Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dark-eyed Jumpo

In March of 1964, I was a two-year old kid sitting in a highchair at the window of my grandma Thompson's kitchen. It was a snowy morning on the farm and the feeders were mobbed with birds. This is the moment I called out my fist bird ID (according to Grandma Thompson).

"Junco!" I said, pointing out the window at the bird feeder. Gram swore that was my exact word—practically my first one! Of course it was not until 1968 or so that I met my spark bird.

If you've got a spark bird story to tell, why not share it with your fellow bird watchers via The Spark Bird Blog? We'd love to add your story to the collection. To submit your spark bird story, send it via e-mail to sparkblog AT

And speaking of bird names: The bird pictured above might better be called a dark-eyed jumpo, don't you think? This junco was photographed recently from the kitchen window of MY farm, about 15 miles from where the old family farm was, here in southeastern Ohio.

With all the bad news we get bombarded with on a daily basis, it's good to know that some things never change. In winter, at least here in the Appalachian hills, when the snow flies there will always be juncos.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Spark Bird

Snowy owl, but not THE snowy owl.

On my recent trip to Iowa, I took a detour to spend the night in my hometown of Pella, southeast of Des Moines. While there I visited with my awesome niece Annalea and Thompson family friend Barb Butler. And I also visited the exact site where I saw my spark bird (the bird that "sparked" my interest in birds) as a young man in November of 1969. I told my spark bird story back in January of this year here in Bill of the Birds.

Here's the briefest of re-tellings:

I was out in the front yard of my family's home on Monroe Street on the edge of town. It was Thanksgiving break from school and we were raking leaves in the front yard, under the giant oak trees. I seem to remember a slight dusting of snow on the ground. A flash of movement caught my eye and I looked up into the heavy, spreading branches of one of the old oaks to see a large white bird swooping to a landing. It sat there looking around, oblivious to the gawking humans on the ground 40 feet below.

What happened next is a blur. I remember running to fetch the Chester Reed Field Guide and the ancient WWI binoculars on our kitchen windowsill. We identified the bird as a snowy owl. WOW! I was pretty excited. This was a cool bird.

My family was not into birds at the time, but we'd managed to see a bird that we knew was fairly unusual. For me, however, this was the bird that started me on my lifelong path of watching and seeking out birds. It did not happen all at once, of course. I paged through the Reed Guide and tried to find some of the other birds. For some I had great success (northern cardinal, bobwhite, "purple" grackle) but for others I was to find no joy (painted bunting).

The snowy owl is still a special bird to me and I try to see them whenever winter brings them southward.

The morning after my arrival in Pella, it was already time to leave to head north for a speaking engagement. But first, I wanted to revisit the site of my spark bird encounter.
The Rickety House in Pella Iowa.

My family left Pella, Iowa to move to Marietta, Ohio in 1971. The house in Pella (which we kids called "The Rickety House") passed through a variety of owners, with the associated changes in landscaping, painting, and remodeling. The woodlot to the side of the house was sold of for a building lot. The old tree nursery and scrubby fields where I rambled in the 1960s looking for birds and animals are now a subdivision of perfectly kept houses.
The oak tree that the snowy owl landed in.

But the oak trees are still there. And the tree that hosted my snowy owl is still there, too. I stopped the car out in front and took several photos.

I was standing there and the owl landed up there....

The heavy rain on this morning did nothing to dampen my remembering of the day I met my spark bird.

Bird Watcher's Digest is creating a venue for sharing spark bird stories. We'd love to hear yours, and we'll share the best of them in a blog called, appropriately enough: Spark Bird Stories.

To share your spark bird tale, send an e-mail with the story to [email protected]

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