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A Typical Quest

Spark Bird Vol. 1, Issue 3

By Nellie PoppinsPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Black-crowned Night-heron, image from Zita's personal collection

Story by Zita Robertson

Loretta set the thick, dusty Encyclopedia of Birds on her desk, and let it fall open. She allowed herself a quick glance, and saw that the words on the page started with a T. While she put her backpack beside the chair and changed into something more comfortable, she tried to think of bird names with a T. Tufted Puffin… Tricolored Heron… Tennessee Warbler… She was excited to see what new information she could find out about all of them from her new book. She discovered the ancient volume in a dark, musty corner of the public library after school, and she was ready to sit down in her favorite reading nook by the window to dive in.

“Tautonyms,” she read about halfway down the page. It was a word she had never heard before, even though she had been studying birds for as long as she could remember. “A scientific name in which the same word is used for both genus and species.”

She learned that the 88 bird tautonyms included the Black Francolin, the White-throated Dipper and the Anhinga. She noticed that the Willow Ptarmigan was also on the list, and grabbed her stuffed Lagopus lagopus from the windowsill. Her best friend, Natalie gave her the bird, after their first ballet performance when they were little.

“Tautonyms are the ‘type species’ of their genus,” she continued reading. “So you are a typical ptarmigan,” she said to the toy with the cherry stain on the wing. She used to carry this bird, Wilma, everywhere with her, and the stain was the result of an unfortunate accident with some ice cream not too long after that first performance.

“Back then, everyone said I was a typical ballerina; I think I even slept in a tutu.”

She closed the book and moved over to her desk to do her math homework. I wish I could see all tautonyms some time. She completed tasks A through F in her workbook, then wrote up a list of all tautonyms in her area.

Today would be perfect to go look for the heron, Loretta thought a couple of days later, as she finished tying her ballet shoes before the final performance of the season. She had figured out that the Black-crowned Night-Heron is the only tautonym bird that lives near her and wasn’t on her life-list yet. She could not stop thinking about it.

“Are you coming, Loretta? We’re next on stage,” Natalie said, grabbing Loretta by the arm and moving up to the squeaky step that led to the side curtain. “Remember what your mom said?”

Of course Loretta remembered. Mom said that they won’t go birding unless she “shows improvement.” The terrible punishment came about when Mom found out that Loretta was reading her bird book instead of doing her math homework, and even the teachers were complaining that she was always looking out the window when she was supposed to be paying attention.

When Loretta walked out on stage, it seemed impossible for her to remember the steps. There was only one thing on her mind. How am I going to get to Rose Pond? Natalie finished her solo, and signaled for Loretta to join her again. It was the most difficult part of their performance, and it took all of her concentration to take the right steps. She tried to remember to keep her elbows up, her belly in, her shoulders square. In practice, and even at the dress rehearsals, Loretta was always a beat too late coming back on stage, ruining the choreography. This time, her triple spin was in perfect unison with Natalie’s.

Jumping down the stairs, Loretta was full of excitement. She felt there was a possibility that her flawless execution might count as improvement and they can go birding.

“That was really good, Loretta,” Mom said, giving her a hug. “How do you think it went?”

“Good. I really didn’t think I could do the spin. So Mom… can we do something tonight to celebrate?”

“Sure, what do you have in mind?”

“I would like to go and look for the heron.”

Loretta looked at her Mom with the eyes of a cat that chased a mouse through the house and just saw it disappear in a hole. What else could I do to make this happen?

“Can I come, too?” Natalie said, as if going birding was already decided. She grabbed her backpack and joined Loretta and her mom by the dressing room door.

Mom had no choice but to say yes, and as soon as the girls heard her agreement, they ran to the car.

The sun’s last rays illuminated the undersides of the leaves on a big, green ash when they parked in the grass beside the gravel road at Rose Pond, the way they always did when visiting this conservation area.

“The guy that posted the Black-crowned Night-heron sighting on eBird this morning said that he thinks there is a nest on the northwest side of the pond, but the exact location is supposedly inaccessible,” Loretta said as she was taking some quick pictures of a Grasshopper Sparrow taking the wings off of some insect before eating it.

“Which side is the northwest?” Natalie asked. “This place is very overgrown compared to the last time; I can’t even see the sandbank anymore!”

“All the way over there,” Loretta’s Mom pointed to the other end of the pond, where there were a ton of cattails and small willows.

“Can we try and get to the back side where that trail used to be?” Loretta asked. Her Mom shrugged her shoulders, and filed in behind Natalie, so they would all fit on the on the narrow path, through the prickly tangles of willow, cattails and bindweed, not to mention the huge bushes of poison ivy.

Loretta was busy getting the annoying cockleburs out of her pant legs when Natalie shouted,

“There it is!”

After a good look at the gray and black bird sitting in the sunset, Loretta took a piece of paper out of her pocket. It was the checklist that she put together based on the list of tautonyms in the Encyclopedia of Birds. With a happy sigh, she gave the Black-crowned Night-heron its own little green checkmark.

About this story

Zita Robertson wrote this story in 2020, when she was 11 years old, as part of the “writing module” submission for the American Birding Association’s Young Birder Mentoring Program. Neil Hayward, President of Brookline Bird Club, ABA Board Member and Program Judge provided much appreciated feedback, and Zita is excited to share the updated version here in support of the Iowa Young Birders.

This story is part of the Iowa Young Birders’ series about kids and birding.

All earnings from reads, any tips or pledges to the Spark Bird series here on Vocal.media fully and directly support the work of the Iowa Young Birders, a not-for-profit organization that promotes engagement with our natural world and conservation issues by empowering young Iowans to study and enjoy birds and birding.

The Iowa Young Birders does not endorse any of my other stories or series published here, and they remain independent of the views expressed in those.

To connect with the Iowa Young Birders, find them on the web @ https://iowayoungbirders.wildapricot.org.


About the Creator

Nellie Poppins

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