By perseverance the snail reached the ark.
Early on the morning of September 12, 2009, Emery Yoder headed out of his house in Holmes County, Ohio, not far from Berlin, to dig some potatoes but got distracted by the sight of a noteworthy bird in his barnyard—a remarkable, rare bird that few might have noticed. Unless, of course, you’re an Amish farmer.
The Amish of Holmes County are known as sharp birders. They’ve spotted many rare birds that stray onto their farmland. It makes sense that the Amish have a sixth sense for birding: the bulk of their day is spent outdoors, familiar with the nature that surrounds them, and they manage their farms in a wildlife-friendly manner.
This particular bird, a northern wheatear, was making its way to spend the winter in a warmer climate: Africa.
The northern wheatear is a smallish thrush with rather long legs that breeds on the tundra along the northernmost part of North America, above the Arctic Circle. It makes one of the longest journeys of any small bird, crossing desert, ice, and oceans. Every autumn, the birds return to Africa. Only three wheatears have ever been spotted in Ohio.
Emery’s rare bird was hanging around a pile of logs in the barnyard. News of the discovery crackled like lightning across the state. Cars started arriving, parking along the dusty rural road. Birders of all ages were gathered beside the driveway, all peering through scopes and binoculars in the same direction.
“This was too good to pass up,” says Cheryl Harner, an environmental activist who has a blog called Weedpicker’s Journal. “It was a beautiful day! We scurried down the back county roads, carefully dodging Amish buggies. It was easy enough to find with the line of cars parked at the end of the drive. The yard had several hired vans and many bicycles along with the horse-drawn wagons. Hundreds and hundreds of people could have passed by that bird and never thought twice. It was very nondescript, and it wasn’t at a feeder. This bird is an insect eater. But an Amish farmer noticed an unusual bird in his field. He noticed!”
The wheatear was perched atop a woodpile and seemed to enjoy the attention. An excited buzz of birder chatter went up whenever it hopped to a new spot, gobbled up an insect, pumped its tail, or flicked its wings.
“We gathered quietly in a line,” Cheryl said, “all thirty or so wheatear admirers, and in hushed tones we compared notes on the soft coloring, white rump, and tail band when it flew from the open ground, where it had foraged for insects, to its favorite log pile. Watching the birders was almost as much fun as watching the bird. Rows of Amish men with long beards, straw hats, and bib overalls mixed with groups of English—non-Amish—who had converged on the site from Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Mansfield, Toledo, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. People were quiet, respectful, happy. Folks were on their best behavior and very appreciative of being welcomed onto the farm.”
The bird was obviously not afraid of humans, probably because it hadn’t seen any before. It flew within five feet of people to snatch insects. Emery said he hand-fed crickets to the bird. The bird always watched him for his offerings. It would come for a handout as many times as it was offered a cricket.
The bird provided family entertainment for the Amish as horses and buggies arrived and departed throughout the day, and dozens of bicycles rested in the grass. Barefoot Amish boys and Amish girls in dark-colored dresses lent an air of joy to the exciting event.
Emery graciously welcomed all the people who came to his farm to see the bird. He had a tablet for people to sign their names and addresses. “The Amish aren’t prideful,” Cheryl says. “It’s common to have a note pad and ask people to sign it. Having that guest book was Emery Yoder’s way of expressing hospitality. English birders have developed a warm relationship with the Amish. The Amish realize that we respect the bird. I think that by opening their farms to bird watchers, the Amish see it as sharing creation with those who don’t share the faith.”
Before the wheatear continued its journey, 581 people from six states, including from as far away as South Carolina, came to see the bird. 581 people drawn to see one rare bird!
“This scenic farm and its kind owner was an idyllic place for a bird,” says Cheryl. “And it was only out of respect for Amish preference that I didn’t photograph the many Amish and English gathered there. Black hats or birding T-shirts, we are all the same in the presence of a great bird.”
About Suzanne Woods Fisher: She is an author of bestselling fiction and non-fiction books about the Old Order Amish. Why the Amish? Well, Suzanne's grandfather was raised Plain. She's always been fascinated by her gentle, wise relatives. Learn more about Suzanne, her books, and Amish Wisdom, her weekly radio show, by stopping by www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. And please leave a comment!
This story is in honor of Earth Day 2012. It is reprinted from Amish Values for Your Family with permission by Revell Books.