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.

In Harmony With Nature ?

One of the most striking paintings I have ever laid eyes upon graces a wall at Denver International Airport, where my husband and I revisited it recently, before our flight to Germany. Its title seems perfect at first. Picturesque sceneries, vibrant colors, adorable animals, and beaming faces bespeak the peace and goodwill between different beings and celebrate our unique earth with its unique dwellers. It is easy to get lost in the delicate details of this mural and its Edenic setting.

Eine der bemerkenswertesten Wandmalereien, die ich je gesehen habe, schmückt eine der Wände des internationalen Flughafens in Denver, wo mein Mann und ich es vor kurzem vor unserem Flug nach Deutschland zum wiederholten Male aufsuchten. Der Titel “In Harmonie mit der Natur”, scheint auf den ersten Blick perfekt. Malerische Landschaften, lebendige Farben, hinreißende Tiere und strahlende Gesichter zeugen von Frieden und Wohlwollen zwischen verschiedenen Kreaturen, und feiern unsere einzigartige Erde mit ihren einzigartigen Lebewesen. Es ist leicht, sich in den erlesenen Details dieses Wandbildes und seiner paradiesischen Kulisse zu verlieren.

To enlarge a photo, click on it.

Zum Vergrößern, die Bilder bitte anklicken.

However, a glance to the side rudely jerks the viewer back into reality, as if transitioning from a beautiful dream to a nightmare. An adjacent painting depicts somber shades, a raging forest fire, deceased people in coffins, a pile of ivory, a turtle trapped in a fishing net, the trophy of an American Bison, which was brought back from the brink of extinction by a hair’s breadth, and a number of other animals not quite so lucky. The question mark behind the quetzal raises the possibility that it, too, is destined to follow suit. Fortunately, so far, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus moccino), the national bird of Guatemala, has survived, but the same cannot be said of countless other plants and animals.

Wenn man allerdings seinen Blick weiter wandern läßt, wird man brutal in die Wirklichkeit zurückgeholt, findet sich nicht mehr in einem wunderschönen, sondern in einem Alptraum. Ein benachbartes Gemälde zeigt düstere Töne, einen tobenden Waldbrand, verstorbene Menschen in Särgen, einen Stapel Elfenbein, eine im Fischnetz verfangene Schildkröte, die Trophäe eines amerikanischen Bison, der der Ausrottung nur um Haaresbreite entkam, und eine weitere Anzahl an Tieren, die weniger Glück hatten. Das Fragezeichen hinter dem Quetzal deutet die Möglichkeit an, daß er der nächste sein wird. Glücklicherweise hat der Vogel, der nationales Symbol von Guatemala ist, bisher überlebt, was man von zahllosen anderen Pflanzen- und Tierarten nicht behaupten kann.

As much as this artistic creation celebrates life, it also portrays what we have to lose, or have already lost. Which picture do we want? Which do we get? Is there still enough time to prevent the second scenario? It is up to us to chose. What will it be?

So sehr diese künstlerische Kreation das Leben feiert, stellt sie auch dar, was wir zu verlieren, oder bereits verloren haben. Welches Bild wollen wir? Welches bekommen wir? Besteht noch genug Zeit, das zweite Szenarium abzuwenden? Es ist unsere Wahl. Wie wird sie aussehen?

The mural “In Harmony With Nature” was created 1994 by Leo Tanguma/das Wandgemälde “In Harmonie mit der Natur” wurde 1994  von Leo Tanguma geschaffen. Assisted by/mit Hilfe von: Leticia Tanguma and Cheryl Detwiler. Additional assistance /zusätzliche Unterstützung: Mark Garcia, Donna Clemenson, Linda Clements, Jennifer Deam, Don French, Charles Guzman. Research by/recherchiert von William Meredith.

Thanks to one of my fellow bloggers, Steven Schwartzman (here is a link to his blog: Portraits of Wildflowers), you can read more about the artist, Leo Tanguma, in an article in the Houston Chronicle (