It took me decades to really notice birds, to give them my full attention. When I did finally invite them into my life at age 43, I fell deeply — and, some friends might add, madly — in love with our winged and feathered neighbors, especially the little ones that swarm backyard feeders throughout Alaska’s long and harsh winters.
At the heart of my late-in-life love affair with birds are black-capped chickadees, which first gained my attention more than 60 years ago, when I lived along the edge of rural Connecticut. Like other common New England birds, they quickly faded into the background of my world, for as a boy I was drawn to more exotic creatures: snakes and salamanders, frogs and turtles and trout.
My general disinterest in birds lasted more than four decades, until I settled in the foothills along Anchorage’s eastern edge.
On the Hillside, all manner of things began to grab my attention in new ways: the chinook winds that rush and sometimes roar through the Chugach Mountains and down into the Anchorage Bowl; the winter commutes of ravens, which daily fly between their nighttime roosts in the mountains and the scavenging-rich environs of downtown and mid-town Anchorage; the spruce bark beetle and its infestation of local forests in the 1990s. But nothing grabbed me as deeply as the chickadees. They transformed my world, showed me some of what I’d been missing. In a way, they became my teachers.
“Something strange has happened,” reads one of my earliest Hillside journal entries, in December 1993. “Something strange and magical and delightful. I’ve fallen under the spell of tiny forest creatures that rarely gained my attention in past years.”
My enchantment began on a Saturday morning, shortly before the winter solstice. Lolling in bed, I happened to glance outside. In the wooded backyard, several black-capped chickadees fluttered around a backyard spruce.
Wonderful, I thought. Here’s a chance to meet some of my new neighbors.
Inspired by their presence, and on something of a whim, I put an old, slightly bent baking pan on the back deck railing and piled on some sunflower seeds. Nothing happened that first day. But on Sunday, while seated at the dining room table, I watched a small feathered being land on the pan. It had a black-capped head and bib, white cheeks, a whitish beige belly and gray-streaked wings.
The chickadee grabbed a seed and zoomed off to a nearby tree. Then in flashed another. And a third. For each, the routine was similar: dart in, look around, peck at the tray, grab a seed, look around some more and dart back out. Nervous little creatures, full of bright energy, they soon had me laughing at their antics. By the time they moved on, I sensed an all-too-rare upwelling of fascination and delight.
Within days, a whole new world opened up as woodland neighbors I’d never known, or even imagined, joined the black caps at my feeders: red-breasted nuthatches, common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, and pine siskins. What’s remarkable is that all of those species were — and are — common residents of the Anchorage area. Yet in prior days and years, I had no idea.
My newfound interest in birds grew quickly, surprising even me. What started as mere curiosity quickly bloomed into a consuming passion. I roamed bookstores in search of birding guidebooks; spontaneously exchanged bird descriptions with a stranger; and purchased 50-pound bags of sunflower seeds.
All of this seemed very strange to a middle-aged guy who’d never been intrigued by birds (except for charismatic raptors) and had previously judged bird watchers to be rather odd sorts. I didn’t know what it meant, except that a door had opened. And I passed through.
My interest soon expanded outward from my feeders to the local landscape’s forests, coastal flats and tundra, and even farther beyond, to Alaska’s far reaches. Suddenly, songbirds seemed to be everywhere. Where had they been hiding all those years? Of course they hadn’t been hiding at all. I simply hadn’t cared enough to notice them.
Helped along by local experts, I’ve gradually learned to recognize the songs, calls and markings of dozens of species. But my favorites remain the songbirds that stay here year-round, adding bright voices and lively energy to our largely dormant winter landscape.
And among those birds, black caps have a special place at the top of my affections, partly for this reason: They’ve reminded me how my world can expand when I make the effort to pay attention. What else awaits me in our world, I wonder, that I haven’t yet discovered or noticed?
Now a resident of the Turnagain area, Anchorage nature writer and wildlife/wildlands advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”
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