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Birds of a Feather

By Nathan Coker
In Born on the Bayou
Jan 26th, 2014

BornOnTheBayou JAN14
article by Mary Napoli | illustration by Austin Bantel


My past 18-year-old self would certainly roll her eyes at me now, but I am constantly finding new and exciting reasons to love my hometown.  After fifteen years spent in other cities, I have realized there isn’t any place I would rather call home.  For me, moving back to Monroe has been a rebirth of sorts and has reignited my childlike sense of wonder.

I met my sweet friend Virginia when I returned to Monroe in 2010, and it wasn’t long before we were thick as thieves.  Only a few minutes into our first conversation, I knew I had met a kindred spirit.  We share the same sarcastic sense of humor, enjoy similar interests and have the same values.  Over the last three years, I have gotten to know her well.  Not only is Virginia as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, she is intelligent, thoughtful, dependable, tells it like it is and possesses a sardonic wit that I absolutely adore.  I can honestly say that there isn’t a woman on earth that can make me laugh quite like her.  She’s got beauty, brains and also one of the kindest hearts I have ever encountered.  These last three years, she has often been the first person I would call when I had really good or bad news or needed a sounding board. Much wiser, and only a wee bit older, she often serves as my tether back to reality when my head is in the clouds.  I simply could not do without her.  In fact, if I could choose my own sister, that girl would be at the top of my list.

Being the faithful friend that she is, Virginia reads my columns each month and always gets the backstory on my bayou excursions.  When she agreed to spend an afternoon educating me on local flora and fauna, I knew it would be memorable.  Most spontaneous adventures with her are.

Virginia grew up in–wouldn’t you know it–the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Norfolk, to be exact.  She developed an astute knowledge of birds from her mother, who had a passion for ornithology.  Virginia recalls that her mother knew every bird in the sky.  After she had passed away, Virginia learned that her mother had been taught by her own mother.  Its an interest that has endured throughout generations of women in her family.  Whether we are at Virginia’s camp on Lake D’Arbonne or riding the roads, she never fails to impress me with how easily she can spot a bird or how quickly she can identify it.  Together, we decided that my bird watching education would begin by paddling around a small tributary of the Ouachita River and looking skyward.

Leaves crunch underfoot as Virginia and I walk over the levee toward our mighty vessel–a johnboat that has seen better days.  As we approach the water, we notice a large raft of birds floating together.  They look like inky-black geese to me, but before I can ask, Virginia explains that they were cormorants, a common water bird in our area.  These large birds have small heads on large, kinked necks with thin, strongly hooked bills.  Cormorants are dark brownish-black, and float low to the surface of the water.  There were well over a hundred of the birds floating silently in the water as we approached.  After a few moments of watching them, the bird at the head of the raft began to flap is giant wings and the other birds followed.  As they took flight, their heavy wings beat against the water, and caused a loud distinct noise, similar to water rushing over a fall.  It was an unexpected, powerful sound.

I handed my friend a life vest.  Since I only had one adult size, I gave it to her.  This left me with the only other vest I had, which belonged to my oldest daughter–who is five.  Somehow, I managed to get my arms in, although it was nowhere close to buckling.  My buddy laughed at the sight of me, and I was sure that I looked just as ridiculous as I felt.  I laughed along with her and shrugged my shoulders.  This is the kind of thing that happens when two mothers of young children decide to take an impromptu paddle down the river.

Virginia took a seat in the johnboat, and I shoved us off the shore.  As we paddled away from the bank and attempted to go to the left, we quickly realized that the wind was unwilling to allow us to plot our own course.  Pretty soon, we were slowly rowing in circles.

“You know, in my head, I pictured us being a female version of Lewis and Clark, stealthily maneuvering the waterways and exploring the area,” I said.  “Not spinning around in circles.”

“The first thing we need to figure out is who is Lewis and who is Clark in this situation,” said Virginia jokingly.  “Let’s just float a bit and see where the breeze takes us.”

After drifting for a few moments, Virginia called my attention to a hollowed cypress snag near the shore line.  At the top was a large nest which was home to a majestic red-tailed hawk, who circled above.  This type of hawk is the most common of the species in North America, and gets its name from its cinnamon-red, short, wide tail.  Its broad, rounded wings allow it to soar in circles as it scouts the area for food.  From far away, it may look similar to an eagle to some people.

