Birding and Wording by Sean Ulman

Don’t feel like writing today? Nor doing much of anything.

Yet you know writing (something, [anything!]) is precisely the thing to do to get going.

Go Birding!

Fresh air, exercise – proven mood improvers.

But passing time searching a marshland for ordinarily magnificent avian species… Or letting them find you. This writing-enabling potion might be underrated.

It’s that time of year. To which project should we funnel our energy? Or how to sustain that good run of winter writing? Or, if you’re like me, how low can you go…

Also that time of year for the birds to return.

I’ve always had an infatuation with migration. New species have started showing up on a daily basis. There will be big numbers. Surprises. Swarms of peeps, mesmerizing with slingshot flock flights. Cranes marking the sky with V’s, bugling prehistoric purrs. Dapper’d up ducks pairing up. Warblers singing all the live-long day.

Taking a walk to see what birds are about helps me recharge.

I have relied on it for writing prompts. For any genre really, it works like a charm.

Just listing detected species with four letter codes can nearly pass as a poem –



Punch it up with a tad of observed action –

crow squad parachutes in – bill-flip gravel for beach crumbs 

above a raven pair do Not put on airs, an air show rather

climbing diving gliding – flying a sky dance of chase –

croaking beguiling music 


Following the birds into an essay can be easy –

As my son, the pirate, demands I join him aboard a driftwood vessel, I hear a new call. Soft – digital metronomic trill – beeping about ten yards away among logs, rye grass and the bank’s lone clump of spruce. In two months time I will very likely get dive-bombed in this area by nesting short-billed gulls and Artic terns. All’s quiet this calm early April morning, isolating that tantalizing unknown call. 

I scope the zone naked eye. Nothing. Raise my binos: super-hero vision. 

A flit! Stalks of grass twitch. I expect to see a snow bunting – and even summon the image of the bird on swaying rye. The dark face of a different bird edges out of the grass. My son calls for me to come aboard. 

“Hang on, matey,” I whisper. ” I got a cool bird.” 

Horned lark comes to mind. Then my brain finishes its I.D. computation of field marks and other indescribable intangibles – kind of like an A.I assistant – and kind of Not, at all, in the least. 

Lapland Longspur! 

I’ve seen sparse brigades of these beauties undulate overhead here, heard their chip call when they do a  goldfinch-style flight. And I once saw one sitting still on the beach, lapping up sun.  I recall my expert birder friend’s comment when I remarked how stunning that one was – “Oh yeah -they’re dynamite.”


The appearance of the Longspur also gives me an idea for a project a friend and I kicked off last summer – AK Bird Trading Cards.

Back home I draft a new card – the scintillating songbird perched on a cowboy boot spur. For words on the back I whip up –

a longspur lands in the birder’s lap: what luxury

partial views parceled out amongst snow crust n gold rye

a new call, a tech-y note a tetchy smartphone might emit – 

n NOT at all, in the least    


On the lookout for children’s book ideas? The bird kingdom will gift those as well.

Hearing hundreds of low creasing, criss-crossing cries, I feel the wild chorus of an underrated species. Then to see them! Way out on the low tide. Their wailing and moaning amplified… Suddenly waylayed the gulls take up the air, speckling the spruce mountainside with salt. I wonder what made them all jump? –

“Don’t do it, Herman,” a Glaucous-winged gull (Gerald) tells a Herring gull.


“You’ve got that look…” 

A week ago they and their families were nearly the only gulls on the beach. Now thousands. 

“What look?”

“Like you might fake an alarm call and flush up.”

Got to get better at my poker face, Herman thinks before he says, “Now that you mention it…”

“Hold it pal.” Gerald gingerly taps his friend with a wingtip. “It’s such a waste of energy for everybody. These birds are still tired. There’s no eagles around.”

“Why should eagles get to have all the fun!?” Herman preens his flight feathers. “Don’t you want to see a gull cloud? Be flying within one? Maybe make a friend in midflight? I’m bored. We’re all just standing here.”

“Well, if you must.” Gerald gives in. “Hang on, let me get ready. It’s more fun to be one of the first to fly.”


Now I’m not seeing Caldecott potential for that ditty. I likely won’t even continue it.

But writing anything is always better than not writing.

The gulls fed me an idea that I wouldn’t have found puttering around at home.

How they all get up at once, who starts it, the collective mindset of a species – a fun mystery to ponder.

I think I’ll close with a bit more about it. File it under Soft Philosophy.

Which individual is the one that signals an entire flock?

The first one to detect danger? Or a change in the wind?

Is it often the same bird? 

Are there like leader birds?

What about pirates? There’s always a captain, right? 

I hope people don’t think of gulls as aerial pirates.

So much detailed variety with gulls. Any coastal birding walk, any time of year – there’s bound to be gulls. A chance to find treasure buried within >1000 bird colony.

Bonaparte’s. Sabine’s. Thayer’s. Or Glaucous – that precious pearl Larus.



Sean Ulman is the author of Seward Soundboard (Cirque Press). He is the series 1 editor of a new project at the Seward Community Library – Res Bay Chapbooks.

2 thoughts on “Birding and Wording by Sean Ulman”

  1. Great post! This encourages me to pull out the binoculars, grab a notepad, and walk around for a few hours in search of birds… and then to write about it!

    1. Thanks Bob,
      Now’s still the prime time.
      But really any time.
      The symphony is mounting…
      I’d be interested to hear (read) what strikes you.
      Perhaps gulls…
      appreciate it –

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