Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Personal Strength of Awareness - Miami's Magical Birds of Paradise

It isn't always so easy to see what's right in front of you. 

Before Kathleen and I moved to the Texas Hill Country, we lived in Florida. Our first home was in Miami Beach. There was so much striking natural beauty there, but we discovered that not all our neighbors were conscious of it.

A frequent delight of living on the edge of the Biscayne Bay was the sight of green parakeets flying overhead. We heard them before we saw them, and they usually flew over in groups, beating their wings as hard as they could and squawking the whole time. These weren’t the little blue or yellow “budgies” that are sold in pet stores. These were the same foot-long green parakeets that inhabit the Amazonian jungle. They were common in our neighborhood, but Kathleen would exclaim each time she saw them, as if it were a miraculous event.

Sometimes we’d see several of them gathered in a tree. One day as we walked through the parking lot of a retirement home on our way to the beach, we saw a little old white-haired lady swinging a broom into the lower branches of a tree. “Get out of here! Get out!” she shouted.

As we approached, we noticed an elaborate bird feeder hanging from the tree and several parakeets perched a few feet higher than she could reach. After a while she sat down on a bench, exhausted, and the parakeets promptly jumped down to the feeder to finish their snack.

Enraged, the lady seized her broom and began swinging again. The parakeets jumped back up out of harm’s way.

To us, parakeets were magical creatures. To her they were pests who plundered the food she put out for other birds. We walked past her without saying a word, trusting that the unwanted parakeets knew how to take care of themselves.

“Parakeets are exotic,” said Kathleen.

“What do you mean?”

“It means they don’t belong here. They come from South America. People keep them as pets, and sometimes they escape or are set free. These are probably the offspring.”

“They don’t know they’re exotic. I bet they think this is home.”

“It’s a technical term. The ABA won’t recognize a species introduced from outside the country until there’s hard evidence that sufficient numbers have established themselves. That could take a long time. Years.”

We crossed busy four-lane Collins Avenue to get to the beach through the Dezerland Hotel. Back then, the Dezerland was a tacky, run-down establishment patronized mostly by European tourists. Its claim to fame was its fifties decor. The concrete wall surrounding the parking lot had a zany mural featuring Mr. Dezer himself with Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and other entertainment icons from that generation. Inside, the lobby was decorated in a fifties diner motif with a jukebox and lots of neon trim. The restaurant featured the fronts and backs of classic cars, which separated the tables into booths. It was so outrageous and colorful that Kathleen often brought visiting friends to see it.

Next to the Dezerland was the North Shore State Recreation Area. Located between 79th and 87th Streets, it was an enclosed preserve of original Florida hammock on 40 acres of sand dunes. The beach side of the park included boardwalks, changing rooms, picnic tables, barbecue pits and pathways.

As we walked between the hotel and the park, out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement next to the fence. I stopped and focused my eyes. In the shadows, I saw a large animal. I pointed and whispered, “Kathleen. Look.”

It was the biggest bird I had ever seen—well over three feet tall. It had mostly black feathers with white on the edge of its wings. It waddled along the edge of the fence, poking the ground as it went. We slowly moved in for a closer look. It had big round eyes and a long down-curved bill topped by a fleshy growth. Its throat was red and blue. It was an amazing sight.

Either the bird got nervous or it saw something better on the other side of the fence because it extended its huge wings and in one beat it was on top of the fence, where it dropped to the ground on the other side to continue its hunt.

“Do you know what kind of bird that is?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “I don’t think it belongs here.”

After our walk, Kathleen contacted the local chapter of the Audubon Society. The man said, “Oh, that couldn’t be a native bird. Why don’t you try the zoo?” The zoo ornithologist listened carefully to her description. “It sounds like an Abyssinian ground-hornbill. Male.”

The guy at the zoo said he was probably an escapee. He had heard that a local doctor had one in his menagerie and that there had been reports of other sightings. He guessed it was the same bird. “The park is probably an ideal place for it,” he said. “It lives on lizards, frogs, rodents and insects, even fruits and seeds if it’s hungry enough.” He said its natural habitat is the savannas and woodlands of central and southern Africa, but these days they’re more likely to be found in nature preserves and zoos. The sighting was a discussion topic around our house, and we kept our eyes open on our daily walks, hoping to see it again.

And we did. A few days later as we walked along the ocean-side path, we spotted the Abyssinian ground-bill race-walking along the dirt access road next to a row of condos. It was odd to see this strange-looking creature making his rounds among these concrete towers. As we watched, he flew to the tiled patio surrounding a swimming pool and then walked from glass door to glass door studying his own reflection.

Then we watched as a woman walked out one of the doors and through the pool area towards the beach, heading straight for him. We wondered what would happen when they encountered each other. Amazingly, she walked right by this huge bird with her gaze fixed on the horizon. She didn’t see him!

Apparently, showing up for the miracle doesn’t guarantee that you’ll see it. You have to be looking for it, or at least willing to acknowledge what’s in front of you for an amazing sight to register in consciousness.

If parakeets could be seen as pests and if a huge, colorful Abyssinian ground-bill could walk around unnoticed, maybe these escapees weren’t the strangest creatures finding their way under the hot South Florida sun. 

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (2007 photo by Jerry Thompson, permission to use from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution license.)


Meredith Bell said...

What powerful stories you've woven here, Denny. A great reminder to PAY ATTENTION to what's right in front of us. So many opportunities and miracles present themselves to us, but if we aren't looking for them, we won't see them. Loved your last sentence.

Anonymous said...

I just love how you love Kathleen. Great story, Denny.

Kathleen Scott said...

Honey, I love this post. That Abyssinian Ground Hornbill was a lifetime highlight. I still sometimes think about seeing a big African bird in a concrete jungle.

And I'd forgotten all about the Dezerland mural. What a hoot. I'm grateful for a non-homogenized life.

Unknown said...

Denny, I like your comment that you have to show up to see miracles. When viewing newborn babies, this to me, is one of God's greatest miracles. We need a spiritual awakening for God's wonders.

Unknown said...

♥ ThankU ...
I Love UR Share ...
I love the Birds ...
~Special Blessings of Love2U ...