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NatureZen: The Elusive Indigo Bunting

Today’s guest post is by Steve Adelman, a writer who is an up-and-coming outdoorsman after living the majority of his life in major cities. He can be found most Sunday mornings at Overton Park with his wife, Michele, and their dog, Milton. 

Steve Adelman
Steve and Milton at Overton Park

I had never really thought much about birds, barely aware of their presence but knowing they are there, like fire hydrants or my Uncle Dan. When my wife and I recently decided to leave town, our destination choices were limited given restrictions imposed by social distancing, so what better place than the Smoky Mountains. With facemasks in hand, we set out early for the six-hour journey by car. As Michele became reacquainted with her car instruments while adjusting the sideview mirrors, it was as if she was buying the car anew. It had been over three months since she last drove.

Michele’s Chicago rush hour skills quickly returned as we flew at over 85 mph, arriving forty-five minutes earlier than expected, giving us time to grab lunch before our first planned activity: bird watching. What better time to try new things and get rid of this feeling of isolation was Michele’s outlook. I grudgingly went along, telling myself to do this for her, as I sipped an unsweetened iced tea.

Arriving at our meeting point, we were greeted by our two guides, who looked every bit the part: khaki three-quarter length shorts, with manuals stuffed in every conceivable pocket, large-brimmed hats, backpacks overflowing with essentials, highlighted by multiple attached water bottles. The contrast with my head-to-toe black lululemon minimalistic approach left the impression we were heading out for deployment after a SoulCycle class.

Handed a pair of binoculars and a guidebook as a welcome to the fraternity, we were off to explore our natural surroundings.

“We’re in luck already,” said Joy, the apparent higher-ranked of the feathered friend Sherpas.

“Look over there, in that tree, that’s a Carolina wren,” she continued, pointing forty feet in front of us.

Bringing my binoculars to my face, I could see nothing except black as I moved them infinitesimally away from my glasses, then back, while maneuvering the focus adjustments.

“I can’t see anything,” I muttered. “Oh wait, I can see a tree. It’s the one with the large branch sticking out to the right.” Pulling my binoculars away from my face I soon realized I was looking three trees over from my intended target. Realigning myself, I went in for another attempt.

“There he goes,” said Michele, indicating with one hand, as the other mastered her field glasses.

The temperature had now reached over ninety degrees as we marched along, heading toward a large open field. With two circular smudge marks now restricting my view, and the humidity fogging what was left of my limited sightlines, I made a suggestion. “Shouldn’t we be where there are actually trees?” I asked, lingering several feet behind the group.

“We’re moving that way. I’m taking you guys to a very special place,” said Joy, who immediately stopped as if she was our dog, Milton, spotting a squirrel.

“Look over there,” she exclaimed with her go-to catchphrase, pointing to a group of trees which had to be a half-mile away. “A Northern mockingbird…in the magnolia tree.” If we are going to run over there and look up the tree in a Milton-esque manner, I’m outta here.

Northern mockingbird
Northern mockingbird

With now only 30% of my vision intact, I focused outward, catching a glimpse of what I thought was a small flying object.

“Oh, he must have left,” Joy interjected (which I would soon learn was her other go-to expression).

Taking up the challenge, I trained my impaired eyesight intensely on my surroundings, causing me to further lag behind the group. And then I saw it. “A robin…over there…in the field!” I shouted with pride. “Or at least it looks like one.”

Joy stopped far ahead, peering out through her binoculars. “I don’t see it. He most likely left by now,” she said, dampening my quick rise in mood.

“But, very good Steve,” she continued, as if I was a three-year old making my first perfectly timed boom-boom.

As the group rounded the bend ahead, I could hear Joy again.

“Over there, that’s a red-eyed vireo. In that tree, I see a bluebird and a wood thrush, and the one flying there is a European starling. I’m also seeing a yellow-throated warbler.”

I picked up my pace, running towards the group to catch up.

“Isn’t this great?” said Michele, finally lowering down her binoculars to find me standing next to her, my eyes darting around in confusion. “What happened to your glasses? They look like the door of a wet sauna etched with two perfect zeros.”

