personal essay

Wigeon, Wigeon

The Snowy Owl and Rusty Blackbird eBird alerts in February slowed from daily to occasional to non-existant. On cue, another bird took their spotlight: a male Eurasian Wigeon, here in Ithaca’s Stewart Park, located at the base of Cayuga Lake.

Eurasian Wigeons belong to the “irregular visitor” rare category. Like North American ducks, Eurasian ducks migrate far south from their breeding habitat to overwinter in India, China, Japan, Northern Africa, and so on. Though rare here, they are common enough to earn their own pages on Cornell’s All About Birds and National Audubon’s online guide. Personally speaking, reading or hearing about a Eurasian at least once a winter in New York isn’t a surprise. They show up somewhere. According to National Audubon, “examination of any winter flock of [American] wigeon is likely to reveal a male Eurasian among them, because the two wigeon species invariably flock together.” I haven’t yet read about a female Eurasian Wigeon sighting.

Our wigeon, to start with, is the American Wigeon, which breeds in Canada, Alaska, and the northern parts of Central United States. Males can be easily distinguished from other ducks by their thick, shiny, green apple stripe leading back from the eye. Additional notable field marks include white crown, gray head and neck, and an overall light brown body.

The Eurasian Wigeon breeds in northern Europe and Asia. He has similar plumage pattern to the American, most noticeably the white crown. Therein, the similarity ceases. The Eurasian lacks a mask; a chestnut-red fully colors his head. Additionally, his body is gray overall and a thin white stripe runs along the side of his body.

Both wigeons are dabbling ducks, like open wetland habitats, and primarily eat aquatic plants. They graze on land as well as on water. They can be opportunistic, grabbing at food found by geese, coots, and diving ducks. It’s not yet certain if Eurasians breed in North America. However, hybrids of American and Eurasian occasionally but regularly occur in Washington state, and Mexico and Baja California.

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I’ve ticked Eurasian Wigeon four out of the five years as a birder. I saw my lifer during my second winter. He was floating in a Connecticut pond across the road from the Long Island Sound. I didn’t know it was a rare duck or that we sidetracked our trip to chase it.

I once had the luck of easily locating one by myself with binoculars. Last winter, at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, I picked it out of only about a hundred waterfowl. May’s Point is rather small compared to most of the refuge’s hotspots. The ducks were confined and relatively close to the viewing dock. The Eurasian’s head is key with which to start. Mind that he has dark eyes. Redheads have yellow eyes. Canvasbacks have red eyes.

Finding a Eurasian can also be like finding a Cackling Goose among thousands of Canada Geese – truly finding a needle in a haystack. Last autumn, I visited the Montezuma wildlife drive with friends. (The drive squares around a huge open marsh. Thousands upon thousands of waterfowl can fit in there. You can only scratch the surface from the road alone, even with a scope.) We’d heard about reports before going in. We spent a good while steadily shifting our scopes to peruse hundreds of waterfowl, which included up to 500 American Wigeon. Alas, we couldn’t locate the Eurasian even though we went on the wildlife drive at least four times during the weekend.

A well-known birder spotted the Eurasian at Stewart Park on the morning of February 22. The park is about ten minutes from my house. Because of my Snowy Owl failures, I wasn’t feeling terribly confident about chasing birds. (My Rusty Blackbird moment happened on accident.) I received several eBird emails throughout the day. After a long leisurely walk that afternoon, I checked my email to see a very recent alert. I grabbed my keys and bins. When I arrived, a couple birders with scopes were there. Sure enough, the wigeon was still present, but they were trying to re-locate a Cackling Goose.

I scanned the line of Canada Goose, Mallards, and American Wigeons crowded the edge of the ice shelf. Barely a minute passed when I saw the Eurasian. He was chasing an American, neck extended, bill snapping. He then waddled to the water and preened.

One of the birders lent me his scope. The Eurasian’s red head and cream stripe stood out boldly even against the gray water and the gray ice. I took advantage of his stillness to compare his plumage with that of his North American counterpart.

Thick snow had fallen for much of the day but stopped during my walk. As I watched the wigeon, the dense clouds to the west parted to let golden sun touch and enliven his red. A fog formed to obscure the western side of the basin and the hill beyond. Our side remained clear. So did our sight of the wigeon.

