Archive for Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Publisher’s notebook: Counting spring robins before they’ve landed

March 16, 2005

I can trace my recently revived fascination with birds back about 40 years.

It was spring, and I was desperate to get outside -- in my bare feet. No shoes. No socks.

No way, my mother said.

I begged, and finally she relented.

"If you can count 10 robins on the lawn at the same time, you can go out barefoot," she told me.

I was probably 7 or 8 and had little more to do with my time than to count robins on our corner lot. It took several days of watching and counting, but I made it. I counted 10 robins -- all at the same time -- in our front yard.

I was overjoyed. I told my mother about my accomplishment, ready to bolt out the door.

And now here's where my mother shocked me.

"I meant 10 in the back yard and 10 in the front yard," she said.

Bubble burst. Brain cells exploding. Face reddening. Mouth gaping.


That wasn't part of the original agreement. My mom wasn't known for such she-nanigans. What in the world was she up to, this woman who kicked off her own shoes the minute her feet hit the house.

Oh, the injustice of it all.

That ep-isode has stuck with me.

And every spring, as the robins skittle around on my corner lot at my own home, I think about my mother -- and run outside in my bare feet. Heck, I even run outside barefoot in January. Sorry, Mom.

Several months ago, my husband caught what I refer to as bird fever. A longtime friend invited him on a winter bird count at Camp Nash near Bonner Springs. And that was all it took. He was hooked.

Now, he heads out at nearly every opportunity -- binoculars in hand, field guide in his hip pocket -- to find birds. For Christmas, he bought me a pair of binoculars so I can accompany him.

Now, he and I differ on our birding. He wants to know exactly what he's looking at. He wants to identify it, to know if he's spotted something usual or unusual. It's something of a competition, and there's some score-keeping involved, it seems.

But I'm more interested in seeing the birds, and thinking about what they're seeing, what they're spooked by, what causes them to fly away or stay put. I love the idea that I'm spying on birds in, I hope, secret. I like the idea that I'm looking in on their bird lives, watching them interact with one another, watching as their eyes dart from point to point.

And while I have no desire to soar with the eagles, it's fascinating to me to see how birds are put together, seeing their feathers ruffle a bit in their windy perches, how quickly they can take flight.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to visit a private lake, where a family of trumpeter swans had taken winter refuge. The swans swam within a few yards of the dock a group of us stood on, staking their claim, showing their dominance over any goose silly enough to venture into their path. We watched as they ate, as they dipped their graceful necks in and out of the lake, drinking. It was an incredible experience, particularly for a novice birder.

Now that I've been out on a few bird excursions -- to lakes and ponds in this area, to Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas -- I'm seeing birds seemingly everywhere.

This morning, I heard the familiar honk of geese as I pulled my belongings out of my truck behind our office. I looked up, to see two geese high-tailing it south. As usual, I privately made up a little story about those two, about how they had gotten separated from their traveling companions and were desperate to rejoin the group. Or maybe they were renegades, desperate to escape the pressures of the group.

Each morning and evening, as I on drive 24-40 highway, I now see hawks, holding tight to wires along the highway. And sometimes, I'm lucky enough to see one in flight, targeting prey.

And in our own backyard, a pair of cardinals has been hanging out for several weeks. Perhaps they've been there for several years, and I just haven't noticed them before.

I guess that's what you get when you spend your time looking only for robins.

-- Caroline Trowbridge, editor and publisher of The Mirror, can be reached via e-mail at

Commenting has been disabled for this item.