Tough TUTIs

Tufted titmouse photo by Shutterstock.

“Hearing a cerulean in front of the mausoleum.” Bird Watcher’s Digest editor Dawn Hewitt texted me a 6:35 a.m. update from her neighborhood birding patch, knowing that I had visited that same graveyard the weekend prior and was sorry to have missed a cerulean warbler sighting. I assumed this message was a kind gesture rather than a taunt. And opted not to journey out into the morning, although the spot is only four minutes of driving and a short uphill walk on decently maintained pavement away from my home. Spring warbler watching is an extracurricular activity with a deadline that makes demands on even the earliest non-working hours, but so too is online coursework. Questionable priorities, most definitely.  

Still, the desire to get out and see birds smoldered throughout my Tuesday morning. I knew I’d regret not making some kind of effort to go birding. 

An obstacle: Following an attack from a small but mean and very much unrestrained dog the next street up the previous week, I had nearly convinced myself that I was disinclined to traverse the neighborhood again anytime soon. (If applicable, please do note that your dog’s aggressive behavior is likely droll only to you, and maybe cute only within the confined safety of your home, away from unsuspecting passersby’s calves.) 

That reluctance dissipated by lunchtime. The sun was shining, the lingering late spring chill had cleared, and my body craved movement. I trekked up my street and into the woods of a nearby urban trail, pulling garlic mustard all along the way. My inner four-year-old relished the chance at permissible destruction. Meanwhile, my outer 32-year-old thought of how effortlessly Suleka of the Curious Chickadee identified and uprooted invasive plants at the most recent in-person New River Birding and Nature Festival. She’s got a natural talent to which one aspires. I was mostly concerned with not accidentally touching any spiders on the stems while briefly pausing to pull. 

Besides guerilla native plant conservation, there are lots of other fun games to play as a just-okay birder hiking through the woods on her lunch break. “Wood Thrush or Brown Thrasher” at every flash of chestnut and brown-on-white spots. “What Creature Is So Desperate to Get Out of My Path That It Crashes That Loudly Through the Brush” while resisting the urge to rustle around and find out. “I Have Most Certainly Time Traveled to the Jurassic Period” when a pileated woodpecker swims through the air like a pterosaur, leaving you awed from your spot among the mayapples. 

What I really wanted to play, though, was “Oh My Gosh I’ve Found an Interesting Warbler All by Myself.” And I thought I was about to win when I heard an impossibly high, nearly buzzy call over a small ridge. Which one which one which one which one, I thought as I dug my Zeiss Victory Pocket out of my purse. I actually brought bins this time. Quel miracle

Tufted titmouse photo by D. Huczek / Wikimedia.

The bird was small and gray, although I briefly clung to the hope that it was truly a dull blue, or maybe there was some yellow there somewhere. The bird was hunched on its perch, its back to me, plaintively peeping and feverishly shaking its partially raised wings. A second gray bird came into sight, giving me a good look at a stark white belly, creamsicle flanks, a black forehead patch, and… a crest. Oh. Tufted titmice. 

It’s a challenge to get excited about birds you see at your feeders when you’re yearning for warblers. However, I had to admit that this moment was particularly special. These titmice were contemplating GETTING DOWN. The female took her fluttering display a few inches into the air, crashed into the male, and the mating pair tumbled out of sight. Well! Good for them. 

I continued on my hike, knowing that I could slow down to scan more treetops for rarer migrants, but also haunted by the sand running through the precious hourglass that is the workday lunch break. The enchanted wood thrush soundtrack was gradually replaced by clear, flat notes of tin whistle toots as I neared the day’s turnaround point. Now, which bird makes that noise? 

A diminutive form lit on a branch above the path and repeated its song, which brought to mind the gift shops of historical reenactment destinations of my grade school field trips. (Light a candle for those patient teachers and unpaid chaperones of under-skilled children armed with cheap musical instruments and hopped up on old-fashioned hard candy sticks.)  

Tufted titmouse photo by PutneyPicks / Wikimedia.

The bird in front of me was gray with a white belly, a black forehead patch, and a crest. Now they were just making fun.  

What surprises me is how I’m somehow not unsurprised when tufted titmice show up. 

They punish the bar of my window feeder with their tapping bills when the seed runs empty. 

They scold me when I have the audacity to repot plants on my front porch.  

And these creeps just seem to follow me wherever I wander on this side of the Central Plains. 

Even in the exotic tropics of Florida, when I had the pleasure of bird watching with Redstart Birding manager Angela Anderson-Beach during some downtime at the Florida Birding and Nature Festival, I was unable to escape these tiny stalkers. Though we were fully expecting to be treated to species not often spotted in the Appalachian foothills, our excursion to Lettuce Lake Park began with finding the trees at the entrance dripping with TUTIs. 

It’s okay, though. We got a limpkin on the boardwalk. 

And it’s okay about the titmice, as well. There are worse problems to have than being beset by such a constant as little gray birds with creamsicle flanks. Even during warbler season. Especially in perfect late spring weather.

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