For the Birds Radio Program: The Mirror Method

Original Air Date: Aug. 23, 1995

Laura Erickson learned a novel way of pointing out a bird in a tree with a mirror. (4:11) Date verified.

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When I went to Arizona two weeks ago, the main pleasures and learning experiences came from the birds. Of the 177 species I saw, 25 were lifers—that is, birds I’d never before seen in my life—and 35 more were birds I’d never before seen through my Zeiss binoculars. The exotic birds I saw included Painted Redstarts, possibly the most spectacular of all warblers with intense black, glowing ruby-red, and purest snow white markings and animated habits that show off their colors to perfection; Red-faced Warblers, their crimson faces set off by exquisite gray and white; and Elegant Trogons. A glimpse at these splendid birds makes you think of lush tropical forests in faraway places. So the birding was more wonderful than I had hoped for. But one of the most memorable and important learning experiences I had down there only indirectly involved Arizona birds. I learned a new technique for pointing out a bird in a tree so other people can find it, too.

Pointing out one bird in one specific tree or in one specific area of sky to a group of people is an important skill. Inexperienced people often say a bird is “straight out there” when in fact it’s only “straight out” for people who happen to be standing in exactly the same line with their eyes pointed the same way as the person calling out the bird. At Hawk Ridge, we teach people to use distant landmarks, such as the tower and house on Moose Mountain, the golf courses, the water lab tower, or St. Michael’s Church tower when pointing out flying hawks.

In Arizona, though, every area was new to all of us. As soon as we arrived at a hummingbird feeding station, before we even looked at the hummers, we assigned the feeders names or numbers so if someone called out a rarity, everyone could find it quickly. At the famous Paton feeder in Patagonia, we had a Violet-crowned Hummingbird coming to what we called the “tree feeder” and to “number two.” People instantly switched to “number five” when someone called out a Lucifer Hummingbird. In desert scrub, we got good at pointing out the roadrunner sitting in the tree just left of the blooming yucca, or the Crissal Thrasher teed up on the century plant one field of view right from the tallest peak in the distant mountain range.

But birds in the forested canyons were trickier to point out until Pat Colon, one of our group, pulled out a mirror designed for signaling messages. As long as the sun was shining, and the sun seems to always shine in Arizona, he could make the mirror reflect sunlight on just about any bird. Of course, birds don’t much like getting reflected sunlight in their eyes. When I called out a Red-faced Warbler, he instantly found it and got the mirror on it, but it instantly flew away, possibly because of that sudden beam of light, so Pat quickly learned to shine the beam in a circle around the bird rather than directly on it. Circling the beam also helped the people furthest away from the mirror figure out exactly what was being pointed out.

Pat’s mirror cost seven or eight dollars. Our leader, Kim Eckert, thought a cheap dimestore mirror might do just as well, and since I had one handy, I donated it to the cause. Sure enough, my 98-cent Target special casts a fine beam of light, and Kim used it throughout the trip to point out birds quickly and efficiently.

The mirror method won’t be as useful on those cloudy, murky days Lake Superior specializes in, and I don’t think it will work for pointing out hawks in a blue sky, but it sure will be helpful lots of the time for pointing out the trickiest field trip birds of all, migrating warblers. And teachers can use it for pointing out specific plants and animals as well. So it’s not just in fairly tales that a mirror, mirror on the wall can point out the fairest birds of them all.