When the end hits, I'll be out bird watching.
Warblers did always crane the neck. This bird in particular, the Cerulean Warbler, makes its living high in the tree canopy, plucking tiny insects from the leaves. They weren't easy to see before it hit and I never had the luck of living that close to them. Now I’m thinking, if I'm going to get ripped apart and eaten anyway, I might as well start working on my dead list.
One of the benefits of tracking down birds is that you are paying attention to the sounds and movements- a twitch in the leaves to my left, a high pitched whistle from the branches above- and this has immediate benefits to staying alive. The downside is when you get a bird in your bins, especially a bird you're seeking, the trade off is alertness for enjoyment. It just take seconds to get bit or scratched and transform your world into a wrenching sickness followed by a fiendish search for human flesh. Sooner or later, I’m going down, but how many birds can I see before that unfortunate moment? That’s why I call it my dead list.
I’m hiking up an old trail that is mostly overgrown with shrubs and obscured by fallen tree limbs. I’ve waded through at least one solid patch of poison ivy. The forest around the trail, however, is mature with older trees that block enough light to provide some openness beneath the canopy. And as I ascend, I can see treetops now below me.
Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures swirl above; since the zombies became the dominant predator and there are now decomposing bodies littered all over, vultures seem to be ever present. I hear Yellow-billed Cuckoos calling a slow drawn-out kow kow kow, an Eastern Wood-pewee singing its name peee-o-wee! In fact, there are not many birds to be seen at all, just sounds bouncing off the trunks and hitting my ears. Red-bellied Woodpecker, Great-crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatacher, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Hooded Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole, Wood Thrush. The forests are still alive, at least.
The other benefit to finding birds is that I tend to seek the best habitat, which were the places least altered and disturbed by humans. Those places, with their lack of humans, also tend to attract the least zombies.
Among the more common sounds, I hear a string of buzzy sounds ending with an ascending trill. I stop. Zee Zee Zee Zee Zezezezeze zeet! Clearly the song has three parts and matches what I remember. No more iPhones with loaded sound libraries to check. It’s close by. I cup my ears and wait for the song again. A dash of movement – a tiny bird moved maybe a foot onto a thin branch, less than 30 feet away, diagonal from where I stand. I lock my eyes on the spot and bring my binoculars to view.
Look at this bird. A clean white throat with a single band of color to separate the throat from the white breast. Streaks just along the breast. White undertail coverts, outlined by black. Not the best view, but this is a male Cerulean. The bird flips around, sings again and now I can see his double white wing bars on blackish wings. His blue is like the sky, the color made stronger by the contrast against that white underbelly and against a black line on its eye. A bird most humans never knew about because you would never see the species unless you were looking, if even then. It was declining due to- wait, what was that? That sounded like a branch snap. Too heavy for any small mammal that lives out here. Hopefully not a bear. Probably a zombie. Couldn't have been more than 20 yards.
Audios Cerulean. Time to lower my binoculars. Fight or flight...
Running is smart if you are outnumbered but for a lone zombie, I use a machete. Hell of a tool for hacking the undead.
I turn toward the movement. Through the red oaks, tulip trees and beech trunks, a zombie trudges my way.
Oh my my. Hiking boots, wide-brimmed hat and binoculars around the neck- well, around the part of the neck that remains. A chunk of the left side of the neck is missing, skin hanging in dried tatters, caked blood around the collar and shredded muscles down to vertebrae. And woah, those are Swarovkis! This birder had some cash. If this goes well, I might snag those...
The undead are not particularly fast. Probably because they don't get much energy. Despite their lack of speed, there is no room for error. This one has fingers and a mouth, making it an immediate threat to my survival and a definite barrier to expanding my dead list.
I grab a branch from the ground in my left hand. When birding zombie is ten paces forward, I bend my knees into a slight squat and raise the machete above my right ear. It's looking right at me. What birds had those eyes seen in life? In death? Hell, maybe we could work together and find birds. Its arms raise and he moans. Not so friendly. It's me or him. It lunges and I divert it with a jab of the branch to his chest, simultaneously rotating my arm from my shoulder, extending my arm from my elbow and slicing the machete through the skull, between his left eye and ear.
Dropping to his knees and crumpling face down, I lower as well, keeping my hand and fingers tight on the handle. I poke its head with the stick: no movement. I wriggle the handle and slide my blade out. Ick, zombie blood.
Zee Zee Zee Zee Zezezezeze zeet! The cerulean sings again. Hopefully this zombie was alone and not part of a birding party, or my day is shot. Best put some distance between this spot.
I follow further into the forest along the old trail. The male Cerulean sings its buzzy three part song again, now behind me, back there, fading into the forest, into the past. Few people probably ever loved the song of the Cerulean for its musical quality. But it sure sounds nice when all your other friends are dead.
Until next time, friends, keep your eyes on the birds, and watch out for those damn zombies.