Mar 17, 2017 - By Robert H. PeckProbably not shout near the birds, for one thing
I've done a lot of walking and running in Hickory Hill Park since I became a student in Iowa City, but my recent self-challenge to learn more about birds has opened up parts of the big park I didn't know existed.
There were trails I'd never seen, barely visible unless the correct branch was pulled back or the proper patch of leaves scrutinized. I only found them when I saw an older dude in a full denim-jeans-and-jacket number climbing up one later that day, in a portion of the park I'd thought was inaccessible. He was a city worker, I think, clearing dead timber as he went. I waited for him to go and then pushed my way through the brush to where he'd been, and found a low opening cutting through the heart of a dead bush leading to a muddy clearing near a riverbank.
The river and everything around it were usually hidden from park visitors by closely-packed trees. I was alone, out of sight from the main trail in this secret space. All was still.
Gradually, as I waited, the bird song began to swell.
At first, when I'd entered the clearing, they had gone silent. But the longer I stood there, the braver the birds became, talking and laughing with each other as if the stranger in their midst had never appeared. Trills and whip-poor-wills and screeches and squawks, and long, happy calls.
Soon, they were moving as well, hopping gleefully. I heard the cardinal again, and my red-bellied woodpecker, and saw for the first time the little birds in the bush I'd always heard around town--a whole colony of them was there with me now.
Most mysterious of all, though, were the new birds. Like this one: At the top of a very tall tree to my left, I could make out the faint shape of a large, feathery something, long and sleek, bigger than the smaller perchers nearer to my eyes.
The noise it made was loud enough to overpower all the other birds in the clearing. It had two sharp, clear notes, a KEE-KEE, with both tones equally emphasized.
I had never heard this bird before, and I wanted to do more than hear it. Having coming this far, I wanted to see.
My bins hung around my neck. To raise them, I'd need to move. But even the slightest motion, I feared, would provoke the host around me into silence again, and possibly even scare off my target.
Holding my breath, I raised my hand, achingly, second by second, to the binoculars, and then, slower still, the bincoculars to my eyes, extendy bits at the ready, against my face, looking up just as--
The bird, bored of its perch at the tip of the tree, was flying away.
"Crap!" I said it aloud, and I was heard. The clearing went silent again at once.
I dropped the bins against my chest with a thump, and pushed my way back out of the clearing toward the trail.
What would the Audubon people have done, I wondered, in my situation there in the clearing?
Back in the car, I checked the app, but it couldn't give me any specifics. I guessed, though, that they'd probably not get themselves into that situation to begin with--they'd have had their bins ready from the start, hiding with their cookies in some sort of blind.
They'd not only see the mystery bird, but photograph it, put their pictures in my guide so I could try and content myself with that.
I shifted my car, dejectedly, into gear.
But in my room later that night, I looked up the blue-grey nails-on-chalkboard screechbird I'd seen. The Audubon app scrolled through a list of Hickory Hill wildlife until I found it: the blue jay. Apparently it's harsh and mean sometimes, but swells at other times to high, graceful calls at the tips of tall trees.
I played back that version, to listen for the difference, and sat in silence as the sound of the mystery bird in the clearing echoed down the hall.
Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate students in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.
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