“On the left-hand side of the oyster shells there’s an ibis on the left and an egret on the right.” Jill Peleuses gestures with each notation. “There’s a common loon straight out in front of us—starting to get into the breeding plumage, actually.”
We are standing on a dock at Airlie Gardens for an early-morning bird walk. Peleuses makes a point of calling out each individual bird, partly for the benefit of the bird watchers but also because each bird sighted is logged into “e-Bird,” a database the National Audubon Society and Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab launched in 2002.
“We record every single individual bird we see and have 13 years of data on eBird.org,” Peleuses notes.
It all seems a little overwhelming, but, apparently, it is just another second Wednesday bird hike at Airlie Gardens. Though many of the attendees are with the Cape Fear Audubon Society, there appear to be just as many people who are either new to the area or visiting and wanted to learn more about local birds.
Peleuses is the co-owner of Wild Bird and Garden stores in Wilmington and Southport. Together, she and I make up the two ends of the spectrum at the event: She is indisputably an expert who is bursting with passion and excitement about birds and the opportunity to educate people about all things avian; I am clearly the novice.
It became more apparent when I got out of the car. “Did you bring binoculars?” David Weesner, former park ranger and holistic birding guide asked me.
“Uhm, no. Nancy didn’t tell me to.”
“It’s OK, they have some in the gift shop.”
He stared at my flip-flops and inquired if I brought better shoes. I admitted it was warmer in my living room than outside at Airlie Gardens and, consequently, I had not prepared well. I also didn’t bring a bird identification guide. Sibley’s seems to be the standard and they got passed around the group for most of the morning.
Nancy is Nancy Buckingham, a Cape Fear Audubon board member, and one of the most passionate birders I have ever met. She started birding in college, and if anything, her enthusiasm has only grown over the years. When she suggested a bird hike at Airlie to learn a little about the upcoming “Holistic Birding” program Audubon was offering, I naturally thought, Walking around Airlie and learn about holistic birding sounds pretty great!
“So what is holistic birding?” one friend asked. “Is that, like, do yoga and watch birds?”
“I think that is how Hilda spends a morning,” I responded.
Hilda is my canine love light who is the product of a couple hundred years of selective breeding to develop a hunting dog for water fowl. However, since dogs are not allowed at Airlie, I couldn’t bring her.
Actually, I hadn’t been out to Airlie in at least 20 years. The 67 acres of the current gardens were just bursting forth with spring color on that chilly morning: tulips, rainbow chard, bulbs, and some early azalea buds. It is so beautiful. If I were a bird, it would look like heaven. Then again, it already does even to human eyes.
Cape Fear Audubon Society is our local chapter of the National Audubon Society for New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick and Onslow counties. Watching the group of thoughtful birdwatchers made it hard to remember how Audubon traces its genesis to hats. Women’s hats used to be decorated with outrageous bird feathers. One of the early advocacy projects that led to the birth of the modern Audubon was started by Harriet Hemenway and her lady friends in Boston, urging women not to buy hats with plumage. (Fun local history: Hemenway was the daughter-in-law of Mary Tileston Hemenway, the philanthropist for whom Tileston School is still named. Mary enabled Amy Morris Bradley to open a school here during Reconstruction.) Their campaign eventually was successful, and proved Margret Mead’s assertion that a thoughtful group of concerned citizens can indeed change the world. Along the way, they laid the groundwork for the founding of what would become the National Audubon Society. By 1901 they got The Audubon Model Law enacted to protect water birds from plume hunting.
In 1900 an alternative to the Christmas tradition of hunting was proposed: the Christmas Bird Count. Almost 120 years later, it is the largest and longest-running bird survey in the world. Weesner commented, “80 to 90 thousand people participate every year.” When he was still working at Greenbrier State Park in Maryland, they would count 68 to 70 species of birds every year. “The Wilmington count and the Southport count get 165 to 170 in one day!” he explained. Moving here was a no-brainier for a bird enthusiast.
I got some binoculars from the gift shop before the group began assembling. Peleuses welcomed everyone, made a couple of announcements about upcoming birding-related events, and the group migrated a whole five feet to a tree in the parking lot. Cardinals, yellow rump warblers and yellow bellied sap suckers consumed everyone’s attention.
“We call yellow rump warblers ‘butter butts,’” Nancy whispered in my ear and flashed a naughty smile. Peleuses pointed out a horizontal line of holes in the tree above us. Apparently, yellow bellied sap suckers like to drill holes and let them fill with sap, and then come back for a nice buffet later. The birding at Airlie was so intense that morning, we made it from the parking lot to the dock to the first bridge. That’s it: 67 acres and we covered a brief stroll down a city block. The group was enthralled, pointed and called out names of birds, while consulting Sibley’s guide and comparing notes. Call it citizen science, call it community, call it experiential education, but none of those terms fully convey the experience. My mind boggled at all the possibilities.
It turns out holistic birding has nothing to do with yoga, dogs or CBD oil (another friend’s theory). Apparently, it is taking a larger set of inputs than just visual confirmation—like sounds, seasons, location and the information conveyed to the senses to help in identification. For example, if we can only see the silhouette of a bird on a tree branch—because the light is behind it—then we can’t make a visual identification using markings. Holistic birding would teach us how to make an identification in such circumstances. It is just one of the many programs our local Audubon chapter offers our community.
Their next meeting, which is open to the public, is Monday April 1, 7 p.m., Halyburton Park. Weesner will lead the session on holistic birding.
Audubon offers many opportunities to develop one’s birding skills and to become involved in avian advocacy. Peleuses’ Wild Bird and Garden can offer advice on how to build bird habitats. She lives to connect with other people who love ornithology.
“Hilda, if anything, it challenged me to focus my eyes differently and to try to notice things I take for granted around us,” I told my red-headed, blue-eyed angel dog. “The things you focus on all the time.”
For someone who spends a lot of time trying to help people see the historical marvels of our area, I can be woefully oblivious to the natural wonders that surround us.
“You would have loved it,” I told Hilda, “and it really made me appreciate how hard you work at this everyday.”