Let's Observe! A Lesson in Observation

I have been a serious birder for all of my nearly forty-two years of life. I well recall a second-year male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) that I saw in my front yard when I was two-and-half years old. The amazing vitality of this incredible and plucky neotropical migrant imprinted itself on my young and inquisitive brain. This early observation was confirmed nearly twenty-three years later when I found an illustration of--you guessed it--a second-year male American Redstart in the first real bird field guide that I ever saw while standing in the Nature section of Borders Books And Music. All those years, all those miles, all those observations . . . I always knew I had been right. Besides birding for a lifetime, and possessing heightened powers of observation, every good birder must have the ability to recall specific details of their birding observations many years after the fact. It's true! (And remember, it's not bragging if you really can do it! And, well, I can!)

Take the following example, which I offer as a lesson in observation that might be helpful and informative to new or less knowledgeable birders:

Recently, while repairing a damaged screen door on the back deck I became aware of the alarm calls of a mixed flock of perhaps seven or eighteen Carolina Chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) and Tufted Titmice (Baeolophus bicolor). These sprightly little feisty balls of feather and sinew can create quite a ruckus when they encounter something their little brains deem alarming or dangerous. My years of birding experience created an absolutely unconscious response: immediately I dropped my spline and roller to the deck and began searching the canopy for the source of the birds' alarm.

Within minutes I found the reason for the alarm calls!

Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio)

An Eastern Screech-Owl! One of my favorite unnecessarily hyphenated common bird names! In my very own backyard! No wonder the birds were so upset. I walked backwards through the empty space where the damaged screen door once stood, and only once inside, and out of direct sight--so I assumed--of the owl, I ran through the kitchen to find my camera. After a few minutes of frantic searching for the camera, I finally found it right where I had left it the day before. Carefully, I went back outside onto the deck. I was in luck! The owl was still there, apparently happily roosting in one of the four owl boxes I thoughtfully had my grandfather build for me so that I could attract these wonderful little avian predators. (I care a lot about providing appropriate habitat for birds. That's another trait of serious birders, so take note, though if you must do so, perhaps you need more remedial help than I can give you). After waiting for ten or so seconds for the automatic focus to get itself set, I snapped the picture shown above.

But immediately the owl flew from the box, with three or maybe ten chickadees and between two and five Titmice in hot pursuit. Crestfallen, I lost sight of the owl . . . for a few minutes. Then. I. realized. it. was. right. in. front. of. my. eyes.

Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio) hiding in Panera Bread coffee cup.

Search the literature, and I have, and you'll not find a single reference to an Eastern Screech-Owl sheltering or roosting inside a coffee cup. This was a remarkable observation, and I was happy I had finished the coffee moments before. I was so relieved to have my camera at the ready to document this remarkable observation, and thankful, too, that this amazing event took place before the eyes of an observer with the perspicacity to appreciate its novelty and importance. With that in mind, I snapped a couple modest photos, the best of which you can see for yourself, above.

Of course, I didn't expect the owl to stay in the coffee cup for long. After a few moments of deathly stillness, the owl inquisitively swiveled its head from side to side to assay its surroundings; he shifted about in the cup, his little talons making soft scraping noises on the hardened paper stock; then, finally, the owl snapped its beak two or three times in an attempt to intimidate me (!) before it flew away into the shelter of a nearby Sugar Maple. Here is a photo of a couple feathers left behind in the cup after the owl took flight. I left the feathers inside the cup so that you can see for yourself how tiny the feathers are on an Eastern Screech-Owl.

Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio) feathers left behind in Panera Bread coffee cup.

Really good birders are really good at finding birds in places that the average birder or person on the street cannot. It's about that simple! But how does one hone one's skills of observation? Through practice, of course! It takes years of daily practice to become a really good observer. You have to take your nose out of the field guides and put your boots on the ground in order to become a better observer, and therefore, a better birder. A number of books and websites back me up on this point. You probably have them all in your birder's library, already. But don't give in to the temptation to consult them now! Instead, try this little exercise. See if you can find the owl!

First, a brief step back . . . after the Screech-Owl flew out of the coffee cup, I searched the branches of the Sugar Maple where I thought the owl had taken refuge. It took a few minutes: five, ten, thirty? It's hard to say. When engrossed with a challenge while afield, time seems to stand still for the serious birder, so intently focused is he or she on the objective at hand: find the owl! So I can't say with certainty how long it took me to find the owl, but through careful observation, find it indeed I did. I took some photos, which I'll share with you. See if you can find the Eastern Screech-Owl. To make this extra challenging, set an egg timer and see how quickly you can find the owl in the photo below.

Can you find the Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio) in the Sugar Maple?

Found it yet?

Okay. That's enough. I know how hard this can be, so I'll give you some help. Here's the Eastern Screech-Owl hiding in the Sugar Maple:

Notice how efficiently the Screech-Owl makes use of his environment, expertly blending in with the bark and leaves; in this manner the Eastern Screech-Owl (Otus asio) becomes one with the tree. "Owl, BE the tree." Folks, that's evolution! Remarkable.

So ends today's lesson in observation. As we've seen, through improved observational skills we become better birders. We are better birders because we are better observers. It's that simple! So go out there and observe, observe!