Saturday, July 3, 2010

Pretty Little Tyrants

I was waiting for a train. I do that a lot. The tracks are elevated and the platform gives the riders a panoramic view of the parking lot below, as seen through advertising placards. To the left is tree, somehow surviving on a little patch of earth surrounded by concrete and asphalt. A flicker of movement caught my eye; a pair of birds. I lowered my book and stared at them. Perched on branches a few feet apart, they had dark backs and wings, with white chests. Each of their tails ended in a bright, white tip, as if they had been dipped in paint. I smiled slightly and watched them, my book forgotten.

To my left a woman, who had also lowered her book, asked me a question. “Do you know what they are?” “No idea,” I said, sorry that I couldn't help her. I had misunderstood; she didn't need help, she was offering. I am, you may know, The World's Worst Birdwatcher ™. She, it seems, was the real thing.

“They're eastern kingbirds,” she told me. “They feed by taking off, catching a fly, and then going back to the same perch. It's called hawking.” Right on cue, as she said the world “hawking,” one of the birds launched, flew a few feet from the tree, turned sharply, then looped back to the same branch.

I thanked her. I've learned over the years that birders, the real ones, not the “World's Worst” style like me, are kind and generous people, always willing to share their knowledge. I wished I had been more effusive in my thanks, but I just couldn't take my attention away from the birds. One of them flew out, turned around, and then hovered in the same spot for several seconds. It was quietly spectacular. My view was blocked when the train arrived. I briefly considered letting it pass, but I had flies of my own to catch. A pity, I thought, as I was unlikely to see them there again.

I was, of course wrong. A few days later I stood in the same spot and there, on the same tree, were my little friends. Next time I take that train I'll pack my binoculars. They'll probably have moved on by then, but who knows? Not me, certainly.

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