Birding by Ear in Anchorage

I am downstairs, sitting in the rocking chair next to the hearth where the wood stove used to be. It is early morning. I am thinking about the next three weeks of travel, and writing. To my left is a small table. Beyond the table, a sliding glass door leads to a tiny patio. The world outside is dark and quiet. I stop writing when I hear, from the direction of the door, a remarkably loud birdsong. The voice is unmistakable—an American robin. Then it sings again. On the second verse I realize how unusually raspy it sounds and begin to question my quick identification. Perhaps it isn’t a robin at all. Perhaps there is a resident Alaskan songbird whose call is similar to a robin but rougher, harsher. Some people describe the scarlet tanager’s song as “a robin with a sore throat,” but I don’t think I would confuse a tanager with a robin. I hear both birds often enough back home on the farm to have a good grasp of their distinctions, plus Alaska is a long way from scarlet tanager range.

Leaving journal and pen on the table, I walk to the door. It is still dark out on this Anchorage morning, but the lights in the condominium parking lot provide more than ample glow to see a bird, were one perched on the fence. I scan the patio, the fence, and parking lot beyond. There is no bird in sight, everything is quiet, and I don’t hear the bird again.

Returned to my seat, I keep thinking about that voice. I listen to the morning silence, hoping it will sing again, and wondering. Perhaps it wasn’t a robin… I retrieve my computer from the bedroom upstairs and search for fall Alaska songbirds. There is nothing to be found online that fits the description other than robin, but with no more songs I can’t be sure. I wonder why it stopped singing so soon after it began. Was the raspiness due to a sore throat? A sore throat would make me stop singing. Or did the resident cat rear its head, cutting short the morning hymns? 

I walk back to the door to have another look. Overhead, I hear the ticking of a clock and look up to mark the time. My host Jerry knows his birds, and if I describe the song and the approximate time I heard it, he will identify it. Directly above the door, the clock is a large, round, white analog model, bearing the familiar logo of the National Audubon Society. Representing each hour is a different common North American bird. One o’clock is the great horned owl, 2:00 — northern mockingbird, 3:00 — black-capped chickadee, 4:00 — northern cardinal… It is now a quarter past seven. Fifteen minutes ago… at seven o’clock… the clock struck… the American robin.

I am still chuckling at my morning encounter with the not-quite-right roborobin when Jerry comes down the steps. Soon, he is laughing with me. We have a cup of coffee, and discuss plans for the day. Jerry reads the paper while I finish my writing. Before long, the digitally reproduced, unusually loud, raspy voice of a song sparrow brings another chuckle and reminds us it is time for breakfast.

As we walk out to the car, I am pretty certain I hear a real live robin across the parking lot. Jerry does not hear it, but confirms that some robins do overwinter in Anchorage, though most migrate south, and that fall would be an odd time to hear them singing. I can tell he doesn’t believe I heard what I think I heard, but I am convinced. Everybody needs a friend, and I suspect there must be one robin in Anchorage who recognizes the lone, raspy voice in Jerry’s condominium. There must be one robin willing to sing out of season, offering friendship to an unseen, two-dimensional bird on a cool, dark Alaska morning. Or, maybe an unseen voice inside my head is hard at work helping me avoid being the only one — bird or birder — to be duped by a singing clock.

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