Earlier this week our editors shared their “Spark Birds”, the birds that first got them interested in and excited about birding. This inspired me to share my own story, about the bird that first interested me in nature and changed the way I saw the world.
He was perched proudly on a tree limb, his wings akimbo, his impossibly long and delicate neck stretching into a seemingly awkward sideways curve, ending in a sharp beak. The morning light glinted and danced on his glossy black plumage, but he stood completely still, and we stared at him in awe.
I spoke first. “What’s wrong with that bird?” I had never seen a bird behave like that, and could only imagine that with wings in such an unusual position, he must be injured. My husband had no answer. We were new to the world of Florida’s water birds, and hadn’t yet learned that the anhinga dives for its meals, and then must dry its feathers in the sun before it’s able to fly.
We were visitors from Ohio back then, making our first trip through the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. We knew little of wild birds, other than the cardinals or blue jays that pecked at our feeders at home. We appreciated nature, but considered ourselves “city folk” at heart, preferring to live within five minutes of grocery stores and restaurants. We gave little thought to how we as human beings fit into the world as a whole. But with the first glimpse of that anhinga, our lives were changed forever.
That anhinga was the first of many we would see on that trip, along with dozens of other wading birds in the mangrove estuaries. We were enchanted by each new discovery; “Oh, look, there’s a pink one!” I cried when I spotted my first roseate spoonbill. My voice on the video we shot is filled with the excitement of exploration.
Our fascination continued when we returned home, and we sought out places like the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge near our hometown. We spotted great egrets along the Maumee River and flocks of double-crested cormorants along the shores of Lake Erie. And it wasn’t just water birds – wildlife of all kinds became the focus of our lives. We planned our travels to experience nature, from salmon-choked rivers in Alaska to Mayan ruins filled with the sounds of chattering monkeys overhead.
This new commitment to wildlife brought other changes to our lives. We sought out information on the ecosystem that supported these creatures, and became much more aware of our impact on the environment. As a result, we actively began to conserve water and energy. We switched to environmentally-friendly cleaning products, bought organic and locally-grown produce when possible, and made donations to organizations like The Nature Conservancy. Our love of nature changed the focus of our lives altogether, and imbued us with a sense of responsibility to the world around us.
A few years ago, tired of northern winters, we decided to pull up our Midwestern roots and head for sunnier climes. We considered locations around the country, but when we thought about what we really wanted, the answer was simple. Why not return to the place where our love of wildlife began: Florida? So we did. Our home in the Sunshine State sits on a lake where I watch egrets and herons of all kinds while I set the table for dinner. Monarchs and gulf fritillaries fill our butterfly garden in all seasons. Our tiny suburban yard is designed specifically to attract and protect wildlife, a goal I never would have imagined from my third-floor Midwest apartment all those years ago.
At least once a week, I look out on the bank across the way to see an anhinga perched in the sun, drying his wings. Each time, I’m transported back to that first sun-filled morning, when an anhinga with outstretched wings gave our lives focus and meaning, and I say with Frank Lloyd Wright, “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”