Birding Highs And Lows

So little divides utter joy from abject sadness.

Like many Colorado bird lovers, I made a September pilgrimage to a Denver suburb, where a perspicacious birder had discovered an uncommon avian species. As the rare bird reports poured into my Email inbox for four successive days, I tried to suppress the little voice in my head that told me I might be missing the chance of a lifetime. Why did I wait? If I don’t have to drive to and in Denver, I won’t—the traffic is awful. I made a pact with myself: If still reported on day five, I would take it as a hint to try my luck. It was, and I set my alarm for 4:15 for the following morning.

My anticipation woke me at 3 AM. My earlier departure time enabled me to make it to my destination before the worst of the rush-hour, even though columns of cars were already jammed along stretches of the Interstate at 5:30 in the morning. It was still dark when I arrived, and once the first light colored the horizon, I strolled along the creek bed, where the bird in question had been sighted repeatedly. Right around 7 AM, I heard an unusual vocalization, recognizable to me from recordings. A few minutes afterward, the subject of my desire appeared from its nocturnal hidey-hole and assumed a prominent position on a tree branch suffused by sunshine.

If it’s possible to fall in love with a being one knows only from photographs, it had happened to me. Laying eyes on the actual bird, I was swept off my feet. Long-tailed, with radiant jetblack feathers and a massive beak, its gentle gaze and relaxed attitude have captured my imagination ever since. Until about a week before, I had never even heard of a Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris), but now I relished my first date with this unusual creature. At first glance, it resembles a corvid or grackle, but it is actually related to cuckoos. I spent about 40 minutes with Black Beauty then, and returned again after exploring the vicinity. It was still near that original tree, and seemed to enjoy basking in the sun’s warm rays. Maybe it also enjoyed basking in the attention from me and others who had come to make the acquaintance of what can only be called a celebrity.

Groove-billed Anis hail from Mexico, but make occasional excursions into Texas and sporadic visits to other states (click here for its Cornell Lab of Ornithology bio). There had been four previous sightings in Colorado, most recently in 1982. How did this lone avian end up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains? Speculations range from having escaped a cage to having been trapped in a truck or train car, but chances are that it came under its own power.

I share my fellow birders’ concern for the bird’s well-being. What will the future hold? Will it fly south to escape what could be a very harsh Colorado winter? Will someone try to capture and transport it, if not to Mexico, then at least to Texas? There are more questions than answers when it comes to these types of rare occurrences. As hundreds of us add this bird to our life lists, do we assume a special responsibility, or do we let nature take its course?

It is one of life’s certainties that what goes up must come down. Only a few days after experiencing this high, the results of a comprehensive longitudinal study published by the journal Science brought me back to earth—a much impoverished earth. The report concluded that the bird population of the United States and Canada has suffered a dreadful 29% decline since 1970, resulting in the heart-rending loss of nearly 3 BILLION birds. Some sub-populations are even more severely affected. Grassland birds, for example, have experienced a devastating 53% drop. The various reasons are mostly human-induced: destruction of habitat, toxic chemicals, climate change, house and feral cats…(read more about it here).

It is challenging not to give up hope in the face of these grim facts. I don’t like to be cynical, but I have lost faith in (wo)mankind. We are the most short-sighted and destructive creatures to have walked and altered the face of this magnificent planet, which is crying sad tears—as am I.

89 thoughts on “Birding Highs And Lows

  1. We saw one of these in Texas many years ago; what a great bird! The figures you quote in your penultimate paragraph are frightening, but sadly North America isn’t unique in its environmental vandalism. I don’t have figures to hand for the UK, but in percentage terms they are probably comparable, and for similar reasons. It is with immense sadness that I fully endorse the words and sentiments of your final paragraph.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How exciting that you also made the acquaintance of this inspiring bird. An encounter in Texas is not unexpected, in Colorado, it is.

      I find it so depressing that we know what could and should be done, yet we avert our eyes and continue to pray to the altar of money and development, while our earth is literally being washed and burned away, and all its creatures with it.

