For the Birds Radio Program: Birding on Skis
Last weekend I went cross-country skiing for the first time in a long time. I’m out of shape, what with spending way too much time working at the computer and then, when I do get out, doing what I call winter birding, which means driving to a likely spot, jumping out of the car, looking at a few birds, hopping back in the car, and driving to the next spot. It’s not exactly being a couch potato, but it’s not too far from it, either. What slows me down on skis even worse than being out of shape is that skis are noisy. It’s easy to miss bird calls through the shish shish shish, so I stop a lot to listen. That’s pretty much why I never took jogging or running seriously-I stop whenever I notice a bird, making any serious cardiovascular workout outdoors pretty much impossible for me.
Anyway, I plodded along through Lester Park with Russ agreeably going slow to humor me, and I found four or five flocks of chickadees zipping among the cedar, spruce, and pine trees. One group of Pine Siskins flew overhead, and a couple of crows and a Blue Jay called out. It was a beautiful day, the sun shining in a bright blue sky, temperatures mild enough to take my gloves off. It was Sunday, the day of the Blue Moon, and even though right then the moon was shining on the other side of the globe, it was nice looking up at the sky and imagining it was really there, but was so very blue that you just couldn’t see it in that bluer than blue sky. It was the kind of day that I like to spend walking miles and miles around, watching and listening for birds and losing myself in the joy and rhythm and sheer pleasure of the hike.
Anyway, a few other groups of skiers passed us by. Normally that doesn’t bother me in the least, but when a man whizzed by pulling a sled with a small child aboard, I started thinking about the slow pace I seem to always set for myself I concluded that I must be like an American Woodcock in that respect. A lot of people know that the Peregrine Falcon is credited with being the fastest bird in the world, but few people know what the slowest bird is. You could guess the hummingbird, because when it’s hovering it’s going zero miles per hour, and when it’s going backward, it’s essentially going a negative number of miles per hour, but the slowest bird going forward at its maximum speed is the American Woodcock, which flies about 5 mph. Now that my daughter Katie is three or four inches taller than me and tries to keep me as inconspicuous as possible when her friends are about, I rather feel like a woodcock in the squat, camouflaged department, too.
One actor that looks rather like a woodcock is Ben Stein, who played the boring teacher on The Wonder Years, and is now the amazingly brilliant star of Comedy Central’s quiz show, Win Ben Stein’s Money. Thinking about woodcocks reminded me of a funny phone call I got a few days before, when one of the show’s researchers was doing a web search trying to verify that the Peregrine really is the fastest bird. She found my web page and sent me an e-mail asking for information. Since then, I’ve gotten two phone calls from Win Ben Stein’s Money researchers, one asking more about bird flight speeds, and one asking about gulls. I told them about the woodcock being the slowest bird in the world, but I didn’t tell them that their boss sort of looks like one. I figure even Ben Stein probably skis faster than me.
When I returned to my computer after covering a loop that meandered around the woods with as many unexpected twists and turns as this program is taking around its topic, I learned on the national Bird Chat line that some people are starting to hear woodcocks in the southern states right now. Usually I can get through a whole February without thinking much about these unassuming birds, but this year, suddenly they seem to be everywhere. Perhaps we really are in for an early spring, and I can put those skis away again.