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A night for the birds

But the guests of honor decided not to come

IF YOU LOOK REAL CLOSE you’ll see a dozen or so specs on this photo. They’re Chimney Swifts, and they seemed uninterested in coming en masse to impress the crowd.

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September 25, 2012 | 01:34 PM
I envisioned a scene from "The Birds."

As I walked to the Geneva Lake Museum for the Chimney Swift event last Thursday night, I half expected a few winged creatures perched ominously on telephone wires like they did in Alfred Hitchcock's movie.

Not so.

Then hoards storming the chimney in such numbers that they'd form a funnel-shaped swarm.

Not that either.

Nary a Chimney Swift in sight. Nor a hawk or even a robin. I didn't even see a crow, which are said to be in even the most inhospitable climates...

By the time I reached the museum there were plenty of people.. Sixty or so crowded into a meeting room barely large enough to hold them. Included were the mayor, the city administrator, the director of public works and a least one city councilmen. Almost a quorum. With more citizens than you get at a city budget meeting.

My girlfriend seemed a bit flighty about it. First, she said she'd go but a few days later asked for clarification. "What is it about again?"

"We get to watch birds fly into a chimney," I replied. "Want to find a new boyfriend?"

An hour before the event, I received an e-mail.

"I have a headache," an old excuse for a new purpose.

The man giving the lecture looked like a bird expert — white hair, glasses, a goatee. And he obviously knew his stuff.

Eighty-five percent of the birds die in their first year, he said. If they live to be 5, they're grizzled veterans, Clint Eastwoods of the sky

Like many birds, the Swifts tend to return to the same places every year.

And there are fewer and fewer Chimney Swifts these days because we're finding ways to stop them from entering our chimneys. Bird lovers are actually building artificial chimneys where their winged friends can lay over between real chimneys.

Nonetheless, there had been sightings this year that more closely resembled Hitchcokian levels — 2,000 in Madison where kids were employed to count them because no one person could count that many alone.

So, I was expecting to see quite a show that night. I was disappointed when we were told that the fickle birds had recently abandoned the museum chimney for more attractive chimneys over at St. Francis Church. I had walked from work and would have to walk back to get my car. Some assignments are harder than others.

Then it was announced that after the lecture, there was cake in an adjoining room.

Only duty lead me a way up Catholic Hill, to St. Francis where I expected to see chimneys filled with clustering birds.

When I got there, only a few were fluttering about. Obviously, this bird watching gig takes patience.

People more prepared than I took out lawn chairs, munched on sandwiches, and craned their necks toward heavens, which seemed appropriate considering where we were.

Apparently, a meeting was being held at the church because within minutes parishaners had joined the bird watchers staring up at the roof. Finally, one of of them asked: "What are you looking at?"

I walked up to one couple and snidely remarked: "The birds must not have gotten the memo." No one laughed. Apparently bird watchers take their hobby seriously.

So I put down my camera bag, tried out two different kinds of lenses, and then wondered over to the east side of the chimney, thinking I might be able to capture the rush of birds against the setting sun.

After 20 minutes or so, I got bored and returned to my car. I started the engine and turned on the Brewers game. They were riding a hot streak and threatening to return to the playoffs — an unlikely dream just a few weeks ago. It was the bottom of the ninth. Our on-again, off-again reliever was on the mound facing the batter who had hit a home run off of him in the exact same situation the night before.

I kept one eye peered over my shoulder just in case. My opportunity might come and go in a blink of an eye. When I saw few more birds circling the chimney, I abandoned by car, leaving the Brewers to fend for themselves.

But again — nothing. The birds I had seen flew away and none came to replace them. Perhaps, they had gotten a different kind of memo warning them that humans were perched to observe their every move, and that they should find another chimney to occupy. A practical joke for birds.

After another 10 minutes or so, I heard a car engine rev up. Then another. The glare of headlights crisscrossed the parking lot. They were calling it a night, so I did, too.

I headed back to the car, disappointed I hadn't gotten my picture. At first I was worried that others had been disappointed, too. But apparently the watching is half the game. No one seemed distressed. There was no booing, no signs of regret, just an orderly retreat and a drive home. I guess I shouldn't expect this crowd to be the rowdy type.

I turned on the radio as I exited the parking lot. Our reliever was facing the last batter. I drove away from St. Francis as the last out was made. The Brewers had won, and we were one game closer to the playoffs.

I was half way home, relishing the win, when I suddenly remembered my camera bag. Sitting in a parking lot. Behind a car. I envisioned my lens had turned into road kill.

I headed back, pushing past the speed limit, hoping I wouldn't have to explain myself. "Officer, I left my camera bag at a church where I'd gone to shoot pictures of birds who never appeared ..."

I slowed down when I realized that my excuse would not be excuse enough.

As I re-entered the church parking lot, I squinted against the dim twilight. There it was. The camera bag. On the ground where someone had moved it. Safe and sound.

The night was complete, birds or no birds.

The Brewers won.

I wouldn't have to explain why I'd allowed my camera bag to be run over by a car.

The Chimney Swifts had stayed home, but no one seemed worse for the experience.

And, as it turned out, I still had a story to tell.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News


Tags: Staff Editorial

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