My Quest for an Indigo Bunting

(Photo by: Gareth Raspberry)

I’ve always enjoyed birds, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2012 that I had a bird ‘quest’. While hiking at the Cylburn Arboretum, Nathalie and I stopped by the Nature Museum. Among the collection of natural history objects housed within is a large variety of taxidermied birds. I had never seen or heard of many of the birds on display, and I was fascinated. One bird that stood out to me was the Indigo Bunting. I read on the the placard that this beautiful bird is a regular in Maryland, even Baltimore, and can be seen right there at Cylburn. I decided right there that I was going to see one, a living one, as soon as possible.

Not knowing anything, really, about birds or looking for specific birds, I simply ‘kept my eyes open’ whenever Nat or I went hiking. Years passed, and I never saw my elusive Indigo Bunting. I admit that I wasn’t trying particularly hard, or putting much effort into researching its habitat or song (though I did listen to the song before each hike we took). We’d go hiking and I’d just hope to spot one along the trail.

In April of this year, Nathalie thought it’d be fun if we attended one of the Patterson Park Audubon Center bird walks. My father and my sister were in town, so Dad stayed home with Harrison while Nathalie, Amy and I went bird watching at the park. We borrowed binoculars from the group, since we didn’t own any ourselves. As we drove up I wondered if perhaps today I’d see an Indigo Bunting (spoiler: I didn’t).

The bird-guides at Patterson Park Audubon Center are extraordinarily knowledgeable about all things bird, and their excitement and passion hooked me immediately. It was the height of migration season (a fact I didn’t even know on the drive over–yeah, that’s how new I am), and the park was swarming with bird life. We saw several exciting birds, including Oven Birds, Black-Throated Blue Warblers, Shrikes, Kestrals, a Blue-Winged Teal, and on and on. I was sad when it was time to hand back the binoculars, and knew right away that this was a hobby I was going to fall into, hard.

That weekend I ordered a pair of binoculars, and the following weekend Nathalie and I embarked on our first of many ‘solo’ bird walks. It’s been a few months now, and we are still very green, but we’ve made some new friends and seen more birds in that time than either of had ever seen, or paid attention to, in all our lives. We quickly began to get the hang of birding, at a novice level of course, and I thought surely, certainly, of course I will see an Indigo Bunting now!

But each time we were heading home from bird watching together, the Indigo Bunting was not on my list. I’d get messages from a fellow new birder (though he’s been doing it a year or more longer than me) from time to time asking “See the Indigo yet?”, and each time I had to say no.

Until the morning of July 4th at Oregon Ridge Nature Center. Nathalie and Harrison and I drove there bright and early, ready for a fun morning of birding along the trails, and when we parked the car and were getting Harrison ready in the back-carrier, Nathalie’s ears perked up.

“Did you hear that,” she asked.

And I had. Right near us, in the field behind the parking lot, was the unmistakable song of my elusive bird.

But we needed to get H into that back-carrier, and he was getting fussy.

“Just go, quick!” Nat said and pressed the binoculars into my chest.

I ran as fast as I could out of the parking lot, past the chicken coup they have at the edge of the field, and into the field. Two goldfinches flew right in front of my face the moment I was in the open (and I noted to myself to mark them down later). I listened for the song, and tried desperately to pinpoint where it was coming from. It sounded high up, and I was afraid that even if I did locate it, it would be a black silhouette against the rising sun.

Nathalie was at the edge of the parking lot, where it drops off into the field, and a large hickory tree rose up to the left of her. Midway up that tree, perched on a bare branch, was a bird. I brought the binoculars to my eyes, adjusted the focus, and saw for the first time the beautiful cobalt blue of the Indigo Bunting.

“Got it!” I shouted.

Together, Nathalie and I saw three more of them that day. And we saw two more this very morning off the Lake Roland Boardwalk. Seems they’re everywhere now, or maybe we just figured out how to pay attention better, be more patient, and look in the right places for the right birds.

So far, birding has been a rewarding and challenging hobby. We’re complete newbies, so every bird we see is exciting, every call or song we recognize now makes us feel pretty awesome. “Acadian Flycatcher!” Nat will call out, even though it’s nowhere in sight. “Eastern Wood-Pewee!” “Gnat-Catcher!” Harrison seems to have fun out in nature too, though his favorite things to see so far are all the dogs being walked. “Da da da da!” he calls out at each one.

I don’t expect any of my future birding posts to be this long, so thanks for sticking with me if you did.

Here’s the list of birds we saw today:

Location: Lake Roland Boardwalk/Park
Time: 7:00am – 10:00am

 1 Turkey Vulture
2 Broad-winged Hawk
1 Red-tailed Hawk
1 Mourning Dove
2 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
4 Downy Woodpecker
1 Northern Flicker
2 Eastern Wood-Pewee
2 Acadian Flycatcher
4 Great Crested Flycatcher
1 Red-eyed Vireo
2 American Crow
3 Fish Crow
2 Barn Swallow
1 Carolina Chickadee
5 Tufted Titmouse
8 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
7 American Robin
7 Northern Cardinal
2 Indigo Bunting
4 Red-winged Blackbird
2 Common Grackle
3 Baltimore Oriole
5 American Goldfinch

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