Photo by Shawn McCready

We’re nearing the end of a nine-month-long Audubon class, learning about all the birds that frequent Whidbey Island – and there are a LOT! Around two-hundred and fifty kinds, give or take.

Our instructors are delighted when we can tell a Song Sparrow from a Fox Sparrow.

But what delights me is to learn that the Woodpecker in my neighborhood has a very long tongue that retracts to coil around its brain for shock absorption when it’s pounding on that tree down the road!

I’m not terribly disappointed that I haven’t learned to distinguish one duck from another, but I love knowing that one of them – the Cinnamon Teal – constructs a tunnel to its nest to foil predators.

A Surf Scoter could grab me by the toe, and I still wouldn’t know what to call it (except perhaps something unkind in the moment), but the fact that it can dive down thirty feet to catch its dinner has me calling it “amazing.”

I don’t judge myself too harshly for still not knowing which Hawk is which. But I’ll probably never forget that underneath the elegant long feathers of the Great Blue Heron is a fluffy stuff called “powder down,” and the powder it produces is what the Heron uses to keep those beautiful blue-gray feathers preened.

There are some great new ornithology words I’ve learned in class, or old words that now have new meanings: I knew that a group of Crows is a “murder.” But I hadn’t known that a group of Coots is a “commotion.” Even better, a group of Loons is called an “asylum.” “Crepuscular” means active at dawn and dusk; “pelagic” means spending most of life on the open sea.

I’ve loved learning that Crows can fly up from the ground, but Ravens have to hop to get airborne; a Hummingbird cannot even walk.  A Barn Swallow’s nest is built of more than a thousand bird-mouthfuls of mud; an Osprey nest, made of sticks and small branches, can weigh four hundred pounds or more; a Hummingbird uses expandable spider web threads to stitch together its tiny nest.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs; scientists don’t know if they learned to fly by jumping out of trees, or by leaping up from the ground. And there are educated guesses, but nobody really knows for sure why a Cormorant stands still with wings spread out for long, long periods of time.

Tree Swallows like to play with white feathers in the air, and will keep at it for so long that the game will exhaust the human who is throwing feathers for them to fetch. The “crop milk” fed to a baby Pigeon by its parents contains more nutrients than does cow or human milk. A Plover can fly over 100 miles per hour. Owls have asymmetrical ears in order to hear better. I am amazed and delighted by all of these facts.

One classmate’s Life List of identified North American birds is already nearing 400. She’s a real “birder.” I’m happy for her, and for those who build their vacations around good birding sites where they can add to their Life Lists. I don’t think I’ll ever qualify as a “real birder.”

But I can promise you that, whether or not I can identify them correctly, I’ll never stop being fascinated by the winged ones with whom we share our lives!