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On Chasing

A bird gets lost or confused. A bird finds a place somewhere far out of range. A bird likes this spot for the food and company. A bird stays for however long it feels like. A bird goes home. Or dies there.

You hear about a bird. Do you chase it?

Do you immediately drop everything, put your life on hold however active? Or do you make a plan? Do you fly? Or do you only drive? Do you travel alone? Or do you prefer travel with other birders? Do you only go to public places? Or do you not blink twice at visiting a private property?

If you live in the Northeast as I, do you recall the Yellow-headed Blackbird of Stamford, Connecticut in 2014? It’s native to central and western North America, extending as far east as Michigan. The Painted Bunting of Brooklyn in 2015? It’s native to southeast United States and Central America. The Corn Crake of Long Island in the autumn of 2017? It’s native to Eurasia. Did you see them?

For those not in the know, “chasing” a rare bird or a new ABA (American Bird Association) area bird is a gamble to acquire a life bird – so especially sought by experienced birders – or to witness a historical ornithological event. The appearance of the bird can be attributed to going beyond its range during migration, a huge storm, or simply a wintering visit. A rare bird is a wonderful or shocking surprise. But an ephemeral time phase. A birder might not see it because they have no way of knowing when the bird wants to try going home. The length of stay can last an afternoon, a week, or even an entire season. Such variation is what makes chasing a gamble. A birder has to guess if traveling is worth the time and money or not. Or they just leap at it.

Birders who like chasing have an “itch.” The degree of the itch varies from person to person, usually influenced by financial privilege and/or by how far one is willing to go (literally and figuratively speaking) depending how much one’s got going in one’s life.

All this to say, chasing is stressful. In either a positive or a negative way. Thrill or anxiety – pick, quick.

Or some birders don’t have an itch. They experience nothing.

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I don’t like gambling.

Before moving upstate, I have chased only twice. The first was a Cackling Goose close to home last winter. I had to take care of something in the area. First chase, first success.

The second time, this early winter, I went for the American White Pelican at Playland Lake in Rye. I delayed a few days before driving down. No pelican in sight on any of the small islands. I lingered for at least forty minutes, walking along the lake, before I gave up and went home. The pelican was sighted ten minutes after I left. I didn’t have another chance to chase it because it flew off for good later that afternoon.

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Birders are regularly observing Snowy Owls at the Finger Lakes Regional Airport. Snowies irrupt as far down as Long Island from the Arctic (where they breed) when the small mammal populations are down.

Within the first week I moved, I visited Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, my favorite birding place. The wetlands complex was totally frozen over – I would not be “ducking” that day. Dismayed, I drove up to the visitor’s center. I learned about the Snowies at the airport while chatting with the guide.

I made my way immediately. Unfamiliar with the area, I didn’t know where to look, so I kept to the entrance of the terminal driveway. I left without a lifer.

I realized days later that I hadn’t signed up for the eBird alerts for counties in the area. Hourly, not daily. Done.

Half a month later, my friend and Saw Mill River Audubon board president Val Lyle was staying in Ithaca for a few days. I’d invited to take her around the lake to find ducks. eBird reports regarding the Snowies suddenly boosted in activity the day before our trip. We went for the owls first.

Bearing the eBird comments in mind, we went to the locations where the Snowies were sighted. Our car crawled on the roads, searching farm fields and all kinds of poles and farm equipment. We lingered at the empty hotspots.

The only bird we saw was a male American Kestrel hunting along the powerlines.

Since then, I received consistent daily eBird alerts – at least one per day, the Snowies sighted around the same locations, and a few more. The owl territory expanded. In case you are wondering why I don’t chase after them more often: The drive to the airport alone lasts 50 minutes; I easily burn a quarter of a tank of gas there and back and wandering. Not only does a drive cost a lot of time and gas, the amount of sitting is despite the constant motion feels hollow.

I only tried again this past Tuesday morning, on the 13th. Eleven alerts in one day for five different locations raised my confidence. I burned the lists’ comments in my mind, hoping to rely on the Snowies’ pattered behavior.

