Ruth Bass: Birdwatching provides respite from day's news

A roseate spoonbill feeds in Florida.

RICHMOND — With talk and worry about the coronavirus looming over everything, it was grand one recent morning to wake up in South Carolina with a smile. A bluebird was tapping on my bedroom window. I'd been told about this oddity the previous day by my brother and was a little skeptical, despite his trustworthiness about all things bird. The bird's wake-up call proved to be only the first in a series of avian events that pulled our minds away from the pandemic.

Birds, especially in winter on the east coast of Florida and on Seabrook Island off Charleston, demand attention and at this time proved at least a temporary diversion from the news of the day. First, a pair of sandhill cranes came daily to the home of my former Richmond neighbor, Marge Atherton, in Florida. Walking with deliberate delicacy, the 48-inch cranes would approach the feeder in a tree only a few feet from the house; one would stand aside, while the other ate. It's been a daily wintertime treat there for more than 20 years.

But the piece de resistance in our Florida forays is Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge near Titusville. It's like Ding-Darling on Sanibel Island — you drive through, hesitating where you want to, and see a lot of birds, plus alligators and an occasional otter. The road is narrower than Sanibel's, so if you stop too long, less avid tourists behind you get restless. We had trouble leaving the roseate spoonbills, for instance, because they were near the road, putting their giant, spatula-like bills to work, spooning up something that was apparently delicious. No one honked, but we knew the queue was growing.

Our tradition was always door to door. Whatever you saw in the yard before leaving or before sunset counted. Whatever was on a wire or a bridge or a telephone pole en route counted. Early this month, ospreys stood guard from a series of roadside poles, and boat-tailed grackles cleaned picnic tables in a little rest stop. Then Merritt Island, which this year offered hundreds of ducks, always one of our puzzlements, and beautiful wading birds.

In his small book ("Birding Basics") of hints for birders, famous ornithologist David Sibley touts experience as a major ingredient for getting better at identifying birds. It was apparent at Merritt Island that we were much better than when we first visited the refuge and consulted bird books at every turn — and sometimes argued. Glossy ibis and reddish egrets had become as familiar as robins.

It's hard to explain to nonbirders why anyone gets excited watching a common moorhen float along or sighting a flock of enormous egrets flying when it's just a repetition of something you've seen before. But almost anyone would be stunned when a startled flock of American avocets takes off from the water. Prior to this year, we'd seen avocets only as singletons — so their flight this time brought shrieks of delight.

A few days later in South Carolina, the bird adventure certainly wasn't limited to a tapping bluebird. Outside my brother's house is a tree that's looked for years as if it could not last another week. But every year it's filled with bluebirds and sprouts new leaves. This year, it welcomed cardinals, Baltimore orioles, warblers, Carolina chickadees and red-winged blackbirds. And then we went to Bear Island and the Donnelly Wildlife Management Area and identified more than 60 different species of birds, including a brown-headed nuthatch, a red-headed woodpecker and a swamp sparrow, each new to me. With expert birders Eileen and Bob Mercer recognizing songs and finding birds as well hidden as items on a scavenger hunt, we had a glorious time on narrow dirt roads amid marshes, glassy ponds, tall grasses, towering pines, dead trees and soft streamers of Spanish moss.

Eagles, vultures and wood storks occasionally drew our attention to the blue sky, tiny kinglets and warblers played hard to see in trees just starting to soften. And on the water, so many beautiful avocets and the elegantly feathered black-necked stilts, a trove of stately egrets and herons and, of course, the occasional nose of an alligator just emerging from its inactive winter.

We weren't done. On another day, red knots that may have come from the tip of South America and endangered piping plovers that we hope to see on the Cape this summer were taking a rest on North Beach on Seabrook. This was big: probably 500 red knots in a cluster in the water and a dozen piping plovers bunched on the sand. Billions of birds have vanished in recent decades, victims of mankind's actions, which just elevates the wonder at refuges like Merritt Island and Bear Island — and our own Pleasant Valley Sanctuary — where birds sing and float and fly as if they had no worries. And for a few hours, they provided a distraction from the world's worries, a kind of active meditation.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.