Birding in the Rain
By Jessica Shepherd
The rain patters on a watery swale, sending silvered droplets upward with each raindrop that falls. Two dozen greater yellowlegs feed with purpose, high-stepping through the backwaters left from the receding high tide. A fall storm swept in while I was kayaking, and I now stand along the shore, rain ticking off my hood, while I wait for the winds to die down before resuming my journey. With nothing to occupy me, I am drawn to this busy enclave of birdlife and find them a welcome diversion.
As a child, I was introduced to the allure of birds, and rainstorms for that matter, by my maternal grandmother. I’ve heard it said that most naturalists and scientists were mentored by someone at a young age. In my case, Grandma Alyce drew me close and taught me the names of the birds at the feeder, “that’s a male goldfinch. You can tell them from the females because the males are the pretty ones.” Sometimes on rainy days, we would sit together on the porch, a scratchy wool Marine Corp blanket from Grandpa’s military days across our laps. “Listen, do you hear that liquid song? That’s an American robin,” she might say as rain gurgled down the gutters. The air could have been heady with the scent of spring lilacs, which bloomed on both sides of the sidewalk, or piquant with burning leaves, the talisman of a cool fall day.
How did she come to know the wild birds? Did someone, her mother perhaps, take the time to point out the silhouette of a Cooper’s hawk in a cottonwood tree? Or hold up a finger, “Shhhh,” to still her children’s voices so they might hear the soft, “tew, tew” of a mountain bluebird gracing the garden gate? Perhaps my grandmother learned all she knew from the dog-eared Golden Books Guide to Birds of North America she kept close at hand. Whatever the answer, she gifted me her love of birds and set my feet on the path toward my own education.
Bird watching is an easy pastime, requiring little more than hope and patience. Today, even without binoculars, I make out white tail feathers and bellies as four lesser (and thus smaller) yellowlegs bounce-land in the rain-dimpled water, calling a high, “cheer-cheer-cheer” in greeting to their larger cousins. Overhead, ducks wing by, moving southward as the tide drops to expose coastal foraging grounds. In the flat light, I can only make out the white wing bars of American Wigeons, but guess that the other ducks are mallards and maybe pintails. Some may winter over in Kachemak Bay, but others will depart within the next few weeks, bound for warmer climes now that termination dust illuminates the high peaks.
I grew up in Colorado in the company of crafty blue jays and melodious meadowlarks. Yet I’ve spent most of my adult life in Alaska among hardy boreal chickadees and sharp-eyed ravens who keep me company in the winter and the transient snowbirds. Still, despite the miles and the memories, I am still, at heart, that curious child, and I pull the comfort of my grandmother’s lessons around me like an embrace.