What the best poets and writers know: good writing is rich in concrete images drawn with specific detail.
Writing with that level of detail means noticing even the tiniest, most subtle things. And that takes engaging your senses. As L.L. Barkat urges in Rumors of Water, “learn the difference between a tangerine and a tangelo. Consider the variation in their blooms, and the place where their nectar beads.”
Or, as bird listener Heidi Betts would say, “I have only seen the Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher a couple of times but I know its sound; it’s just like a rubber squeeze toy.” Listen in as Maureen Doallas interviews Heidi about the art of auditory observation and consider how you might listen for nuances that could improve your writing.
What inspired you to become a birder?
I’ve always liked birds. I picked up a field guide Birds of Hawaii while on vacation in Kauai years back and just starting marking off images of birds as I saw them. It was like finding Waldo.
When I got home, I wanted to keep looking for birds, so I purchased Kenn Kaufman’s Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and kept on watching.
What most excites you when you’re in the field?
What excites me most is to see a “new” bird — a bird I haven’t seen before — or to observe a bird in the wild, doing completely natural things, like hunting and catching rodents. What is natural to birds is exciting to watch.
What types of birds do you most enjoy observing, and why?
I like to observe owls. I get excited every time I see them. They are just unusual looking. I love the way they blink their eyes and turn their heads; it’s captivating.
I also enjoy watching and listening to hummingbirds as they fly overhead. They are truly amazing the way they fly and hover in one place. I know my hummers like to observe me, too, when I sit on the porch. They often dart over and hover before my face, taking time out to watch me; it always cracks me up. The sound of their wings as they fly by my head is distinct, like nothing else.
What characteristics do the best birders share?
I would say that birders tend to be detailed, observant, love nature, and have a good “spotting eye”.
What is a birder’s most important tool?
The most important tool would be a field guide for the area I’m bird watching in. The second is my camera. I use my camera to document birds I see and then confirm their identification against my field guide.
How does a birder train his or her ear to receive auditory information; what does he or she have to learn to listen for?
The bird sounds I can best identify are from the birds that I have spent some time observing. I think seeing and then hearing a bird help keep the bird in my memory. Some birds make several different sounds, which can make their identification tricky.
What technologies might a birder use to facilitate his or her listening skills?
Some birders record bird sounds and listen to them; some have a bird sound app, along with bird pictures, on their smart phones.
What does a bird’s vocalization tell us about the bird?
It could be several things. During spring, it might be the bird’s way to attract a mate, or defend territory or warn others, or it might be the bird is just happily singing.
Which birds’ vocalizations are easiest to learn? Why?
The easiest to learn are from unique sounding birds and the most common birds that you see and hear daily. For example, I have only seen the Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher a couple of times but I know its sound; it’s just like a rubber squeeze toy. I know the sound of goldfinches, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, hawks, falcons, etc., because they are near and around me all the time.
What distinguishes a bird’s call from a bird’s song?
A bird’s song is often heard from males during breeding season to attract females or to call out their territory.
A bird’s call is not so musical; it’s more direct, and used to communicate whereabouts of other birds or to warn of impending danger.
What types of birds make the most percussive or rhythmic sounds?
The first that come to mind are storks, which clatter their bills.
Some birds are vocal mimics. Have you ever been fooled by a bird’s vocalizations? How did you know?
The Mockingbird is the “king” at fooling people. Some mockingbirds can have as many as a hundred different calls and songs of their own. I did a Cornell study of Birds of Paradise during which I saw some that could mimic the sound of a camera shutter or a chainsaw; these were sounds the birds heard in their habitats, that could have come from photographers and workers cutting down trees.
I’ve been fooled several times, hearing a bird and thinking it is a warbler; I stop and follow the sound only to see a smart-looking mockingbird singing out from a treetop.
If you had to describe a favorite birdcall or bird song, what words would you use?
It’s a melody like that of a violin or flute, with light fluttering up and down the musical scale.
In what ways do your skills as a birder serve other aspects of your life?
In life, many things are not so obvious. As a birder, I have learned to be even more observant of my surroundings. I look for signs of birds in the environment, for droppings or outward signs that birds were there.
How might a class in birding benefit a poet? What might the poet learn by observing you?
I picked up the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding; it blew me away with its detail of feather patterns, bill shapes, head shapes, tail patterns, etc. I could only handle reading a few pages at a time before I got overwhelmed.
We often glance over birds when we see them and have no idea of the amazing details that each bird has to offer. If a poet were to go birding with me, he or she would no longer just see ducks in a pond; he or she would see the ducks, notice their color, shape, behaviors, sounds, and differences from other ducks.
If you were teaching a class of poets how to improve their hearing and listening skills, what would you advise?
Stop. . . listen. . . no really listen. There is a difference between hearing and listening. As with people: We hear them talking but have we listened to them? Do we know what they need, feel, or want? How many times do we ask how are you without listening for the answer?
We hear birds all the time in the city, in parking lots, our backyards, even when we are on a nature walk. But how often do we listen to the birds to hear what they are saying? Are they calling out their territory? Are they looking for a mate? Maybe they are just happy. We will never know unless we really listen.
Photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Maureen Doallas, author of Neruda’s Memoirs: Poems. Heidi Betts is an avid birder and operates Temecula Team Tennis. She lives in Temecula, California, where most mornings you can find her with binoculars in a hammock, watching birds feast at her back yard buffet.
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