For two hours, I floated between the town of Varick and the airport. I went to every location at least twice. Only I to keep an eye left and right on every field, every pole, every potential perch while trying to drive straight at 30 MPH felt slightly hellish. Find the white blog, find the white blob. It could be perched on a high point, among dozens of lamp posts, telephone poles or sock poles. Or it could be sitting anywhere on the expansive ground, white-ish bird against stark white snow.

It was only when I returned home I noticed that these eBird alerts were two days behind, the checklists actually from the Sunday the 11th. Then, I received the first county alert for the 13th: someone saw a Snowy at the most frequented hotspot ten minutes after I decided to go home.

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Rusty Blackbirds are one of the fastest declining birds in North America. I can only count my sightings on one hand. It was somewhat fortunate that I saw them twice last December. The previous time, in autumn of 2015.

I stated in my last post that a male Rusty has been hanging around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology feeders. As of now, it’s been almost a month.

Unfulfilled from that horribly unproductive excursion for the Snowies, I half-halfheartedly chased the Rusty that afternoon. I wanted a little exercise from all that sitting while driving. A meditative walk through Sapsucker Woods should help. As I walked up to the Lab entrance, I balked at the idea of “the third time’s the charm.” If it weren’t the case for the Snowy, why should it be for the Rusty?

The air smelled of late winter, of lengthening sunshine. My leisurely pace crunched the fluffy snow. My breath remained invisible. Muted Route 13 traffic never lessened. A subtle breeze rattled sapling beech tree leaves. Four males Red-bellied Woodpeckers trilled, vying for territory. One trill was high-pitched – a first-year male giving his all.

A swampy aroma arose from the thawing stream behind the pond. A chickadee dee-dee-dee‘d. A female cardinal chipped. An almost familiar song erupted. I couldn’t decide if I were listening to a male cardinal or a mockingbird – I heard only cardinal, but with rapid-fire force and gurgle quality.

I crossed the bridge. A call uttered from within the shrubs before me. A mimid – a mockingbird it is, or a thrasher! I pished. The female cardinal popped up, crest fired-up. Determined to attract the mimid, I pished more.

The bird leapt to a high branch with gusto. I looked through my bins. He had yellow eyes. His music was a musically mechanical burble. The early afternoon sun shined almost blindingly behind him. I couldn’t see his plumage. But he had yellow eyes.

His gaze never left my figure. After a moment, he switched from singing to calling. He then took off and flew to perch high on a tree farther back in the woods. I lost sight of him.

Small Things

The male mallard’s curls.

The woodcock’s call.

The kestrel’s kiting.

The Cape May warbler’s cheek.

The catbird curiously tilting its head.

The American wigeon’s muted squeaks.

The coughing of the suet-bound red-bellied woodpecker.

The hasty departure of a thousand red-winged blackbirds.

The per-chick-o-ree chorus of an American goldfinch flock.

The white-throated sparrow kicking back snow.

The accipiter’s feeder crash.

The barred owl’s stare.

The belted kingfisher’s distant rattle.

The young red-tailed hawk’s relentless pleas for food.

The male hooded merganser lowering his crest.

The aggressive caution in a chickadee’s eyes.

The spectacles of a blue-headed vireo.

The cormorant’s dragon pose.

The grackle’s walk.

The sleeping screech.

The blue of a blue jay.

The black of a black tern.

The whimbrel’s eyebrow.

The hunched great blue heron.

The black skimmer chick’s begging wings.

The chimney swift’s twittery wing beats.

The rotund silhouette of a cold junco.

The red berry poised in a waxwing’s mouth.

The rusty blackbird flipping wet leaves with its bill.

The barn swallow peering down from her nest.

The collective nap of purple sandpipers.

The winter wren’s camouflaged skulk.

The splatter from a tern’s dive.

The shoveler’s foraging circle.

The raven pair’s love chatter.

The Canada goose’s hiss.

Hateful Things About Birdwatching (Continued)

You forget your binoculars.

You never seem to go hawkwatching at the right time.

You sprain your foot just when spring migration fully kicks in.

The bird turns out to be a decoy.

Bothersome insects. Especially: Gnats haunt your face and ears in spite of bug spray.

Walking on a path, you do not notice a bird foraging near the path until you reach within a foot of it, and so it silently flies into the vegetation to hide away from you forever.

