Why Do the Birds Sing?

Why Do the Birds Sing?

May 2, 2014

We left the Dead Sea after midnight, and had a long drive back to Eilat. It also happened to be the night  when daylight savings time began in Israel, so we lost another hour that way.  We didn’t get back to the hotel until 3:30 a.m.  I slept soundly and without dreaming.

I slept until 7:15 and then met the rest of the group for breakfast at 8:00 am.  I enjoyed the buffet all over again as well as another heavenly cappuccino at the espresso bar.   And then we began again —the drive north, up the eastern border of Israel.

Odd, but I don’t remember  as much about this day as I do the others.  It was Friday, our seventh day.   According to our notes from the VIM that evening, we went to Yot Vadir, Niot Samadar, and Lot’s Reservoir  before arriving at Kibbutz Almog, in the West Bank for the night.  I wonder if my lack of memory from this day has anything to do with the experience from the night before?  

We had just 65 species for the day, which was light by comparison to the other days.  The highlight for me was a Hoopoe Lark (Alaemon alaudipes), who was just across the border into Jordan. We had only seen one Hoopoe (Upupa  epops), since Sunday, and I had taken up the motto of my family that “the day was a success...” when I saw a Hoopoe.  The Hoopoe Lark was a vastly different species, but apparently rare enough to scratch an itch for the Diehards.  We also went to another spot along the Dead Sea called “Lot’s Reservoir” to look for warblers. I tried to spot what might be “Lots Wife” — a salt pillar —no luck.  We had a shot at Dead Sea Sparrow there, and I think I saw one in flight, but I was the only one to see it.  We did have Savi’s, Sedge, Reed, Clamorous Reed and Eastern Olivaceous warblers there.  These warblers actually look more like our vireos...they’re tough to ID, and I would have to spend a lot more time with them in the field before I felt confident I could do it well.

 Hoopoe Lark - Photo Paul French

Hoopoe Lark - Photo Paul French

By this point in the trip, with only two days left, the natives were getting restless.  Whenever we “missed” a species, there was increased grumbling, especially from Roger and John.  Bernard was getting edgy too, but he was not as overtly agitated.  I could tell Paul felt some pressure about this.  There was not a lot he could do.  He knew where the birds should be, but if they weren’t there, there was nothing he could do about it.   Maybe this is the Achilles heel of “Listers.”  They are primarily interested in ticking-off new species, to claim it on their list. Once they have it in the bag, it becomes one of thousands on their list. 

Paul French is not a Lister.  He’s the closest thing I’ve found to a purist since birding with Rich Kane, my mentor at New Jersey Audubon.  Paul loves the birds for their own sake.  He studies them, learns their habits, knows their songs and calls, he understands how and when they move, knows what threatens them and the challenges they face. He enjoys each and every bird he sees.  He offers commentary from a bird’s perspective (referring to a mallard in a puddle under a screen meant to keep gulls out: “it’s my puddle and I’m going to sit in it.”)  He admires their ability to fly, and is amused by their funny little idiosyncrasies, like how short a Hoopoe’s legs are compared with the rest of their body.  For me, Paul exemplifies the idealism and passion of a young man:  he’s zealous, with an edge of well-concealed anger just under the surface.  He has dreams and aspirations where his pursuit might take him. He said to me once, early in the trip, that some birds set out on their own, like the pied bushchat;   “vagrants,” they’re called. No one knows why they do it. “But,” Paul said, “it will be these birds — the ones that do something different — that will survive the next cataclysmic event.  They will survive the next ice age, the next drought, the next whatever...”  In many ways, Paul is like the objects of his attention – fully alive.

 Pallus's Gull - photo Paul French

Pallus's Gull - photo Paul French

I keep a life list.  I admit it.  But I’m not a “Lister” either.  I try to remain acutely aware that birding could easily become a god for me.  Unless I see God while birding, I might miss the point.  In his book,Listening for the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell writes, “...We [grow] up with a sense of awe at creation.  Connected to these moments will be recollections of experiencing at the deepest of levels  a type of communion with God and nature.”   He goes on to say that in that in Celtic spirituality, natural elements are referred to as “graces,” — the spiritual coming through the physical, and God is seen as the Life within all life and not just as the Creator who set life in motion from afar.”

This is what I find in birding.  That the life-force that is God is coursing through the birds, animating them, giving them life and flight and the ability to sing.  So much has been said about why birds sing —  we generally accept that birds sing on their breeding grounds to stake a claim. But why do they sing in migration?  The Dawn Chorus on Old Mine Road in New Jersey is symphony of sound during migration...birds singing, off their territories, for what purpose?  Most birders say they’re just practicing for when they arrive on their breeding sites.  But I say, what if they sing, simply because they can?  Their song then becomes a song of praise to their Creator.

 Ortolan Bunting - photo Paul French

Ortolan Bunting - photo Paul French

I had been wandering for days in the desert.  In the children’s book, The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, writes:  “I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”  The presence of God is in the desertIt began to occur to me how much I’ve been missing and how bent on death I’ve been for fourteen years.  It is time to engage fully again — to pursue that which is life giving and leave behind that which is life draining.