      Like

    • Er war auch für mich ein neuer Vogel, lieber Michael, und ich habe mich riesig über sein Kennenlernen gefreut. Was die Zukunft für ihn und seine Artgenossen angeht, ist die Aussicht wenig positiv, und das finde ich sehr traurig.
      Liebe Grüße,
      Tanja

      Like

  2. Hello Tanja,
    I too, felt a wave of emotions while reading this post.
    I am so happy for you, that you could experience this wonderful viewing. I cry together with you, as I continue to read about the tremendous loss of nature and life. Millions of years of “life” that is being extinguished due to “humanity…” I completely understand why it’s hard to keep thinking positive and not become cynical towards our species…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commiserating with me and the birds, Takami, as well as all the other creatures we are destroying. I just don’t understand how we rationalize all this destruction. And the bitter irony is that these animals are indicators of the degradation of our own habitat.
      The question is not how to prevent being cynical (I am there), but how to keep hope, and work towards reversing some of these changes, despite one’s cynicism.
      Best wishes to you,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello Tanja,
        Thank you so much for your reply. And I apologise if my comment came across as too negative – I did not mean to “pour water” on a happy moment.
        I agree with your comments. How to keep hope + working towards reversing of the adverse affects, these are very important points, I think!
        I will also try to keep hope…and do what I can 🙂
        Best wishes always,
        Takami

        Liked by 1 person

      • I did not get the sense at all that you were “pouring water” on a happy moment, Takami. I was thoroughly thrilled to have met this beautiful bird, and the next moment I was thoroughly crushed by those horrible statistics.

        I think this crystallizes our reality–while we experience and enjoy nature’s incredible gifts, simultaneously several species are going extinct.

        It’s more than disheartening, but I hope that the experts are correct when they tell us that we can reverse at least some of these losses!

        Take good care,
        Tanja

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy new to you. As you recently saw, Shannon in Texas just had a similar encounter with a bird that’s rare in her area.

    You mentioned 40 minutes and then some more time observing: is it unusual for a bird to stay so long in one place?

    At the Native Plant Society of Texas symposium two weeks ago a speaker gave the same statistics about bird loss that you cited.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think many nature lovers and organizations will quote these devastating statistics in the hope of getting us to make meaningful changes.

      It is always a thrill to see a life bird, Steve. This was the first time that I recall that one bird stayed in place so placidly for so long. It moved a little, from one branch to the other, but it seemed remarkably unfazed by several observers.

      Like

  4. Highs and lows indeed. First the high: How exciting to see that beautiful bird in your area. I would have been jumping for joy if it weren’t for creaky knees. I would have to say it was worth getting up early to see the groove-billed anis. Now the low: Heartbreaking to read about the decline. I have my own sad story to add to this, which I will do in an upcoming blog post. We are such a destructive species, and then we have the gall to point the finger at other plants and animals that we have labeled as “invasive.” What the heck!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a gorgeous bird. I have vague memories of another thick-billed bird (which I can’t pinpoint just now), and when I tried to jog my memory by searching for ‘thick billed bird,’ I was surprised by the number of species that carry that descriptor in their name.

    Your musings about its ability to survive in your area brought to mind the tale of the flamingo that escaped from a Kansas zoo and flew down to Texas. It’s been around for fourteen years, and often is sighted, even by Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers. There are photos and video footage here. Since it’s banded, confirming its identify is pretty easy, although there aren’t many flamingos in Texas.

    Species loss is a terrible problem: birds, insects, and small mammals all are enduring the same assaults. At the same time, more people are becoming aware of their plight. Unfortunately, many decision-makers still are disregarding the complex of issues. It’s part of our responsibility to help change their attitudes.

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    • I know I am not alone in finding this bird highly attractive! 🙂 I have not heard about any sightings now for several weeks, and I assume that means it read the season’s signals and headed south. Wherever it ends up, I hope it will do well.

      I am glad the escaped flamingo seems to be doing well in Texas, and hope it will continue to do so. Animals can surprise us, and survive the most adverse conditions.