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at our destination, a group of large trees nestled next to a clear rolling stream, signifying the entrance into the mountains.

“This is the only place I have yet to see an indigo bunting,” said Joy, gazing up at the mammoth fortress now surrounding us on all sides.

“How will I know when I see one?” asked Michele.

“Think blue canary,” said guide #2 Andrea, finally breaking her silence.

“Let’s be super quiet,” whispered Joy to Michele, who passed the message on to me through Andrea.

“Do you hear that?…he is here,” breathed Joy, gazing up while motioning us not to move.

Scouring every inch of the canopy above us, I was not to be left out. Stopping on a leafy branch, I saw what appeared to be a small metallic blue wing extending out into the clear sky. Frantically, I began pointing upward without uttering a sound, causing the others to adjust their targets.

Five minutes later, I broke the implicit vow of silence.

“Did you see it?” I asked, feeling now an integral part the group. “No’s,” all around.

“He’s probably left by now, but great job,” added Joy, motheringly.

Heading back home a few days later, we pulled off the road to a gas station. Standing outside I noticed what I would describe as a crow landing on the power line, who was followed by two small, roundish birds.

“Look, a crow and two little…gray ones,” I exclaimed to Michele. “At least I get to see some birds before we get home.” Turning around I saw she was nowhere in sight, having gone inside to pay.

American crow
American crow

A week after our return home, feeling more sequestered than ever, I was out early walking Milton when he spotted a robin on the ground and made his usual attempt to catch it. As it escaped another teased, near-miss encounter, I followed its flight to a nest, semi-hidden in the large oak overlooking our house. As I focused in, I could see three tiny heads popping up, causing me to stop to get a better look. My focus was then drawn to the right by a bright red object. Under closer scrutiny it was a cardinal, which I recognized being a long-time baseball fan as the St. Louis team icon. Not accustomed to me pausing on our walks, unless under his direction, Milton began tugging me along, losing patience.

There’s a bluebird over there, and what looks like an oriole in that tree, I noted to myself. As I began to look up, birds were everywhere, flying between trees, jumping on the ground, and perched on the telephone pole above. As I focused on a black bird with colored wing tips in the tree overhead, I could hear him, no, see him chirping. Closing my eyes to concentrate on what he was singing, I was overtaken by an orchestra of bird sounds, seeming to number in the dozens, an entire world around me which I had never once stopped to notice.  It was beautiful.

Rushing home I quickly looked in my guidebook, matching pictures with what I had just encountered, learning that I had indeed seen a cardinal, blue jay, oriole, red-winged blackbird, two mourning doves, three mockingbirds and multiple robins and sparrows. A day later I discovered an app which allowed me to identify over a thousand bird calls.

I now have a working arrangement with Milton. I allow him twenty minutes to stop and do his sniffing and he allows me the same for my birding. On Sunday morning we accommodate each other with additional time as we walk the trails of Overton Park, our now-weekly tradition. The three baby robins are doing well, and the dove couple of Fred and Ginger seem to be closer than ever. Albert the cardinal just loves to sing and is a natural standout amongst the crowd. Over the last month I’ve seen over twenty species and, as I wake up in the morning listening, I can now identify many of their calls.

In these current challenging and scary times, I am reminded that there is always goodness and beauty around us to be found…if you are willing to search for it. Sometimes it’s as easy as just keep looking up, even if there are a few setbacks along the way. I never did actually see that indigo bunting, as I soon discovered their color is a much richer blue than the bird  I saw that day. I know he’s out there, so I gave him a name: Lefty, making him my current ringtone.

With summer here, our plum and fig trees in the backyard have bloomed, making them a Vegas-style buffet for all my newly found friends. We share the space together. They eat, sing and hang out while I join them outside to write. Yesterday, someone pooped on my keyboard, and looking up I saw it was Albert. I figured it was just his way of thanking me for the great lunch.

“Anytime my friend,” I murmured, as I went on with my wonderful day, feeling more attached to the world than ever.

Indigo bunting
Indigo bunting preparing to take flight