Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why do people think that bird watchers are nerds?

There I was, minding my own business, binoculars around my neck, three dogs in tow, and a plastic bag filled with the products of our walk. Why should I feel self-conscious? Just because I was blocking the sidewalk, my binoculars straight up, unaware that a small group of 10-year-olds were gathering. 

Overhead, not much higher than the treetops, circled two Mississippi Kites. Long, narrow grey wings, white secondaries (the trailing, inner portion of the wings), and a graphite grey tail, appeared and disappeared as they swung silently among the trees. “What are they?” one boy asked. I knew the answer would be confusing. “They call them kites. Aren’t they cool?” “Yeah,” they agreed, watching, half-on, half-off their bikes. Maybe bird watching isn’t so geeky.

We think of birds of prey eating rabbits, or elephants, in the case of the mythical Roc. Kites are smaller and lighter than the hawks we’re used to. Two of the five North American species eat mostly insects, including the Mississippi Kite. It’s described in National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds as having a “buoyant” flight. I could not imagine what that meant till I saw one floating, almost motionless over a field.

I’m lucky enough to see Mississippi Kite several times a week here in the St. Louis, MO area. Today I saw one that I swear did a loop-de-loop like a stunt plane at the VP Fair. A little further on in my walk, I saw two circling over a lawn, perhaps looking for their favorite snack, dragonflies. One later sailed over carrying a twig in its talons. It disappeared then, returned without the stick. Why it would be carrying nesting material in mid-July is a mystery to me. This is a good spot to say thanks to my Flickr friend Ned Harris for his terrific photo, above. Check out his awesome photos of birds and insects.

Last summer I spotted one as I drove by the Kirkwood Farmers market. I followed, and suddenly it stalled, then spun away after a bat. All this in broad daylight! The bat swooped down and under into the thick foliage of a catalpa tree and the bird followed. The end of the story—whether happy or sad for the bat—is unknown.

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