Danny Heitman’s “At Random” column for Friday, Feb. 1, 2013

By DAnny Heitman

A quarter of a century ago, when I was a young reporter still new to the toils of daily journalism, I arrived at work one morning to discover that a curious assignment had landed on my desk.

A family of eagles had made a nest near the roadside in St. Tammany Parish, and my editor wanted me to drive there to see what I could see.

I set aside the day for a road trip, arriving at the designated spot to find that the eagles had made other plans.

They stayed away for hours, apparently off on some urgent eagle errands that seemed more important to them than a random media appearance. I managed only one glimpse for my trouble — the fleeting silhouette of a lone eagle as I prepared for the long drive back home.

The impertinence of these birds was an education for a beginning journalist. I’d been accustomed to making appointments with senators and scientists, celebrities and city councilmen and having my engagements honored. But a clock or a calendar means nothing to a plant or a bird or another creature of the wild.

The independence of nature — its peculiar insistence on following its own schedule — is a grave inconvenience to media types, self-absorbed souls who like to believe that everything should happen in time for their deadlines.

One of the funniest stories in this regard involves David Brinkley, the late, great TV journalist who got his start as a budding newspaper reporter in small-town North Carolina. Brinkley was sent to observe the pending bloom of a century plant, so called because it flowers only once in its life, a phenomenon exaggerated in folklore as a “once-a-century” event.

Brinkley arrived at the household where the century plant grew to find that a large crowd had gathered to see its petals unfold. Alas, nothing happened. This kind of non-event would have left most reporters empty-handed, but the clever young Brinkley wrote an amusing article about the block party surrounding what turned out to be a botanical dud. The wire services picked up Brinkley’s charming little story, and a stellar career was off and running.

I tried a similar gimmick when my eagles slipped into hiding for the day. Hanging out at a nearby cafe, I interviewed the locals, asking them to speculate about where the missing birds might be. Suffice it to say that the resulting narrative was a real yawner, the print equivalent of what happened some years ago when Geraldo Rivera opened gangster Al Capone’s vault on national TV, revealing almost nothing inside.

All of this came to mind recently when I volunteered to count birds in my backyard for the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Once a year, ths society sets aside one day in which participants count as many birds as they can. The census numbers help scientists learn how local bird life is faring.

I got out my notebook and binoculars on Bird Count day, but most of the birds I typically see had decided to stay hidden. If you want to watch birds, it’s best not to have a deadline.