Every American Redstart sounds like nothing.

You excitedly observe a lifer raptor. It takes off to stoop a prey, a hateful invasive songbird, but when it returns to its perch, you realize it has in its talons one of your favorite native songbird.

A worthlessly argumentative someone who clearly knows less about birding than you attempts to assert that their ID is correct in spite of your overwhelming evidence that your ID is, in truth, correct.

You are the only birder at your work.

A birder who does not take into consideration the birds’ welfare. Example: A birder who overtaxes playback.

A birder overtaxes playback so you explain why such action is detrimental, yet the birder contentiously defends themselves.

You repeatedly miss warbler fallouts.

You repeatedly miss general migration fallouts.

Crumbs from your snack or drops from your drink fall into the crevices of your binoculars.

After certain novices recognize you for your expertise and obtain your email, they persistently send you absurd ID requests with photos or videos of questionable quality.

An obvious non-birder approaches: “See anything good?”

Alexandra: A novice birder comes up to you and asks what you’re looking at. You take your eyes off the bird to offer directions, and you lose the bird in the meantime.

Mothing: An Interlude

Ever since I started working for State Parks,  I haven’t had as much opportunity to go birding. My “weekend” is on weekdays. I’m missing every one of my Audubon chapter’s Saturday-Sunday trips and I feel deprived of my yearly shorebirds. (I still need to acquire that GPS.) When breeding season was still active in June and July, I turned to birding by ear and was temporarily appeased. But songbird action truly seems to shrink to non-existence in August.

As a way to fill in this sorry hole, I’ve turned my attention to moths. They’re all over Fahnestock SP. I see different species every time I go to campground bathrooms. I felt an itch to know their names – just like my previous itch to know the name of the little dark gray sparrows I first saw foraging in my backyard garden.

These critters are entirely new to me and so very much more difficult to get into: There are 11,000 species in Eastern North America alone. Think of Empidomax flycatchers, then times that by a couple thousand. So many subtle moths exist in the first place, then they and even the more distinctive species become worn as the season progresses. Even with photos, I want to tear my hair out because:

  1. I can’t decide between four different species; or
  2. I think I have the ID – but my moth looks so different from the one in the field guide even though it looks so similar, yet it looks not quite the same as other species on that page.

If you want to explore the depths of your self-doubt capabilities, turn to moths.

  • “How many worn Porcelain Grays have I been seeing? Are they really all Porcelain Grays? What about worn Small Engraileds??”
  • “So sure I’ve got a Yellow-slant Line, but those median lines aren’t quite as thick…”
  • “This looks so much like a very worn Sub-gothic Dart/Dingy Cutworm/Bristly Cutworm. But the posture/wingspread in the photo is different the moth’s in the guide…”
  • “I feel like I’m seeing two different moths when they’re in different lighting.”
  • “Why can’t I find this moth? What’s in my photo then?? Does it really even exist?!”

Mothing isn’t as a common a hobby birding. Thankfully, a birding friend directed me to a Facebook group wherein experienced mothers are glad to come to one’s aid.

Like with birds, however, there are also highly distinctive and colorful moths. I can believe it. It’s just like subtle butterflies. Among my flashy lifers are Blinded Sphinx Moth (the moth pushed me into getting my Peterson’s), Showy Emerald, False Crocus Geometer, Painted Lichen Moth, and Ailanthus Webworm. I have quite a few target lifers: Giant Leopard, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Polyphemus, Rosy Maple, Graceful Ghost (for that name alone), and Early Buttom Slug Moth (again, for the name).

Unlike with birds, I can actually use my tactile sense to interact with them. This way, their existence seems more concrete. Certain species don’t mind perching on your finger. Although they may be somewhat reluctant to get on, they seem even more reluctant to get off. Some moths like the Nais Tiger are so fuzzy I feel tempted to pet them (I did pet the Nais Tiger but I barely felt the mane on my fingertip).

A huge difference between birders and mothers is that the latter IDs their subjects by Latin name rather than by common. The authors of my Peterson’s undertook the task to supply common name-less moths with common names – more of a feat, a bizarre feat, for certain moths, especially a group called the Daggers have such curious appellations (Interrupted, Funerary, and Retarded Daggers, anyone?). I’m trying not concern myself with Latin names yet. I feel that it doubles the difficulty of mothing. Even moths within the same so-called group have different genus names, such as Emeralds and Slug moths.

