A Canada goose sounded like a car horn in need of tinkering. It was an avian tickle as I knuckled the sleep from my eyes.
I was teaching writing classes and took some college kids on a nature walk at daybreak in a lovely park, which was one of my happy places. We met in a parking lot. I was easy to find. I’m a miler. You could tell a mile away that I was a birder. Binoculars, ugly hat, battered shoes and I was the only other person there. I thanked them for joining me and quoted John Paul Richter, who said, “For sleep, riches and health to be truly enjoyed, they must be interrupted.” I had cheap and experienced binoculars I’d accumulated from thrift stores, auctions and donations to share with them. Most of the binoculars were older than the students, but the young folks had keen eyesight. One had birded with his grandfather. “It was OK,” he oozed.
The journey began with a long walk to where we were going to do our birding. I told the troops walking was half the fun of birding. One replied, “You mean birding is only twice as much fun as this is?”
It was one of those May days that every day should strive to be. We hurried slowly. I felt as if I were sailing on the seven seas with no idea what wonders I might encounter. I recommended they bird with half a brain. Ducks can sleep and keep half their brains awake. I told my charges to turn off the half of their brains that thinks about work, school and relationships. I warned them of warbler neck from looking straight up. The top shelf of tall trees is hard for eyes to reach. I didn’t want to blink for fear I’d miss something. I taught them some “iffits.” If it reminds them of a miniature Baltimore oriole, it’s an American redstart. If it calls, “Nature, nature, nature,” it’s an ovenbird. If it looks as if it’s shedding a chestnut tear, it’s a male Cape May warbler. I assured the young people that happiness came in flocks.
Birds are a handle for me to hold on to and they didn’t let me down. Sapsuckers fed from sapwells they’d chiseled into trees. It’s a visit to Hole Foods for them. Hummingbirds stalked them in search of the sap and insects of those sapwells. We listened to a male cardinal giving a RED Talk.
There was a flash of red amid the green foliage. It wasn’t the cardinal. It was an NFT, a Non-Fungible Tanager. “Non-fungible” means it’s unique and can’t be replaced with something else. A scarlet tanager is Red with a capital R. We all have flashes of brilliance. A male scarlet tanager is a constant brilliance. It’s a bedazzling red with black wings and tail. Tanagers make the world less blurry.
Years ago, a caller said she thought she’d seen a scarlet tanager, but she wasn’t sure.
“What did you say when you saw it?” I asked.
“Wow!” she said.
“Yup, then it was a scarlet tanager,” I assured her. The black-winged redbird, a red-winged blackbird in reverse, is a handsome hunk.
On this May morning, when we saw tanagers dressed somewhere between elegant and “Are you really going to wear that?” I heard, “Awesome!” from many of the students as they watched a bird. It’s a word that must be used today and it became a sound of spring.
A single tanager is enough to fill my cup with wonder. Nancy Reagan said, “I always liked red. It’s a picker-upper.” Seeing one is more than enough to turn me 111 shades of happy. Three male tanagers joined us. Seeing a tanager wasn’t surprising, but it was a surprise. It was astoundingly astounding. I’ve ridden on many parade floats and I felt as if I were throwing candy from one.
I thanked the stunning tanagers for letting us ride along.
The students had taken to birding as pollywogs take to growing legs.
Back at the parking lot, we looked for clouds that looked like tanagers. Imaginations stretched to meet the challenge.
I left the students with a useful tip: “An ostrich hogs a bird feeder.”
Al Batt is a writer, speaker, storyteller and humorist from rural Hartland, Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.