      I hope there is time to stop this tragic tide of destruction. My greatest concern is that individuals, who wield the greatest power and influence, care not about this loss, as they never spend time in nature and have no idea of what is at stake. That’s why the Greta Thunbergs of the world represent a glimmer of hope–it’s those kids who understand the seriousness of the situation and stand up for it. We need to as well.

      Like

    • It’s a tough question, Brian. If we were strict observers/scientists, this question of intervention might never arise, but I think for many birders, our heart and soul is gets touched by the birds we see, and emotions come into play.
      The current human-induced extinction crisis is almost inconceivable, but I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse.

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    • I don’t know if someone, who destroys its own basis of life, can really be called smart, Neil. But it’s definitely an attribute we pride ourselves of.

      The ani’s tail IS impressive. I loved the color and sheen of its feathers, and especially its facial expression. Very endearing. Let’s hope it will make it!

      Best,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Das ist ja wirklich ein sehr sehr niedlicher Vogel! Und er zählt zu den Kuckucks (oder wie der Plural heißt)? Wie schön, daß du diesen seltenen Gast life erleben konntest. – Von den Zahlen aus den USA und Kanada las ich kürzlich. Ähnlich finster wie bei uns. Hier sind es “nur” 300 Millionen Vögel die verschwunden sind. Man mag es kaum glauben. Kürzlich hörte ich in einer Reportage, daß die Wasseramsel (ich glaube, nur zur Brutzeit?) 200.000 Insekten fängt. Wenn man sich diese Zahlen vorstellt, wird es umso deutlicher, was allein der Insektenrückgang in unserer Natur für den Bestand der Vögel (und nicht nur der) ausmacht, abgesehen von Gift, Pestiziden und invasiven Tierarten (der gute Waschbär kommt an alle Nester) und viel zu vielen Katzen. Ich denke, es kann sich wenden und wir können einiges verbessern. Aber manchmal zweifel ich auch daran. Dann ist mir auch zum Heulen. Liebe Grüße und die Hoffnung nicht aufgeben! Almuth

    Liked by 1 person

    • Danke für Deine aufmunternden Worte, liebe Almuth. Ich versuche, die Hoffnung
      nicht aufzugeben, aber wenn ich beobachte, welche Naturgewalten sich bereits mit zunehmender Frequenz entfalten (z. B. Wirbelstürme, Taifune, Dürre, Waldbrände), dann denke ich oft, daß es schön zu spät ist, besonders wenn man bedenkt, daß das die Folgen der Temperaturerhöhung der vergangenen Jahre repräsentiert, und die projizierte Erderwärmung in den kommenden Jahrzehnten noch dazukommen wird.

      “Die ich rief, die Geister, werd ich nun nicht los”, hat schon Goethe erkannt.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ich glaube, ich habe es schon öfter erwähnt, daß die Renaturierung der größeren Flüsse wie Elbe und Rhein wieder Leben gebracht hat. Sobald ein Biotop angelegt wird, kommen oft in kürzester Zeit Tiere, die auf der Roten Liste stehen. Die Natur hat unglaubliche Fähigkeiten. Auf der anderen Seite hat der Mensch unglaubliche Zerstörungskraft. Noch ist alles ungewiß und vieles möglich. Die Niederländer sind in der Hinsicht immer sehr kreativ und probieren alles mögliche aus, um sich an neue Lebensbedingungen anzupassen. Ach ja, ich weiß es auch nicht….aber aufgeben steht noch nicht auf der Tagesordnung! Immerhin kommt es hier bei immer mehr Menschen an, daß es so wie bisher nicht weitergehen kann. LG, Almuth

