For the Birds Radio Program: Autumn Dawn

Original Air Date: Sept. 21, 1988

What’s it like waking at 5:30 to go count birds? (3:47) (Recast at some point–changes in script)

Duration: 3′51″


(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

Every Saturday and Sunday morning I get out of bed at 5:30 and head out for the Lakewood Pumping Station to count birds. In the cold predawn darkness, it somehow never seems worth it–even Bunter, my exuberant golden retriever, looks tired, but it’s my only paying job, and you can’t earn $3.00 an hour lazing around in bed, so I drag myself up and out. The whole house seems to be in some slow-motion time warp. The cuckoo clock ticks slowly, the children’s soft breathing is slow and steady, and even Bunter’s tail wags legato tempo. She climbs into the car, her muscles still idling, and off we go.

Shadows of restless Mourning Doves and a few crepuscular migrants loom up in my headlights as soon as I get out of the driveway. Once I make it to London Road, the glimmer of moonlight on the lake awakens a slim memory of other dawns, and by the time I get the the Lester River, it all seems worthwhile once again. Silent fishermen are silhouetted against the early pink dawn, and a loon sinks into deep water in search of breakfast. Now I start to consider the banana in my backpack, but have to wait a few more minutes until I’m at the pumphouse. Bunter seems to have the same thought–she’s sniffing at the pack, wondering how many dog biscuits it holds.

There’s little traffic on weekend mornings, and the only cars that even reach the speed limit always seem to be pulling boats. Skies are pinker when you aren’t in a hurry, and the lake is more luminous. The proud silhouette of a Red-necked Grebe breaks the water’s stillness, the pine trees sway gently, and the soft clouds grow imperceptibly brighter.

By the time I get to the pumphouse and climb the slippery slope to the brick wall where we count, the eastern clouds are outlined with a razor edge of gold. And circling straight above me is an Osprey–an auspicious sign. I have to hurry to write down the weather data before the sun rises. The familiar weather service voices seem friendly and warm as they share the morning’s secrets with their unseen brotherhood. The air seems still, but no–they say it’s a north wind at five. The barometric pressure, like my hopes, is high and rising. Now a Sharp-shin swoops over and dives into a waxwing flock. They stay in tight formation and all survive. He looks for easier pickin’s in the trees.

Three Palm Warblers alight on the brick wall, bobbing their tails in a friendly way. Bunter is running through her favorite clover patch, and suddenly smells some animal in a hole. She checks that hole out every time we come, but nothing ever emerges. A monarch butterfly opens and shuts his wings at my feet. A flock of goldfinches twitter up above, and warblers are seeping up near the clouds. A lone Great Blue Heron moves past along the shore, slowly beating his heavy, down-curved wings. A White-throated Sparrow sings in his feeble autumn voice, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler tisks at his pitiful attempt. A flock of Blue Jays materializes from the trees and moves along like a parade of ghosts in silent, labored flight. I’m already up to 74 birds as the sun slices the horizon. It’s going to be a good day here at the pumping station.

(Recording of a Sharp-shinned Hawk)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”