My life list is currently shy of 30, my last certain lifer a Pale Beauty in my own backyard. Summer is the height of moth season, but some species are active throughout autumn. By the end of that season, I do hope to return to my home-base, the birds. But come next spring, I’ll be at it with the moths again for sure!

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A friend (Forest Tent Caterpillar Moth).

Times of Trouble

On Sunday a couple weekends ago, I was trail stewarding at the Bull Hill Loop trail head, in Putnam County. I had to manage the table by myself early in the afternoon. I usually listen and look out for birds when I trail steward all day long in order to help the time pass, especially during visitor lulls. The number of species to add on my list dwindled to zero. I heard the same birds sing over and over – Red-eyed Vireo, American Redstart, Brown Cowbird, etc.

Not far into the woods, a few American Crows started cawing raucously. Sometimes they caw when simply talking with one another, but their tone hinted that they were mobbing something instead. I looked up in their direction. I couldn’t see them. The cawing continued. A small moment passed. Then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared into view overhead, followed by more than a half dozen crows.

To watch a mobbing is of the most exciting events in birdwatching. It happens all year round whenever passerines (perching birds a part of the Passeriformes order, which includes songbirds, woodpeckers, corvids, etc.) gang up and attempt to kick raptors out of the area. They boisterously call and even dive at the raptor. During breeding season, eggs, nestlings, and fledglings are easy pickings for carnivorous birds. It’s fun to watch a robin chase a jay; an oriole or a kingbird closely glide above a hawk or crow; and flocks of crows, jays, and grackles harass a hawk or owl. Sometimes even vultures – carrion eaters, of all things – get mobbed. I feel bad for them.

I’ve seen so many Red-tails during my 3.75-something years as a birder. They are the most commonly observed raptor in the lower Hudson. But I picked up my bins because why not? It’s always nice to view a raptor so up close.

A couple of the crows started to sound strangled with desperation. The group frantically chased after the Red-tail, which continued to glide, delicately evading every one of its pursuers. When I put my bins on the hawk, I could see that it tightly held a young crow in its talons.

I didn’t have more than two seconds. Mobbing scenes happen rapidly. Though the young crow looked like an adolescent, a couple weeks passed its fledgling stage. Small, with fully grown plumage. And it looked alive. Calm. Knowing struggling to be futile. Waiting for its family to rescue it.

The Red-tail and the crows headed towards the river, out of sight. I could still hear the frantic cawing. Seconds later, the Red-tail appeared overhead again. Four crows trailing behind, it swiftly glided to the north. I didn’t have time to even grab my bins, but its talons appeared empty – no black blob against a light undercarriage.

The desperation stopped right after the Red-tail disappeared. The cawing lingered, sparsely piercing the air. Some of the crows stayed close to the river. Others flew away, towards the woods. One crow, clearly a sentinel, perched high in a tree a hundred feet away from the trail head, across the the road. The sentinel craned its head to and fro. A long moment passed. Two crows flew over to the sentinel. They chatted a little. And then the three headed into the woods.

The crows remained quiet for much of the afternoon.

To the Rescue…Actually, Don’t

My last post describes a somewhat appropriate situation in which one can actively attempt to help an injured bird. A couple days ago, I ran into a not-so-appropriate situation.

I work as a trail steward for the Hudson Highlands and Fahnestock State Parks, located Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties. On weekends, I float between two popular trail heads, where I help hikers choose which trails to take if they are unfamiliar with the area. I had just switched when my fellow stewards told me that someone had found a hurt bird around a mile up a trail. They kept it safe until I returned, knowing I was a birder. One of them held it in his cupped hands: a Tufted Titmouse fledgling, fully feathered.

I sighed. Considering that many people assume fledglings are lost and/or helpless, I immediately thought that this misguided hiker made the common decision to remove a perfectly healthy fledgling. I then noticed the titmouse’s right leg. So badly injured at the joint, it was barely held together by a few wiry ligaments.

Two out of three of my coworkers had to switch out upon my arrival. I took the fledgling in my own hands. It rowdily buzzed and ruffled its wings. It managed to hop out. It propelled itself toward the bushes with wings alone. I recaptured it with little effort.

