Drew's Favorite Bird Experience

Welcome to the BirdSleuth for Homeschools Blog! We want to encourage our BirdSleuth students to think about their own birdwatching experiences. As you've probably seen in a previous post, we're holding a contest for students to write in about their favorite bird experiences (entries are due December 15 and there are prizes!). Maybe it seems like a challenge to think about birding in this way? I'm hoping to inspire you by share one of my favorite bird experiences with photographs =).

Before I share one of my favorite birding stories, it's only fair that I give you a little background about me. I'm a senior in college at Cornell University, and really interested plants and communication (no, I don't mean communicating WITH plants). I mean, I've been very interested in communicating ABOUT science, which is why I am an intern for BirdSleuth. In the scientific community, I think that birds are one of the best things to communicate about. They're an incredibly important part of the environment, and they are really cool: they can fly, and they have so much diversity! It's no wonder that so many people devote their careers to studying birds.

But as I said, as a student, my interests have always been focused on plants (perhaps because it's easier to study something that doesn't constantly try and fly away). It's because of plants that I found myself in Argentina my sophomore year of college. A group of students and I were studying the desert plants of South America - little rough, spiny bushes that live in one of the hottest, driest places on the planet. You'd need to be a plant person to want to deal with this these thorny things ... or so I thought.

Along with us plant people was a small contingent of birders - they studied the plants too, but they were in Argentina for the birds. It was my first experience dealing with these passionate people, and I hadn't seen anything like them before. They always had binoculars around their necks, and were never more than a few feet away from their cameras with ginormous telescopic lenses.  Every time they saw a bird, it was like an achievement, even if they'd seen that species before, and they spent so much time taking page after page of notes about these birds. It was incredible.

The most curious thing, though, came on a stop in a small inland town. We had the morning off, but it was a scorcher - hot, dry, and uncomfortable. We heard rumors of a delicious ice cream shop somewhere in town, and my plant friends were determined to find it and eat ice cream in the shade. The birders, on the other hand, had a different destination for that morning: the town dump.

You can call a dump a lot of things - a land fill, a recycling center, a garbage heap - but on a hot day, it's always going to be a dump. Why did they want to go to the dump?! And why did my plant science professor want to go too?!  Knowing that I could get ice cream anytime back home, and that perplexing questions bother me, I said farewell to my plant friends and went to the dump.

As expected, it was hot, smelly, and dirty. There was no shade, no ice cream, and no relief. There was water - a big pond of sludge and garbage. And there were birds - gulls and a few other species that I had seen in the desert - but nothing else to speak of. Why had I come?! I could have been partaking in ice cream in the shade!

As I stumbled around the dump, trying to avoid the worst garbage, I saw the birders stop up ahead - I thought it was a flock of gulls or something else, so I didn't rush to catch up. But, they stood there for a long time until I had caught up and seen the most amazing thing: flamingos! Flamingos are generally interesting animals - they have long legs so they can wade in shallow water. Due to their diet, they have bright pink feathers, and the pinker males are the most favored mates. Some species filter feed on brine shrimp and blue green algae - cool stuff! But, the reason this is one of my favorite birding memories is because of the number - not until you see hundreds of flamingos wading in the mudflats of a hot, muggy dump in Argentina do you really appreciate how social birds can be.

We stood there for a while, watching the flamingos move around, dunk their heads under water, and then fly away when we got too close. All I can say is ... flamingos were a lot better than ice cream! That much, I am sure. So, it's no wonder that when I we stopped in at the next town, the birders and I were at yet another dump. There weren't any flamingos, but I saw some pretty cool hawks. Who knew that landfills were such great places for birdwatching?!

Drew Muscente
BirdSleuth Intern
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