Happy New Year!
It was a cloudy, but warmish New Year's Day here in Appalachia Kentucky yesterday, and I was so thankful for that. Every week before New Year's Day, I start monitoring the weather closely, waiting with anticipation to see if it is going to be warm, wet, cloudy, sunny, windy, calm, freezing or frigid. Normally, I take less of an interest in the weather, but for the past two decades, my New Year's Day has been marked by one of my favorite traditions...a Christmas Bird Count. And having participated now for more years than I can remember (I think it may be 25 now), I can honestly say that I have counted birds in every winter weather condition imaginable, which probably shows just how much I love birding, and also just how crazy I am.
With my birding team.
Anyhow, for nearly all of those years, I was part of a CBC team led by my friend, Granville. Granville and I went way back. When I was fresh out of college and just starting my career, Granville was nearing the end of his. He was a forester and I was a wet-behind-the-ears wildlife biologist. In those days, foresters and biologists were often at odds with one another in the agency that Granville and I worked for; the foresters usually advocated for cutting timber and the biologists usually advocated for saving the old trees and the critters that lived in them. Finding common ground was often a challenge. Granville was an old-school forester, and he and I had butted heads a few times. The first time that we worked in the forest together, he tested me and tried to get me lost. When he realized that I could find my way around a timber stand and that, like him, I felt perfectly at home in the woods, I think I earned his respect. From that point on, our mutual respect and love of the natural world transcended any differences in opinion.
A few years later, Granville retired and was looking for a hobby that would keep him active and outdoors, so a mutual friend invited him to join us on our Christmas Bird Count. Granville came along, and was soon overwhelmed, as most new birders are, to the quick and rapid pace of the CBC, trying to keep up with us as we pointed out birds by sound and shape, all while driving along backroads at 20 mph, trying not to get rear-ended. After 12 hours of this, Granville had a headache, but he was also hooked. He'd endured a day of complete birding immersion and had emerged from it a true birder. His new year's days would never be the same again!
Soon after, our mutual friend moved away and Granville enthusiastically took on the role of team leader. Every year from then on, Granville always mapped out our territory for maximum efficiency, so as to avoid any backtracking. He came prepared with maps, screech owl tapes, field guides and, often to my chagrin, always wanted to start an hour before sunrise to make sure we could find some owls. From sunrise to sunset, we'd ride along. With Granville driving and me in the backseat because I hated to navigate, he and I and our other team members would spend the day peering out the windshield looking for anything with feathers. We'd laugh at each other's mis-identifications (oops, that's not a bird, it's a leaf), poke fun at one another, and shared leftover Christmas cookies and bourbon balls, the latter always getting a snarky comment from Granville, who never let alcohol touch his lips.
I could write a lot more about our time driving around in Granville's SUV during our CBC, about the nicknames we'd all given one another and how we got them, the time we found a hummingbird in mid-winter, the dogs that chased us back to the car, the drunk who yelled at us from his front porch, the screech owl that popped it's head out of a tree and answered back my call, the merlin that Granville just couldn't stop talking about because it was the first he'd ever seen (lifer!), the sandhill cranes that flew over as we looked out the window while eating our thickburgers at Hardee's (again, much to my chagrin, Granville always wanted to stop for thickburgers).
Last year, I missed the CBC entirely. At the last minute, our babysitter got sick and I had to stay home with my kids. My husband, Tom, went along with Granville and our friend, and they had the best count yet, getting 65 species, a new record for our team. But when Tom came home, and I asked him how it went, he said only three words, "Granville has cancer."
The prognosis wasn't great; Granville had been told he had 3 to 5 years. But despite that, his enthusiasm and determination to keep doing the CBC didn't waver. Granville had always been the picture of health, winning many physical fitness and cross-cut saw competitions during his younger days, and with the prognosis and Granville's positive attitude, we expected we'd get at least one or two more years of birding with Granville.
It was the weekend after Thanksgiving, the first day of Advent, that Granville died this past year. He'd started losing his eyesight, then took a turn for the worse, and his health rapidly declined. Even though he'd had cancer, the timing of his death came most unexpectedly and few of us had the chance to see him one more time. Driving to his funeral, I thought a lot about him and how difficult New Year's Day this year would be.
Yesterday morning, the three of us on the team met and assumed our new roles. Tom became team leader and I moved up to the front seat to serve as navigator. We drove the same back roads that we'd driven every new year's day for years, and reminisced about the birds we'd seen on that fencerow, or in that field, or behind that house or in that woodlot. Granville's absence was palpable, and I told the team that I was sure that Granville was going to send us a great bird, something we'd never had on our count before, and that we'd know it was from him. I suppose it seemed far-fetched, but faith just told me that he was there with us, and he wanted us to know it.
The morning dragged into early afternoon and the birding was slowing down. Low clouds were keeping raptors and vultures grounded, making them difficult to find, and forcing us to scan tree tops for them perched and waiting for the clouds to lift. As I scanned a line of sycamores along a stream, I saw a bird-shaped silhouette at the top of the tallest tree. Even without binoculars, I could tell that it was an unusual shape for a hawk, but too large for a kestrel. Perhaps another merlin, I thought.
|My view without binoculars.|
As I got my binocs focused on it, my heart lept. There it was. There was the bird I was waiting for. A new species not only for our team but for the entire Christmas Bird Count. And a magnificent bird at that. One that had once dominated the skies but was now almost wiped out, making it a true rarity in the hills of Kentucky. Quickly, we got the spotting scope out, and all of us got good looks at it, plus a few fuzzy photos for documentation. It looked straight at us, then stretched its wings and flew out of sight.
The moment had only lasted a few minutes, but it was enough for all of us to know that we'd been sent our gift from Granville. And I knew that as excited as Granville had become when he'd seen his first merlin with us years ago, nothing could compare to the joy he had found now. Now, he was soaring with the king of the skies.
A peregrine falcon.
Our gift from Granville.