We were so impressed with the hawk that we barely noticed that we had gotten close to the bank, which was lined with cypress trees of various heights.  I noticed the cypress knees, which I have always found to be interesting, jutting through the dark water.  The knees are actually woody projections of the root system that provide support and stability in the saturated soil.  For years, they were once thought to provide oxygen to the roots.  I reached out to touch one of the smooth, fibrous knees when Virginia startled me with a gasp.

“Look at that fox!” she said in an excited whisper, pointing to the river bank.

Only ten feet ahead of us was an aged red fox, who had been sunning himself on a fallen, hollowed cypress tree.  Our presence roused him from his slumber.  He raised his head and stared at us, and we silently gazed back.  He did not seem alarmed to find us so close and slowly stood up on all fours and trotted away toward a wooded area, unimpressed with the humans who had interrupted his sunny nap.  He was a sight to behold, and we guessed that he was up in age judging by his slow reflexes and unsteady gait.

After guiding the boat to the opposite bank of the river and back, we decided to go back to shore and follow the fox’s lead.  With the boat secured, we took off for the more densely wooded area nearby.  There was enough distance between us and the city streets to permit the beautiful silence of nature.  We were surrounded by a variety of trees, nearly all of which my friend could identify by examining the shape of the leaves and texture of the bark.  We observed vibrant yellow beech trees, white oaks, Chinese tallow trees and pin oaks.  Lovely persimmon trees were easy to determine by the soft red-orange spheres they bore.  There were also several sycamore trees, with their grayish bark and lobed leaves that had grown dry and amber colored.

It had been a very long time since I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of nature.  Each bird sang such a unique song.  The small, brown house wren cheerfully trilled her energetic and bubbly call as she hopped from branches into the thicket.  The tiny, spherically-shaped Carolina chickadee, with her black cap and white cheeks called out her four-noted song.  Almost anyone would recognize these lovely melodies, and although they are common, they are beautiful nonetheless.

Piercing through the sweet chirping was a loud rattle that was impossible to ignore.  Virginia identified it as a belted kingfisher.  The stocky bird has a large head with a shaggy crest and a straight, thick, dagger-like bill ideal for capturing the aquatic prey it feeds upon.  The stunning creature is powder blue on top and white underneath with a square-tipped tail and broad band around its breast.  Its loud, rattling call can be heard near the wetlands it prefers.  Although my friend spotted it soon after we heard it, I wasn’t able to find it until the bird flew to a tree rooted in the water and quickly disappeared inside.

As the sun began to set, we decided to call it a day.  Strolling back through the woods, we noticed the brilliant foliage made even more dazzling by the golden sun, now low over the water.  In that moment, I felt blessed and lucky to share the habitat of the local fowl in all its colorful, autumn splendor.  This time of year, it is hard not to appreciate the fact that nature provides us such breathtaking sights.

Near the end of our path, we heard the familiar drumming sound that only a woodpecker could create.  High in the deciduous trees above, Virginia noticed two species of these birds, which she identified by their colorful feathers and individual calls.  She pointed to the downy woodpecker, an acrobatic forager with a blocky head and shoulders.  Its black and white markings give its wings the appearance of being checkered.  Males of the species sport a red patch a top their heads.  A shrill, whinnying call is released from their straight, chisel like beaks.  The red-headed woodpecker, with its vibrant, crimson head, white body and half black, half white wings, produces a scratchy, raspy call.  Unlike other woodpeckers, it is adept at catching insects in mid-air with its spike like bill.  It also feeds on acorns or beech nuts and often hides its food in trees to consume later.  Like many of the birds we had seen, it is attracted to the wetlands of our area.

Without a word, Virginia stopped short and grabbed my arm.  She motioned to our right, where our old friend the fox could be seen resting in the bottom of a hollowed out white oak.  His nest was picturesque and appeared to be created just for him.  Curled up with his fluffy tail wrapped around him, his eyes were closed.  We observed him for a few quiet moments and walked away as noiselessly as we could.

The visual glory of the countless unique species of birds that we share our region with is truly amazing.  Their individual beauty, specific habits and resplendent songs are intriguing and worth taking the time to notice.  It is easy to forget that they are as important to the earth as we are, regardless of who is more powerful.  Spending time with Virginia that day gave further proof to the notion that it is often the most simple things in life that are taken for granted– like the majesty of birds in flight, the vibrant hues that autumn leaves produce and the value of true friendship.  These are only some of the precious things that bring color and beauty to our world.  Like Virginia often does, they provide an earthly tether and remind me to recognize the simple beauty that surrounds us when we slow down enough to appreciate it.