlled focus.
I zoomed on my living room wall, imagining a cardinal there. Twoo-weet, I said, but the wall was silent.
I drove to a park; Hickory Hill Park, in Iowa City, where I'd seen a red-tailed hawk once. I felt so lucky when I saw it, since I can never spot them.
It had a speckled belly, which was about all I remembered about it, but that was all I needed to look it up. "If you aren't sure which kind of raptor you saw," YouTube told me patiently, "it was probably a red-tailed hawk. Those are what people see most often."
That voiceover played with a photograph of my speckly hawk, yawning. So that's what it was.
I arrived around 3 p.m. It was unseasonably warm, and Iowans were out in droves to sun themselves on the brown, mid-winter grass. I retrieved my bins and hung them from my neck, over a striped blue shirt I'd put on because I'd imagined it made me look like a blue jay.
I'd never seen a blue jay, but imagined that they were electric blue and fluffy, and graceful in the air. I wanted to see it. Gravel crunched under my feet as I walked into the woods.
The going impression of Iowa in public imagination seems to be of cornfields and flatness, men in overalls, combine machines. There's truth in that, but in Iowa City I've lived on a shady street, and walked to class and work along deciduous roads leading to a leafy campus.
I came here from Wyoming, where the prairie goes on interrupted 400 miles across. Iowa will always be its trees, to me, and here in Hickory Hill there were many of them, some tight together, others wider apart in a repeating, lazy pattern that spoke of a vertical calm the pines of the mountain west do not provoke for me.
Among the tangled branches, I realized immediately why Audubon in Wyoming visited my house in the winter: no leaves to get in the way of the show.
Quite soon, I was aware that birds were nearby. Specifically I could hear hammering, a stupendous racket like a nail gun on a construction site.
Woodpecker, I thought, making sure the extendy bits of my bins were fully out. Adjusting my glasses and squinting into the trees, I waited for... What? The noise was coming from out in there somewhere, but I had no idea where I should be looking.
Did woodpeckers like tree trunks or tree branches, or the hollow bits?
Audubon's guide had been little help. "Think like a bird," it had offered, suggesting that I scan all the parts of the scene and imagine where birds might be, as if looking where I thought the bird was an arcane idea I'd have been starved of otherwise.
The woods were cast in late afternoon shadow, and the sun glared back at me if I looked too far to the left.
To my right, the ashes loomed judgmentally. "This jackass thinks he can find the woodpecker." I adjusted my glasses again.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, a flicker of something. Crossing between two bows about fifteen feet off the path, way up in a tree, I had seen it move. A tiny bird, so, so much smaller than I'd expected, clinging now to the trunk, completely upside down, spinning and bobbing its head as if the bark beneath it was the most thrilling thing it had ever seen in its small life.
It was like witnessing a fairy; I jumped, fumbled, haphazardly, for my bins. Glancing down for a second, just a second, to get my grip, I looked back up to find the woodpecker--gone, its hammering silenced.
"Crap," I said, to nobody in particular, and then behind me there was a twittering tro-tro-tro-wooki-wooki-wooki-wooki and I spun around.
On a lower branch, right at head height, the woodpecker perched, talking to nobody in particular itself as well, and nibbling on a twig.
I didn't move, and neither did he, and we stayed there this way for a good four or five minutes, he wooki-ing, me watching. It was without exaggeration among the most excited I have felt in my adult life.
I had proven to myself that I could find a bird! And it was good that I had, because I spend another 45 minutes at Hickory Hill Park that day and didn't manage to see another damn one of them the entire time.
I was a little hurt and dejected by that, but mostly content, because I'd found the one, and that was enough.
Back in my car I navigated to "Explore Birds" on my Audubon app, and identified this one as a red-bellied woodpecker, long of beak and gruff of voice, resident year-round in Iowa and most of the Eastern U.S.
The red-bellied woodpecker became at once, and remains today, my favorite.
Next: Getting better at thinking like a bird.
Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.
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