LILA JOA CANCELLIERI, Minstrel of Bird Nerd Art


I grew up in Surf City on Long Beach Island; a long, thin barrier island on the Atlantic coast of New Jersey. I was born in the tiny upstairs apartment that my parents were renting in Surf City at the time. I spent a lot of time outside as a child. I loved the natural world and found myself endlessly curious about it. I first learned about the web of life from my parents, both avid gardeners and unconventional ecologists. From an early age, I witnessed the cyclical web of life unfold in the garden and at the beach. As a kid, I watched the groups of tiny, frenetic shorebirds that punctuated the shoreline. They fed along the water's edge in continual motion, their movement perfectly synchronized with the water. My father fished for blackfish at the end of the jetty. I sat entranced, looking out across the vast ocean. I let the cool sand slowly sift through my fingers as I drifted ever-further away. My father would call out whenever he spotted an American oystercatcher; a bird with an unusually long, brightly-colored orange bill with orange eyes to match. As an adult, I worked as a field biologist, monitoring species of threatened and endangered shorebirds, such as the piping plover and the American oystercatcher, as they embarked to nest on the crowded summertime beaches of New Jersey. There was one particular oystercatcher named T2 – his moniker based on the unique set of color bands attached to his legs by biologists interested in tracking the lives of individual birds. From the time that he was banded in 2007, T2 and his un-banded mate had not been able to hatch a single chick. Nevertheless, the pair would explode back on the scene each March, loudly broadcasting their arrival and going no-holds-barred with territorial displays. T2's resilient spirit made him well-loved and widely rooted-for by those familiar with his story. And after a decade-long struggle, they finally fledged two chicks, each given its own set of unique color bands.

In the springtime the sky opens up, and from it descends thousands of migratory birds. They have traveled incredibly long distances and have expended the last of their energy reserves by the time they arrive. They are chasing spring, the time of abundance and new beginnings. Birds will often return to the same site each year to nest. If you're ever wondering why “all of these” gray catbirds perch one-at-a-time on your garden fence as you dig and silently beckon you to throw grubs at them, then chances are that it is the exact same bird from the year before. When I hear the early spring peeps of a territorial male piping plover dashing his way across the windblown sand, I imagine that he is an Edwardian summer traveler announcing his arrival to the seaside by boldly promenading down the boardwalk in his crisp seersucker suit and straw boater hat, a corsage of sea rocket tucked neatly into his lapel. A ruby-throated hummingbird is illuminated by the sun, her green iridescent feathers glowing as she sips nectar from the tubular orange flowers of a trumpet vine. She has just returned after a winter in Mexico where she sipped from the orange flowers of the Mexican flame vine snaking its way along the edges of colorful altars enshrining the Lady Guadalupe. The small orange blossoms explode as they weave their way around her starry crown. Both are figures clothed in luminous light.

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