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Too sad what you write about the drastic decline of birds, Tanja! Hopefully, they will soon experience a significant come-back, just as the ospreys, eagles and blue herons have come to the Arrow Lakes. Greetings from Fauquier, BC!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bis vor wenigen Minuten hatte ich noch nie von einem Groove-Billed Ani ( Crotophaga sulcirostris) gehört… 😁
    Was für ein lustiger Geselle!
    Und was den Vogelschwund angeht. Ja, es ist fürchterlich! Umso mehr liegt es an uns zu kämpfen: für den Erhalt des Lebensraums, gegen den unnötigen Einsatz von Pestiziden und für eine biologische Landwirtschaft!! Nicht aufgeben, liebe Tanja. Es liegt an jedem einzelnen von uns morgens in den Spiegel zu schauen und zu sagen: Ich habe das mir mögliche versucht! “

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ich fand ihn (oder sie) auch entzückend, liebe Simone, und bin noch immer total verliebt. ❤
      Du hast recht, mit Aufgeben ist keinem geholfen, am allerwenigsten den Vögeln. Hoffen und agieren wir im Interesse aller Kreaturen dieser wunderbaren Erde! 🌍
      Alles Liebe,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

  9. How wonderful! Your excitement is contagious and I share your sadness. On a personal level, I have five cats and one of the two males likes to hunt birds, the other mice. The females never hunt anything. It is very distressing to find a dead or injured (that’s even worse!) prey, yet I have to accept that this is not malice on the part of the predator, simply his natural instinct coming to the fore, an instinct which transcends the need for food. It annoys me greatly when two neighbours whose properties adjoin mine – and who don’t like cats – quite stupidly (in my opinion) hang bird feeders in trees which straddle our properties; trunks in their gardens but branches overhanging into mine. It’s great that they are feeding the birds, but not in those particular trees when they have so many others in their large gardens. They are tempting the little birds into places where my cat can hear and see them, and easily get to them. It makes no sense whatsoever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, and for your openness in mentioning your cats. I grew up with cats and like them, but I think they have become a real problem, in particular because birds face so many additional challenges.

      I realize that a cat that has grown accustomed to being outdoors can be kept indoors only with great difficulty, if at all, but I think cat owners will need to learn to keep their animals inside, starting when they are kittens. There seems to be a double standard: Most people don’t find it acceptable when dogs roam free through the neighborhood, yet we are supposed to accept the same activity from cats.

      Study after study has proven that house cats kill million of songbirds each year, and that statistic is heartbreaking.

      Thank you again!

      Liked by 1 person

      • In the UK cats, along with various other animals, legally have ‘the right to roam’ in recognition of their natural behaviours which are very different to those of dogs. It is a tough balancing act. I think you are right about double standards, and in more ways than one. Some of the same people in my area who would be angry about cats killing birds would be delighted if the same cats were to kill rodents living under their garden sheds. They have said so. In truth, I think it’s not so much the predatory behaviour they find offensive, but their personal feelings about the prey. They don’t care about pigeons either. Unfortunately, cats are not as discriminatory as some people.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I know this is a very touchy subject, and I know many cat owners who get very defensive very quickly when it comes to their darlings, and very unwilling to even acknowledge a problem.

        The fact is that cats are not a natural part of the ecosystems in Europe or North America, they get fed by their owners and don’t have to hunt for sustenance, but they hunt because of their instincts. I don’t blame them for acting like cats, but I think it’s no longer possible to let millions of house cats roam free. Maybe laws will need to be adjusted, as well as some owners’ attitudes.

        I thank you for being discriminatory! 😸

        Like

      • How lucky you were to spot him! I would have mistaken him for a crow. We are fortunate to live in a secluded ecosystem in south east Texas but there may be lower numbers of birds that I am unaware of. We have two Great Horned Owls who have been predating spotted and striped skunks in our garden (their favorite food).
        Our master planned community does not allow us to cut down trees, disturb reserves, shoot wildlife, set off fireworks and actively encourages us to plant native for Monarchs, for example. We pay handsomely for this privilege but what joy it brings us with red tailed hawks, rare woodpeckers and our beloved armadillos. Did you know that they will echo back your chirps? We talk to them most nights. This post might make you feel warm and fuzzy.
        https://chattykerry.wordpress.com/2018/07/13/meet-our-new-garden-guests/

        Liked by 1 person

      • I might have called it something else, too, and completely missed this rarity. I am thankful that someone else was more discerning, it was definitely a highlight of my birding summer.

