Cold, With Chance of Birds

Trumpeter swans grace the Oklahoma waters. Drawn today in Norman.

An Audubon Christmas Bird Count is a good way to find out if you have what it takes to be a birder. With the cold wind in your teeth you peer through the fog on your glasses and the tears in your eyes to count crows and any other hapless birdlife hunkered down and fluffed out on a chilly morning. Birding is a tough sport. Ask a bird.

Dark-eyed juncos face the freezing cold with smug confidence.

I’m not much on toughness but shoved myself out of a warm bed anyway, packed a Cliff Bar and a banana and poured a travel mug of coffee for the day’s count. My part of the count circle included some lonesome backroads and dirt roads. Some were passable, most weren’t. There’s been snow lately, and wet icy rutted red dirt turned me back again and again. Sometimes I’d get out and walk when the road petered out. I was gloomy from the git-go. I had my attitude on backwards. Fortunately, birds are mood-lifters for the cranky.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker squeaks like a mini-red-shouldered hawk, in a happy way.

Really, it’s hard to be cranky when a yellow-bellied sapsucker is chowing down on cedar berries and squeaking every few seconds with sapsucker pleasure. Or when a herd of winter-coated whitetails look back at you, ready to run but ready to stay put, too (in the end they stayed), or when thousands of American robins fill every tree for a mile, singing in the frosty air with red breasts proudly thrust forth- that is sublime.

American Robin head study.

I forgot the cold fingers for a minute as a brown creeper crept under a branch and nearly cried when I drove into a casino parking lot to watch Northern shovelers paddling around the tiny ice-free center of a sewage lagoon. Driving on a fast two-lane highway and catching a familiar shape out of the corner of my eye, I hit the brakes and drove 100 feet in reverse to snag a greater roadrunner for the count list. There were cedar waxwings and Harris’ sparrows and flickers and lots and lots of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, all of them squeaking happily. 49 species for me personally and 108 for the Norman count (as of today’s tally with almost everyone reporting). And at the end of the day, I had my attitude on forward and my mood uplifted nicely, yes indeed.

Heads down and bottoms up, Trumpeter swans are magnificent even when awkward. They have much to teach us.

Trumpeter swans were reported on the count (by other counters) at a small artificial lake in a housing addition in Norman. The last time I saw trumpeter swans, they were on their nests in the muskeg of Alaska, heads high and alert on those long white necks, emblems of  true rugged wilderness. Today I grabbed my scope and sketchbook and drew all eight of the majestic birds, wild as anything that ever lived, dunking their heads and long necks into the cold ignoble water of a housing tract pond, going bottoms up and paddling the air with their shiny black feet. Sublime and ridiculous at once, they cheered me up more than I can ever say.

18 thoughts on “Cold, With Chance of Birds

  1. Pingback: Via Negativa
  2. Becky says:

    These are beautiful drawings! I can’t believe fingers will actually work in that much cold, let alone draw. It has been so cold in OKC for so long that the snowmen are barely fading at all. I’ve seen many finches, cardinals and sparrows in my backyard at the feeders, sharing space with a couple of very determined doves. They all seem to be familiar and fairly comfortable sharing space with the local trio of squirrels and two German Shepherds that are content to watch their antics from a warm distance.

  3. Clare says:

    I thought for a moment that I had a Greater Roadrunner for my count, but it turned out to be a Raven.

    They lift my spirits also. Glad you had a great day.

  4. Shanley in Ponca City says:

    How can you draw {shiver shiver} in this cold?! {shiver shiver} Thanks for the sketches!

    All my watching is done with binocs from the warmth of the kitchen window.

    I’m trying to teach myself the birds so I can do the backyard count coming up in February. Your junco sketch and description confirmed that I correctly ID’d the batch of puffed out ground feeders who have been visiting. Thank you!

    Shanley in Ponca City

  5. Ken Januski says:

    The drawings are a pleasure to see, as usual! This Saturday is our CBC, as well as the separate Philadelphia Mid-Winter Bird Census, which tries to count all the birds in Philadelphia. We don’t get all of them obviously but it’s always an impressive list(last year 96 species and almost 28,000 birds).

    No car driving for me though. It will all be on foot, in 20-30 degree weather. I’d love to be able to do some live sketches as well but I’ll be shocked if I have either the time or stamina to do so though. It will be a goal though.

    Boy that sapsucker is a beauty!

  6. zeladoniac says:

    Confession: I didn’t do any drawings during the count, but went back the next day and got the trumpeters. I did make note of all the great places I need to go back and sketch at- found some nice new sites to draw!

    Ken, you’re a tough bird. I was happy to have my car-warmth-bubble to warm up in between hikes.

    Nice hearing from you again, Shanley! Have fun at the feeder count.

  7. Sarah says:

    Hi Debby,
    Thanks for such a delightful blog, Andrew and I have just put together the I and the Bird blog, it should be up any minute now. I have just had a look at your website as well – some of your pieces have bought tears to our eyes, you do such beautiful work.
    All the very best for 2010.

  8. zeladoniac says:

    Sarah- your blog and your sounds are spectacular- I could listen all day. Thank you for including this post in I and the Bird #116. I’m honored!

  9. Wren says:

    You make it sound so easy, and maybe it is for you, but for some of us it approaches magic, what you do with charcoal and paper.

    I’ve never seen swans go bottom up like ducks! How interesting and unpredictable nature can be.

    Wishing you the best in the new year.

  10. zeladoniac says:

    Thanks, Wren, and good wishes to you, too.

    Bill, they all do that, every one of the little buggers:-) The secret is to take a mental snapshot and hang onto it for dear life until you get it on paper. Takes practice and focus.

    Thanks for the great comment-you made me laugh.

  11. wrjones says:

    Are you serious. REMEMBER what they looked like a moment ago? I have two chances of that; slim and none. Never the less I’m so inspired by the beauty of your work I will work on the memory technique. When you started did you only remember part of the bird? I would guess I could try the heads first then may be the body curve, tails, and finally try to remember the feet and just draw feet for a few years.

  12. Debbie says:

    I’m very envious of your wonderful bird sketches! I’m just teaching myself how to draw them and still barely capturing those that come to my feeder. Your sketches inspire me. And to think that I’ve been whining about the REALLY cold weather here! It’s practically balmy compared to your weather. Great work!

  13. enggar dance says:

    you do have a very high artistic soul, I am impressed with your brilliant imagination, very difficult for me to draw the animal's head, let alone the whole body

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