This is the time of year that I fully understand the value of basking. Lying on the ground, cushioned by the newly growing grass, the kiss of the sun on my winter skin is deep and satisfying. I can feel my muscles relax and my mind wander. When I close my eyes, the season truly transforms. Sounds bring the world closer.
Humans rely primarily on sight as their main sense for gathering information. Flat on the ground, eyes closed on a spring day, the world is quite different. Sounds that I hear include scratching, crunching, rustling, tsee, chirp, chip, jay, oh sweet Canada Canada Canada, see me see me, fee dee dee, seep, wind blowing, roosters crowing (not usually in nature but at my house certainly), and myriad more that can’t be translated into human letters. Many are birds, and their calls are distinctly theirs. I listen for these friends arriving every year.
The thrum of spring is loud and resonating. You may read this before May 4 or after, I know not. Regardless, the first Saturday in May is my favorite day of the year. It is Birdathon. For those who might be wondering what that means, here it is: Rising enthusiastically, almost giddy, at 4:00 a.m. to throw layers of clothes on and head out the front door; listening and making checkmarks as the birds greet the day – Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, American Woodcock, American Robin, Song Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, and the list continues.
The drive to work at 5:30 a.m. elicits more birdsong through the open car windows (regardless of temperature). These I can’t count, though, as it is only me in the car and the rules of Birdathon dictate that two people must be able to identify the bird by sight or sound. Once at work, I greet coworkers and volunteers, and we bird Audubon’s backyard as we eat a potluck breakfast. A congregation of bird nerds.
The rest of the day is spent birding, chatting, meeting new people, puzzling over field guides, taking photos, and laughing as we bird at Audubon and other locations around the region. We visit ponds, forests swamps, lakeshores, hilltop fields, and deep hemlock ravines. Sometimes we take whatever the world has to offer, other times we seek a specific species. We celebrate and push on to get the list to top 70, 80, or 90. We’ve reached 96 but never broken the magic 100. Perhaps this is the year.
Birdathon is my favorite day for so many reasons. It is a full day devoted to birding. I don’t have to do anything else that day – no cleaning, cooking, email checking, gardening, planting, or chores. This day is for the birds. It is permission to let everything else go and engage in this hunt.
It ranks as my favorite also because it marks the definitive arrival of spring. Many birds arrive like clockwork – a week before, 4 days before, the day of – and it is a reassurance that all is well and moving into the lushness of the year. Even though some years it is rainy and cold, the day’s length and the vegetative growth indicate that spring has tipped the seasonal scale in her favor.
Finally, this event is not just fun, it is purposeful. I am awed every year at the people that come out to bird, or to support us in birding. For every species we see, generous folks have pledged money, everything from a dime to $2.00 per species to generate funds for a scholarship. A local student uses that scholarship to pursue his or her education in the natural sciences. Diego Rey from Fredonia is this year’s winner. He will attend Middlebury College to study Environmental Science.
But he has a predecessor to thank. One of the Birdathon Scholarship recipients was Ryan Exline, from Russell, Pennsylvania. He was a volunteer at ACNC and his passion for the natural world was insatiable. He grew from avid gardener and amateur naturalist to pursuing a Master’s Degree at Duke University. No one knows how the world works, however, and Ryan was killed in a car accident. Since then the scholarship has been given in his memory – the Ryan Exline Memorial Scholarship. Ryan was a dear friend of mine, and a loved member of the Audubon family. To have this day, doing something we both loved, is truly why it is my favorite day of the year.
If you’re reading this before May 4, you are welcome to join us either by birding or by pledging. If you are reading this after you can still contribute to the scholarship fund – perhaps we can increase the amount we give as a scholarship with your help. Call ACNC for details or go online at auduboncnc.org/scholarships. On any day, though, you can lie in the grass, or on a sidewalk on a sunny spring day, and close your eyes. The renewal that come with that action and the bird’s songs is indescribable.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.