To bird: a verb with feathers

Story and photo by Lois Carol Wheatley

Ever hear the expression "canary in a coal mine?" The bird is the first to keel over in a hostile environment—low oxygen, dense airborne particles, poisonous gases—and coal miners are well advised to hop the first mine shaft elevator out of there. In that spirit the nonprofit Audubon Society monitors the general health and well-being of our bird population, with a nationwide membership of over 400,000 and more than 500 local chapters, operating in the complete and total absence of any sort of escape hatch from this planet.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was renowned for his bird illustrations, still seen on mugs, prints and coffee table books, but he was not particularly a conservationist. He did go on occasional rants in his writings about overhunting, loss of habitat, and the imminent demise of the Carolina Parakeet, the Passenger Pigeon, the Labrador Duck and the Great Auk. However, he was typically portrayed with a rifle in hand, and he shot his subjects before stuffing, mounting and wiring them up for their portraits.

The National Audubon Society incorporated in 1905 with the stated mission "to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity." It was one of the earliest cohesive forces of the newly-hatched environmental movement, riding the tailfeathers of John Muir's Sierra Club begun in 1892.

Audubon North Carolina is headquartered in Chapel Hill (123 Kingston Drive, Suite 206A, Chapel Hill NC 27514-1651, phone 919/929-3899) and its coastal office is located at 7741 Market Street, Unit D, Wilmington, NC 28411-9444, phone 910/686-7527. Clearly the wind beneath local wings is the Cape Fear Audubon Society, covering Southeastern North Carolina, and another flock of enthusiasts roosts at the Carolina Bird Club. Upcoming Wilmington-based programs involving walks, talks, feeders, birdbaths and binoculars can be found at Wild Bird & Garden Center. Further up the coast on the Outer Banks, Audubon North Carolina runs a wildlife preserve at Pine Island.

If you've never been on a club-organized bird-watching expedition, you will likely be surprised to find this is both a paramilitary operation and a competitive sport. Birders turn out at pre-dawn hours dressed in camouflage, carrying scopes, tripods and field manuals. As a grimly determined and narrowly focused mission, they might close in on a house where they spot a Western Tanager perched on a deck rail, and the lady of the house just might glance out the kitchen window while she's washing the breakfast dishes.

Then there's the reconnoitering when the operation returns to headquarters, and this amounts to scorekeeping. If you saw 12 different species and the fellow next to you saw 13, you lose. Of course you'll go home wondering how the fellow next to you spotted a six-foot-tall flightless yellow crane indigenous only to Sesame Street. And if this guy never saw Big Bird before, that sighting goes on a sort of lifetime achievement scorecard that takes precedence over college diplomas and handsomely framed Masonic lodge certificates.

Those are the dedicated, die-hard birder types, and we depend heavily on them to conduct the absolutely vital Christmas Bird Count and other exercises in citizen science. The more casual bird admirer, those who might like to sleep a little later, pack a little lighter, stroll a little less purposefully along beaches, lakes, streams and woodlands, can catch guided birding tours at Airlie Gardens, Mason Inlet, or on the Black River—to name just a few regularly scheduled outings.

Or you could chart your own bird-watching course by following the North Carolina Birding Trail. Three different trails are interspersed in and around the Wilmington area, running the gamut from shady inland hiking trails populated by sparrows and warblers, to islands and beaches swarming with cormorants, terns and pelicans.

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