Bird By Bird, or, One Bird at a Time

For the birdsBy Brian Kluepfel  

Author Anne Lamott wrote a book several years ago called “Bird by Bird,” which was about both the writing process and life itself.

It began with the story of her panic-stricken younger brother freaking out over a pending book report on birds. Lamott encouraged him to do it “bird by bird.” In other words, you can only complete one piece of a puzzle at a time.  

I am often reminded, too, of the 1976 Johnny Cash novelty hit “One Piece at a Time,” wherein the singer goes to work in a Cadillac factory. Year by year, he steals in dribs and drabs all the components of a Cadillac. When he tries to put them together in the last verse, the result is predictably comic.  

These stories and songs relate to many of my birding experiences with friends, where one memorable sighting often became the focus of the day.  

I recall a trek through the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in northern California with my friend Ed, “stalking,” as he put it, a great blue heron. Similarly, one afternoon at Cesar Chavez Park, a reclaimed dump across from the Golden Gate, we watched in awe as a cormorant struggled mightily for several minutes to swallow a fish. (It finally succeeded.) At the same park, I discovered, and later took friends to see, burrowing owls, which lived among the rip-rap and abandoned gopher holes of the reclaimed parkland.  

On the eastern seaboard, I have sat with my wife at the Mariandale Center on the Hudson, nothing going on, when seemingly out of nowhere an osprey appears with a struggling fish in its talons. At the same site, on another day when nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening, we spied a great horned owl high in a pine tree.  

Just this week, on a very hot day at the Kensico Dam, a clever white-breasted nuthatch appeared in front of us, navigating the trees in reverse as only this species does, making its unique “beep” as it patrolled for insects.  

Early this spring, we visited the Weir Farm National Historic Park in Ridgefield, Conn. (well worth a visit, just for the trails). After investigating a familiar and repetitive drumming, we finally spotted the culprit, an outstanding pileated woodpecker, king of the woods, and an absolute favorite in this house.  

One day, walking the North County Trail near Briarcliff Manor, my sister and I spied an oriole flying in and out of the shrubbery. It was the only bird I recall seeing that day, but how could you forget an oriole?  

As a teen, my father spent an entire family outing on Sanibel Island, Fla. pointing out the anhinga, perched and sunning its wings in a now-familiar fashion. (Familiar because we saw it about 100 times on that trip.)

Further afield, friends and guides have taken me on special excursions to see Andean cock-of-the-rock in Ecuador, something I won’t forget, despite the hangover, an incredible jabiru stork in the marshy llanos of Venezuela and a bee hummingbird in a backyard somewhere in the Cuban countryside.  

I don’t keep a life list of birds, but I do hold special memories of certain species seen with good friends or amazing guides. It is the company of good people, along with the wonder of nature, that produce these magical moments.  

When you’re out and about, and not seeing any birds, focus on the next one you see. It might be the only one of the day, so make your own magical moment around it.

Remember, we can only go bird by bird, or as the man sang, one bird at a time.  

Brian Kluepfel writes for the Lonely Planet travel guide series and is a proud member of Saw Mill River Audubon (SMRA). He encourages you to get involved in local birding with SMRA, and when you travel, to support community and eco-tourism whenever you can. Find him at


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