Warbler Neck

“A birdie with a yellow bill / hopped upon the window sill. / Cocked his shining eye and said / ‘What’s that in the road? A head?’”

I laugh at this corrupted version of an old Robert Louis Stevenson poem that was recited often on an old TV show called Axel and his Dog that emanated from the studios of Channel 4 in a faraway place called the Twin Cities—Minneapolis and St. Paul.

My wife groans. She’s heard my rendition often.

“I’m off birding,” I chirp to my lovely bride.

“You’re off in a lot of other ways, too,” is her reply. She’s a real card.

I spit on my handkerchief and wipe my binoculars. It’s family tradition. It’s the way my mother washed my face.

Thomas Carlyle advised, “Stop a moment, cease your work, and look around you.” I do him one better. I stop before I even begin any work. The Three Stooges would be proud of me.

I hope to see many warblers on this day. I remember the line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.”

I drive to a county park and walk to a location known to produce good looks at the feather jewels. Birding is a combination of three sports—hiking, voyeurism, and hoping. Boxing is the sweet science. Birding is the tweet science.

I hear whisperings of birds far removed. The songs become louder as I walk. Every male bird thinks he’s Barry White.

There is a group of folks there. A field trip in search of avian delights. This is good. The warblers deserve a parade.

I assume the warbler-watching position—feet spread comfortably, binoculars tipped towards the tops of the trees as though I am looking for clouds shaped like birds. I scan a tree filled with varicolored warblers. It’s a morning of which a birder’s dreams are made. Some look on it as an odd activity, but watching birds isn’t odd. People watch golf and fishing on TV. That’s odd. Looking at birds isn’t enough. You have to stare at them. Each one is a definite flight risk.

I listen to the ongoing color commentary.

“See the bird?”

“Where?”

“That’s a good bird.”

“What’s a good bird?”

It’s like the Birder’s Tourette’s syndrome. “What is it? Where is it? Where did it go?”

“There it is in that green tree. It’s at 5 o’clock. Now it’s at 9 o’clock. Now it’s about 9 minutes to 5.”

“A green tree. Is it that ash? One of the maples? Or that big oak?”

“I think so.”

“You do know what a tree looks like, don’t you?”

“Is that it singing?”

“Trees don’t sing!”

“I mean the bird.”

“There are a lot of birds singing. Which song are you talking about?”

“I thought I didn’t hear the bird over there, but actually, I’m not hearing it over here.”

“Is that the bird on that dead branch?”

“Which dead branch?”

“The one with the bird on it.”

“Oh, that’s not the bird. That’s not even a bird.”

“Is that the tree you’re talking about? The one with all of the leaves?”

“That’s the one.”

“There is more than one bird in that tree.”

“Are we looking at the same bird?”

“The bird is hard to see when you’re looking for it. This one is sort of green with white wing bars.”

“Oh, it’s a different bird. The one I’m looking at is green, but it has white wing bars.”

“Where is it?”

“Right here in my binoculars. That’s the best I can do without using a paint gun.”

“See that? I didn’t either.”

“Oh, I see it, but a bird like that does not exist.”

“The bird doesn’t change while you’re looking at it. You must have missed an episode of Wild Kingdom.”

“It’s not rocket science. It’s more difficult than that.”

“Take the training wheels off your binoculars. Trying to show you that bird is like trying to teach calculus to Gilligan.”

It’s short-attention-span birding. It’s Mad Magazine’s idea of birding. Birders are capable of having lengthy conversations that are meaningless to others.

It’s the greatest show on earth. Watching warblers is like seeing celebrities. I want to tell them that I really enjoy their work. I bird today because of what I saw yesterday and because of what I will see tomorrow.

A field-guide-thumbing, binocular-toting friend of mine joins us. We grunt a howdy in one another’s direction. He has new Swarovski binoculars, a Zeiss spotting scope, and a rusty 1981 Ford pickup with 312,679 miles on it. I can smell stale coffee and doughnuts on his breath. Seeing him causes memories of our old garage band that we almost started, The Yellow-rumped Warblers, to touch delicately a remaining brain cell or two.

My friend quotes Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes comic strip fame, “When birds burp it must taste like bugs.”

“I spy with my little eye,” I say. For a moment, I don’t care what kind of warblers they are. I’m just glad they are there. If I owned a baseball team, I’d name them the Warblers. The warblers remind me that I’ll remain a happy camper as long as I keep looking at birds with a beginner’s eyes.

My friend is working on a birding component system. It finds the bird, it identifies the bird, it takes a photo of the bird, it sends documentation to all who require it, and makes a phone call to everyone he has ever met carrying binoculars. Until he perfects it, we sort out the birds with learned identification skills.

I have a friend who is a chiropractor. Chiropractic is a noble profession involving bending and cracking that practitioners call “adjusting.” This chiropractor loves warblers. He thinks that at least one of them ought to be the state bird. Oh, he enjoys seeing them, but he doesn’t look at them that often. He’s busy bending and cracking folks. What he appreciates about warblers is the business they bring him.

There is a reason some people would rather look at elephants and whales instead of warblers. Warbler watchers look up until we contract it: Warbler neck.

The neck becomes stiff and sore. A palm of the hand pressing on the back of the neck is a badge of honor that identifies warbler watchers. Warbler neck is a small price to pay for a look at a beautiful bird.

 

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  • Debby Stark

    I first heard the “a head” joke on the Red Skelton show back in the 60s. As for warblers, we have some around here but it’s rather early to see them. Soon we’ll be seeing all the birds who visit my area (Albuquerque) to eat bugs and berries, have babies, and, for some (Western Kingbirds), to harass hawks, crows and starlings.

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