It’s May. Get Out There.

That is what I tell myself at 5:00 in the morning when I wake up and it is still mostly dark and I am sleepy and warm in bed and could use a little more rest before getting up for the day to get cracking on the usual routine. It’s May. Just get out there.

I mean, it is beautiful on a May day when the sun rises and the fog settles over the river and the green of the new buds is almost yellow it is so bright. But May is also when the birds come back. Warblers and orioles and flycatchers and sparrows. And so many more. I get out and try to find them. Every morning I try to find a bird species I have not yet found this year. Lately the birds have just been nuts.

What I mean by nuts is there have been so many birds singing in the morning. When I go out I stand in the driveway and listen. I hear ten species from the porch. By the time I get to the end of the driveway I have heard 15. By the turn in the road I’ve found 20. The past couple of times I have walked out early I have seen or heard 50 species. It is nuts.

Six years ago, when I started birding more seriously, my goal was to learn the songs of as many local birds as possible. I wanted to be able to hear a song or call and know what I was hearing. I know a lot of them. I look forward to hearing the first Savannah Sparrows or Eastern Meadowlarks or Bobolinks. My heart leaps up, as Wordsworth said, when I hear my first Yellow Warbler of the year. Or my first Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.

There are several birds that regularly show up here whose songs I don’t have nailed. That American Redstart? I should know it by now, but I have to re-remember it each year. Same with the Blackburnian Warbler. But it is a new challenge each spring. “Wait,” I whisper to myself. “What is that? I should know that.” And then smile when I get it.

These days I never have enough time. I have to rush back to the house for a shower and a clean shirt and some breakfast before we all head off to work and school. It would be easier if I had more time for that crap as well. But it is May. I need to get out there. In a couple of months, those birds won’t be singing, and the leaves will be hiding them. So I get up, I grab my binoculars and I try to remember to shut the door behind me as I start listening.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey 2009

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I set the alarm for 2:10.  I was going to set it for 2:00 but I figured I could use an extra ten minutes of sleep.  Typically when I set the alarm I wake up before it goes off.  Not at 2:10.  I slid off the bed in the dark and headed to the bathroom.  I had planned ahead, sleeping in my contact lenses and leaving the rewetting drops next to the sink so I wouldn’t have to open the noisy drawer.  I brushed my teeth and headed downstairs.  My clothes were ready to go.  I dressed while the espresso was brewing and the water was boiling.  I mixed the two, added some cream in my travel mug, grabbed my backpack and headed out.

I don’t usually have a fear of the dark.  I know my way from the house to the car.  I did hesitate this morning, just for a moment, however.  Skunks are about.  Surprising one would have added a complication to my morning plans.  Once I was driving it was smooth sailing all the way to Bolton.  I passed two other cars on the way.

Coffee polished off, I started hiking in the dark.  I have hiked that same way many times.  The moon was full but it was mostly hidden by clouds.  Nonetheless, I did not use my headlamp most of the way.  The trail is not all that rough and I had enough light.  Once I got to the wet part of the trail that hides between tall trees, I had to use a light.  I got to my starting point at about 10 minutes to 4:00.

The idea is to listen between 4:00 and 6:00.  When I first started doing this survey the suggested hours were 6:00-8:00.  That did not prove as successful as these earlier hours.  My route was a lot harder as well so even getting done by 8:00 was pretty much not happening.  The route changed a bunch of years ago to what it is today–same mountain, easier navigation.  I had not heard any birds on my hike.  The first song was at 4:03, a white-throated sparrow.  I waited a few minutes to officially start and even then heard only three birds in ten minutes of listening.

At the second of five points I had better luck.  The main target species here is Bicknell’s thrush.  I heard three of them at this point, which is rare on this survey route.  I have heard two before, but never three at once.  Hearing one is exciting enough.  Knowing that these diminutive, shy birds have flown all the way back from Dominica is truly heartening.  By this time all the birds seemed to wake up.  This morning chorus was rich, so many birds singing and calling that I had to concentrate to distinguish them all.  The silent woods came alive.

On the way to point three I heard another two Bicknell’s thrush and they kept singing so I heard them during my official point count.  I heard a sixth one at point five.  I heard all of the other four target species, along with lots of others, so the morning was a success.  I stopped to take a couple of photos.  The ones above were taken at about 5:15.  Then my camera battery died.  Too many videos of the children apparently.

I took my time hiking back down.  Twice I got a good peek at blackpol warblers through my binoculars.  Plus, I found 35 cents.  What a deal.  I was back at the car and changed into dry clothes by 7:00.  In the parking lot of On the Rise Bakery in Richmond I called home.  The family was awake and happy.  I headed inside for a maple latte and some home fries, content that I had done a good day’s work.  And they hadn’t even started serving brunch yet.