September 27, 2018

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

Northern Cardinal, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Summer Tanager have a lot of things in common.  Habitat for one, and of course things like wings for flight and some red plumage.  They’re all birds, right?  But, can you tell me the most important difference between them?  If you answer incorrectly, you probably aren’t a birder.

It all began late one afternoon as I set up camp in a national forest in southern Arizona.  Luis hailed me from a campsite across the road partially shielded by a thin row of trees.  When I camp, I’m usually seeking solitude.  Puzzled, I looked up to see a total stranger approaching with his hand out and a smile on his face.  He addressed me as “neighbor” and said if I needed anything to just come over and ask.

We exchanged stories.  He was here for the weekend because his little girl had been asking to go family camping.  I could see they had a large tent, a pickup truck, and a kid’s bike under a big tree near a fire ring.  He had thought about bringing his motorcycle to ride the backroads, but decided he’d rather indulge his daughter and hang out in the woods with her and his wife.

I was by myself for the weekend, had spent the day hiking to look for bugs and birds, and I was planning after dark to set up a black light with a moth sheet.  It was monsoon season.  I had one eye on the sky and was hoping it didn’t rain overnight and flood any of the washes between here and the interstate because I was lonesome and wanted to get home tomorrow.

After Luis said goodbye and went back to his campsite, I washed up, ate dinner, and assembled my moth kit.  The monsoon clouds skirted around us and it turned out a beautiful evening.  By 8:00 o’clock it was dark and starry, I could hear laughter and see a campfire across the road, and I had a steady stream of moths coming to my sheet.  Though not gregarious by nature, I had spent my life as a teacher, working at times with little people, and sensing a fun, teachable moment I walked across the road, flashlight in hand.

Would Luis and family like to check out my operation?  Yes, excitedly so.  As we started back toward my light and I explained I was no moth expert but simply enjoyed seeing the seldom seen shapes and patterns of the night denizens, Luis introduced me to Sophia, age six, and her mother, Macarena.  And, with a hint of apology, mentioned he’d be translating what I said to his wife.

They stood in awe, as did I, before the sheet as hundreds of moths, some tiny, some like the sphinxes with four inch wingspans swarmed around us, landing on the van as well as on the sheet and sometimes on us.  Sophie, bilingual as I discovered and you’d suspect, was squealing with delight and calling everything “butterfly.”  We spent a memorable hour together, examining delicate designs, pointing out strange behavior, and just generally tripping out over the wonders of nature.

As they left Luis causally asked what I was doing tomorrow.  I was planning to hike around the nearby lake to see what I could see before heading back to the Valley.  Luis asked if I’d mind if they came along.  Somewhat stunned and totally flattered, I told them of course not, I’d be up at sunrise photographing moths I had chilled overnight, and we’d leave between 8:00 and 9:00.  They were ready and waiting when I walked over the next morning.

The morning I spent around the lake with Luis and his family was one of my most enjoyable and rewarding in many a year.  We watched Turkey Vultures and ravens, heard cuckoos, delighted over dragonflies and Sophie’s real butterflies, poked into holes along the lakeshore, and chased lizards.  They learned a lot of stuff they didn’t know about nature, and I relearned a lot of stuff I had sort of forgotten about people.

Macarena showed me on the back of her camera the Northern Cardinal, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Summer Tanager she had photographed the day before, and I was able to give her their common, English names.  Sophie picked wildflowers.  Luis looked chill to be away from the small business he owns.  I’m guessing they’ll be camping again soon.

Luis and his family and I have little in common—neither age nor culture, neither first language nor “plumage.”  But, can you tell me the most important thing we share?  If you answer incorrectly, you probably need to get out more with people who don’t look, sound, and think like you.  Unlike cardinals, woodpeckers, and tanagers we’re all of the same species.  In these fraught times we must never forget our shared humanity.