"The Breeding Bird Atlas of Georgia," published in 2010 (my copy of which is signed by one of the editors and was a gift from my friend Loretta that same year), weighs in at a hefty five-and-a-half pounds and contains 497 pages. It is beautifully photographed and provides a map for each of the 183 species included, which marks each of the Georgia counties, where it is possible, probable or confirmed to have been seen.
I confess to not having picked up the Atlas in a while and did so this week only because I couldn’t find what I was seeking in the "Audubon Field Guide to the Southeastern States," a much smaller and lighter book. What I was seeking was the identity of a beautiful yellow bird that appeared on the deck earlier this week.
I actually saw him quite by accident, just happening to glance through the French doors off the bedroom as I was making the bed or folding clothes or something equally quotidian. Claws curled around the back edge of the metal chair on the deck and head lifted in a majestic tilt, his coloring shocked me. Deep yellow with a touch of verdigris on the wings, he threw off a strangely dull glittering.
I have never seen a yellow bird at Sandhill before this one. Fire-engine red cardinals, deep gray mockingbirds, royal blue bluejays, soft brown wrens keep me company all the time. Occasionally, I get a glimpse of the jaunty red cap of the pileated woodpecker and sometimes my resident red-tailed hawk swoops low enough that I can make out his rust-colored derriere. But before now there has been no yellow.
It grieves me to say that the Atlas did not provide me with a definitive answer. The closest species I could find to what I saw was the white-eyed vireo, a bird of which I, prior to finding it on page 252, had not known existed. “Of the four vireo species breeding in Georgia,” I read, “the white-eyed is the only one regularly found in open scrubby habitat.” Except for not appreciating the derogatory, i.e., “scrubby,” description of my abode, I found the description of the vireo mesmerizing: both parents help build the nest and both take part in incubation. The vireo has as many as six to 10 distinct songs, most of which are learned from the father, but some of which are learned from bird neighbors.
I checked the map to make sure that the vireo was a geographic possibility. A small circle signifies possibility; a small triangle, probability; and a small square, confirmation. The shape placed on the map in my corner of Bulloch County is a triangle. There are only 82 triangles in the entire state. Which means, of course, that my spotting of the white-eyed vireo — if, in fact, that was what he was — could be of avian importance.
Could be or, rather, could have been if I’d noted the exact date and time of observation. Knowing the temperature could probably have been of help as well. Alas, I am not, as I have noted before, a scientist. I get far too lost in widening my eyes and gasping when I encounter something amazing. If I write down anything at all it is how the observation made me feel, what it made me remember.
I have friends who are scientists. Some of them call or email me when I say something patently wrong. For that I am grateful. As long as there are people like my friends and like the editors of the Atlas, people who write 5-pound books and include all the details, I am free to wander and marvel and call it all magic.