My midlife passion is for the birds

A decade has passed since I first put out sunflower seeds, hoping to lure in some of my wild neighbors after moving to Anchorage's Hillside. My bird feeder wasn't much to look at: an old, slightly bent baking pan. Still, it held plenty of seeds and sat nicely on the backyard deck railing.

Nothing happened that first day. But the next morning, while eating breakfast at the dining room table, I watched a tiny, fluffy, winged creature 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 penetrated the toughened shell of this former sports reporter and touched my heart. I laughed at their antics and felt an all-too-rare childlike fascination.

The chickadees were soon joined by several other songbirds. 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, pine grosbeaks, common redpolls.

Though I came to bird feeding and watching rather late - or perhaps because of it - my interest in birds grew quickly, surprising even me. What started as mere curiosity quickly bloomed into a consuming passion. I found myself roaming bookstores in search of birding books, spontaneously exchanging bird descriptions with a stranger, and purchasing 50-pound bags of seeds.

All of this seemed very strange to a man who had never been intrigued by birds (except for charismatic raptors) and previously judged bird watchers to be rather odd sorts. My interest in birds soon expanded from my feeders to surrounding forests, coastal flats, and tundra.

Helped along by local experts, I've gradually learned to recognize the songs, calls, and markings of dozens of avian species that inhabit the Anchorage Bowl for all or part of the year, from the tiny but loud-voiced ruby-crowned kinglet to the stealthy, rodent-hunting northern harrier. But my favorites remain the songbirds that stay here year-round, adding bright song and lively energy to our largely dormant winter landscape.

Now, wherever I am - city, woods, mountains - I invariably notice songbirds and their assorted voices. They're everywhere, it seems. How did I miss them before?

Though I enjoy birds wherever I travel these days, feeders remain central to my bird-watching passion. For more than half the year, I feed the birds daily (some might say obsessively). When crowds of them show up, I may refill the feeders several times a day. I watch them, off and on, throughout the day - one of the fringe benefits of working at home.

For all the attention I give my winged neighbors, rarely do I observe them for more than a few minutes at a time. What I get are snapshots of the activity at my feeders and neighboring spruce trees. I wonder how much I'm missing.

There's so much we can't know; but mystery is part of the appeal. And because they do open windows (albeit briefly) into largely secret lives, even the most routine feeder-watching days hold a bit of magic.

Even as it increases my awareness of local birds and seasonal avian patterns, "feeder watching" has substantial side benefits. The birds invariably lift my spirits, sometimes even make me chuckle aloud, while adding brightness to long, dark winters. And then there's the family connection.

After she'd moved here from Virginia recently, my mom cooed with delight upon meeting our northern songbirds. Now into her third Alaskan winter, she welcomes the birds' comings and goings and their company, especially as the daylight hours shorten and dim. She keeps a birding guide handy, discusses our visitors' often charming and sometimes unruly behavior with me, and tells relatives back East about our latest guests.

The birds have also become an integral part of long-distance phone conversations with my brother. A birding enthusiast long before me, Dave also keeps his feeders well stocked. At least part of every winter conversation is devoted to feeder-watching updates.

Back in New York's Catskill Mountains, he'll get evening (not pine) grosbeaks, and white-breasted (not red-breasted) nuthatches. His feeders will also draw blue jays and the occasional cardinal; pine siskins, purple finches, and house finches.

And black-capped chickadees, of course.We'll compare bird notes, tell stories of surprise, joy, or sadness. And we'll be reminded of a common bond: a love for birds, a passion for nature.

This, we understand, is no small thing. Spanning the continent and the years, it's something that links our often disparate lives.

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