The Bird Whisperer
Birding by ear is sort of my thing. Most birders focus mainly on looking with their eyes and using the binoculars to enhance their view. We’re vision-based creatures, and focusing on listening and hearing doesn’t come as easily to us. But I have a really good auditory memory – being in choir all those years must have helped – and it was always easier for me to rely on my hearing to be able to locate the sounds of different birds within range.
Public outreach is the main portion of my work as Marketing Coordinator for the Elkhart County Parks, but once a month – more specifically, on the first Wednesday of every month – I lead a bird walk at a different county park, and that is really something that I deeply enjoy. Birding is one of my favorite pastimes. I do a lot of artwork and photography revolving around birds, but I think of myself as a ‘birder’ first and foremost.
This time of year, around late April through mid-May, is when we see large numbers of warblers migrate through our area. It’s peak migration for neotropical songbirds – so there’s a lot of activity during a very brief window, and we always have a lot of interest in our Wednesday bird walks this time of year. The walks are for everyone – kids, adults and beginners – and our May walks are usually some of our most popular. Everyone who knows even just a little about birding or bird watching wants to see a warbler this time of year. It’s the time for their spring migration. In May the warblers wear their brightest, breeding plumage and sing their brightest and most magnificent songs to try and find a mate.
There’s a lot of exciting chaos when the warblers are in – we get huge flocks of them in this area, especially along the river and the canal here at River Preserve County Park. The warblers follow these waterways – there is safety here for them and an abundance of food and resources. On a really good day you could see up to 30 species of warblers at River Preserve. Every birder has their own favorite songbird that really catches their eye, or in my case, their ear. Some specialty warblers that people are sometimes lucky enough to come across are the Blackburnian, the Cerulean, the Hooded, and the Golden-winged warbler. There are few places in the world where you can see a neotropical migration like we see here in Elkhart County. I have friends in other parts of the world – parts of the world renowned for their amazing flora and fauna and wildlife – and my birding friends in those places are regularly surprised by the quality of birding that we have access to.
The remarkable thing about our warbler migration is that it happens so fast. Out of nowhere, the warblers are here, and it’s an explosion of life. But it’s just a little blip in nature. Before you know it their colors start to fade and their feathers get tattered – almost like they’ve ‘let themselves go.’ Before long they’ll shift to the dull plumage that signifies the fall migration. For me, there’s an important lesson in it all. Understanding the pulse of nature can really help you achieve mindfulness and appreciate the beauty of impermanence. To study a bird is to know its song and its habitat and even the tree in which it perches. Paying attention to which birds come back year-after-year means noticing everything else that goes along with it.
Photography by Annie Aguirre
I grew up in Oregon, where I developed a love for birds and nature, and then I came to Indiana – and, eventually, joined the parks department. One thing I love about being involved in nature is that there is always more to learn. To appreciate nature is, really, to undertake a lifetime of learning that will never be completed. And you have to make mistakes to learn. I’ve had mentors tell me that – when it comes to learning and developing an understanding of the natural world – ‘if you’re not making mistakes then you’re doing it wrong.’
One time, one of my first times birding solo, I heard this big noise and I thought it certainly must have been a heron or an eagle. But I later discovered it was a tiny Pied-billed grebe. That experience taught me that the grebe is in our area year-round, which I previously did not know. There’s just so much to learn…This process of learning inspires me. That day’s events inspired me, in fact, to chronicle my encounter with the Pied-billed grebe.
Unfortunately, a lot of birds are at-risk due to habitat loss. I don’t want to go full-on David Attenborough or throw tirades about how ‘Mankind is to blame.’ I don’t know that we can ever reverse what we’ve collectively done, we can’t undo all the development that has led to so much habitat loss. But I do think that the first step to shifting things in the right direction is to simply care. If you care about the bird in the tree, then you care about the tree it nests in. And if you care about the tree, then you care about the soil that nourishes it. It starts with caring, and paying attention. I’m glad that I am able to help spark the curiosity of people of all ages; my goal when I’m leading a bird walk is to help people learn more, and hopefully care more, about the amazing creatures that call this land home.”
Annie Aguirre, interviewed for this piece in April 2023, is the Marketing Coordinator for Elkhart County Parks and handles all of the visual and graphic design needs for the department’s web and social sites. She also oversees print production, including the seasonal guidebook The Compass Guide – which highlights the department’s event calendar and includes information someone might need when planning to spend time in one of the parks; where to go, what to see, timing a visit, and how to reserve a shelter-space.
Written by Jake Sandock
Original publish date April 2023