SCOTT SHALAWAY When fishing's really for the birds
April is a glorious month, especially for anglers and birders. Trout season opens, and the spring migration gets into full swing. Imagine the frustration, though, that awaits a trout fisherman who also happens to be an avid birder.
Opening day has been anticipated for months. It finally arrives, and the angler greets the morning at a secret spot he discovered years earlier and where he has landed more than few pan-sized trout. It's a spot that holds native trout, not the hatchery-spawned, truck-stocked variety.
A visitor: His first cast draws a strike, and he quickly lands a keeper. Visions of a full creel fill his head. But at that very moment a belted kingfisher flies by, announcing its presence with its distinctive rattle-like call. It lands on a bare branch about 20 feet above the stream. Inexperienced fishermen might fear the competition.
The fisherman watches the kingfisher as the blue-gray bird watches the water below. He casts blindly and hopes for a strike. The kingfisher scans the water searching for prey. Suddenly the bird jumps from its perch, flies purposely upstream, then pulls up and hovers above the water. After a few seconds, it folds its wings and drops to the water and disappears beneath the surface. Moments later it emerges and flies back to its exposed perch, where it holds a three-inch minnow in its bill.
With the minnow writhing mightily to escape, the kingfisher whacks the small fish on the branch several times to knock it senseless, then swallows it headfirst. Then the kingfisher takes off downstream in search of another meal or perhaps its mate.
Fee-bee! As the angler returns his focus to his rod and reel, a buzzy sound catches his ear in mid-cast. An eastern phoebe perches on the branch the kingfisher just vacated. Each time it calls its own name in its distinctive raspy voice -- "Fee-bee!" -- it pumps its tail downward.
The combination of voice and behavior are all the angler needs to correctly identify this common flycatcher. He knows it well because a pair has nested atop his back porch light for several years. He expects another foraging demonstration, and the phoebe doesn't disappoint.
Every minute or so the bird flies off the perch, sometimes as far as 50 feet, and grabs a flying insect from the air. One meal is a small butterfly or moth, but the others are too small to recognize. After each sally, the phoebe returns to its perch to swallow the prey. Eventually the phoebe follows the kingfisher's trail downstream.
As much as the angler enjoys the feathered entertainment, he's anxious to get back to fishing. He casts once, twice, thrice, but no luck. Then movement along the water's edge catches his eye.
Distinctive bob: A drab streak-bellied bird with a white eyebrow bobs its tail as it walks the edge of the stream in search of small invertebrates. Sometimes it flicks aside a leaf to expose a tasty morsel. It's a Louisiana waterthrush, and again distinctive behaviors help the angler identify the bird. It walks rather than hops, and it bobs its tail as few other birds do.
Combine those behaviors with the riparian habitat and time of year, and the identification is virtually certain. For nearly 10 minutes the waterthrush ignores the angler, then it too flies downstream.
Finally, with no more birds in sight, the fisherman recaptures his cast and retrieve rhythm. And he catches more trout.
By mid-morning, his legs need a break. He stretches out on a large, sun-warmed boulder and pulls out a peanut butter sandwich. Belly full, he nods off.
After what cannot have been more than 10 minutes, the fisherman awakes abruptly to a series of loud staccato shrieks.
He opens his eyes just in time to see a black, crow-sized bird fly across the stream. Its white wing patches and red crest enable him to identify a pileated woodpecker.
April birding doesn't get much better than this. Especially when it's on top of catching some mighty fine fish.