You might be thinking, Just put it back anyway. It’s nature. I haven’t yet had much experience to observe nature’s not-so-nice aspects, though I am immune to dead birds, especially dead fledglings (no pity for the dead). I’m still quite sensitive and sympathetic to wildlife, especially if the wildlife is a little soft ball of feathers with a torn leg and willful beady eyes. I reasoned that since the fledgling had already been down here for hours, I may as well ring up a local animal rehabilitation center. Still, in the back of my mind, I wondered if the center would really care for it. An fatally injured bird, yes, but a widespread songbird, and a young one. Do these places really help to raise young birds such as titmice?

I called the local police for a number. This number wasn’t any help at all. Not only did the person on the other end said she couldn’t do anything, but she tried finding me numbers for other places in Putnam, Dutchess, and Westchester. She managed only one in Westchester, rather far from me. When I dialed that number, an answering machine prattled. I heard the word “acupuncture.” I called again to double check I heard correctly. During those five minutes, the titmouse struggled in my balled hand, buzzing with irritation. I wished I had a small box.

My coworker who had stayed behind with me gave me her tall ceramic coffee cup. I dropped the fledgling inside. It immediately stopped fussing. It looked a little cramped, but had enough room to preen. I delayed the inevitable action by contacting several friends in my Saw Mill River Audubon circle for advice. I learned that late Saturday afternoon is a terrible time to reach anybody. I did get through to my final contact. But at this point, I knew what I had to do. I just wanted an understanding ear and found one. She heard the fledgling’s incessant buzzing for attention and food throughout the call.

“Good luck,” she said. “Let me know what happens.”

“I don’t think I can,” I said. “Since it’s almost summer there’s a lot of snake activity. Some hikers have been telling us they spotted a good number of snakes along the trail.”

After I hung up, I informed my supervisor that I had to put the fledgling back. I expressed it would have been more helpful if the hiker were more specific about where she found it. A mile up the trail was frustratingly vague. Agreeing, he recommended a particular location, and off I went.

The fledgling buzzed intermittently as I hiked. The buzzing reminded me of the call notes that titmice make when they’re communicating while trying to find food, except it was rougher sounding. Hikers passing us minded their own business even as the fledgling made noise. Perhaps no one thought my coffee cup would contain a bird, not coffee.

When I reached the spot – a flat open area laden with honey locusts and grasses – I placed the coffee cup on the ground. The fledgling wouldn’t venture out. Once I tiled to the cup, it slid onto the ground.

The young bird stayed where it was. I didn’t want any more hikers discovering and bringing it back down, so I nudged it towards the grass off the trail. It protested again by buzzing and flapping, but it did move to the edge of the grass.

I couldn’t bring myself leave right away. I felt I had to watch over it for a couple minutes. I heard two hikers come up. It turned out I had to direct them to where the trail continued. They didn’t notice the fledgling.

The little titmouse stayed put, cocking its head to and fro, occasionally buzzing. Its entire body pulsed as it breathed. From all that calling, I hoped that its parents might hear it soon. I looked at the grass and thought about the snakes lurking around. The fledgling’s leg might have been damaged beyond hope, but its wings were still quite functional and strong. I thought of the fledgling successfully escaping snakes, even for a bit. Maybe in time for the parents to find it.

Another hiker, who seemed to have been roaming around the locust grove, was walking towards me, back to the trail. We greeted each other. The fledgling buzzed. He gazed down at it with curiosity. I explained to the hiker what was happening and took the opportunity to make a PSA about leaving fledglings alone, even when they’re hurt. He listened understandingly. The fledgling hopped onto my left shoe, and then onto my right, and then onto one of hiker’s shoes.

“Oh no, please don’t do that…” I said to it. I turned to the hiker. “This is making it harder for me to leave it be,” I said with a strained chuckle.

After he left, I felt my time pressing. I nudged the fledgling towards the grass. Instead of hopping away, it perched on my fingers. It wouldn’t get off when I shook my hand. “Really?” I asked. “You’re do this now?” I shook my hand again. It jumped off. When I got it close to the grass again, I took my final looks at it and hiked down the trail.