        Your home setting sounds lovely, and your animal visitors a delight. We regularly get skunk visitors in our yard, but to my knowledge, there are no armadillos in Colorado. I look forward to reading more about yours!

        Thank you for visiting and for commenting.
        Best wishes,
        Tanja

        Liked by 1 person

      • When we moved to Texas with three Egyptian street cats, I was more concerned about them being predated by larger critters such as coyotes. We installed a cat fence around most of the garden and they lived happily ever after in their retirement home until their deaths. They still caught some lizards and one unfortunate cardinal…

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Tanja, I first got to read your post yesterday but couldn’t reply at the time. First, congratulations and WOW what a thrill to find and spend time with a rare bird, it is indeed a feeling of utter joy and amazement. 😊 Now getting chance to reread your post and catch up on all the additional comments left and your replies on our world’s wildlife plight. Everything was stated so well, I’m not going to repeat, but know I totally agree with you. Thank you for this well-written post, it was both beautiful and thought-provoking. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donna, I knew you would be able to relate to the elation I felt about this sighting, and to my sadness, because of the loss of so many beautiful creatures. I hope it’s not too late to bring back our feathered friends! 🐦🦆🦉🦅

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Otto. He/she is a lovely bird, and did not mind posing.
      I truly hope that we can effect some change that will return some species back from the brink. I can’t imagine living on an earth not graced by beating wings and birdsong.
      All the best,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

    • I am hugely glad I made the trip, Vicki. This bird is unusual in many respects, both its appearance, as well as its propensity to perch in the open for extended periods, despite many observers. I have since learned from a birder in Ecuador that they are very social birds, and usually occur in groups of family. Makes me wonder if it was, indeed, lonely, and enjoyed the attention bestowed upon it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, ja! Der ist mir tatsächlich durchgerutscht. Entschuldige! Ich nutze tlw. einen Translator, wenn mir englisch an dem Tag zu anstrengend ist. Nun ja, aber falls Du den Blog von Carol noch nicht kanntest, war ja meine Mühe auch nicht umsonst. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kein Problem. Ich habe immer ein schlechtes Gewissen, wenn ich meine Posts nicht übersetze, aber besonders wenn sie so lang sind, ist mir das zu viel Arbeit, und dann wird die Blogseite auch zu “busy.”

        Und dank der Hinweise von anderen Bloggern habe schon viele interessante Blogs entdeckt. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  11. How interesting to see your rare-bird sighting, which makes me feel so very blessed to live where the Smooth-billed and Groove-billed Anis are plentiful. (Western Ecuador) The Anis are delightful social creatures and are often ‘openly’ affectionate with each other. The one in your area must feel so very alone.
    I also share your concerns about the health of our planet and the decline of habitat and species.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, both with regard to this individual, as well as all avifauna. I hope our ani will find its way back to his or her companions! You are indeed fortunate to live in a place with copious numbers of these birds and their cousins. I imagine Ecuador as a beautiful country.
      Thank you for stopping by.
      Best wishes,
      Tanja

      Like

  12. We had a smooth-bilked ani in Jacksonville, Florida at the end of last year & into the beginning of this year. They never come this far north & it was a life bird for us. Like you, I had never heard of it before. It was a moment each time we went out to the beach & he or she was still there. Quite exciting!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’ve never seen an Ani before, in life or photo. I was captivated by its eye–so peaceful and trusting.
    I share all your thoughts about the incomprehensibility of human destructiveness. We’ve all had a hand in the catastrophe, so maybe there’s hope that if we all lend a hand we can arrest it. You’ve done a good service with your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I cry reading such reports every time. The situation of birds (and other animals) is the same in Europe. And around the globe. Beautiful bird, thank you for showing the pictures of your special encounter. And let’s keep up the fight to save the earth’s other inhabitants from humans.

    Liked by 1 person

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