Tag Archive 'songbirds'

Jun 10 2016

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A Home Among the Trees

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new house finishedThanks to the generosity of our son Matt and his wife Joy, Judy and I are now moving into a new house nestled in a grove of maple trees. The master bedroom is on the first floor, the kitchen has all the modern conveniences, and we are only two miles outside of St. Albans. There is plenty of space upstairs for my fledgling book business to boot. It will be an excellent place to spend our old age – more than either one of us could have hoped for a year ago.

Judy loves everything about the house.  She and Joy have been working together for months hashing out the details, from the clawfoot bath tub and overhead fans to granite kitchen countertops and recessed lighting. She can’t get in there fast enough.

My bohemian brain is having a hard time processing all this. I have lived in nothing but old houses and apartments since I was a teenager, and was resigned to spending the rest of my life in a fixer-upper that always needs fixing up. What will I do with my spare time? More writing and tramping around the woods, I suppose.

I must confess that I wasn’t hep on the idea of moving when it was first proposed to me seven months ago, but I gradually warmed up to it as the house advanced through the various stages of construction. Then something unexpected happened. A hermit thrush sang out early in the morning as I was building bookshelves in the garage a couple weeks ago. That’s when it occurred to me just how sweet this place is. Judy and I now have a home among the trees, and all that entails. What an incredible stroke of good fortune!

 

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May 12 2014

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Leaf Out

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early spring foliageLeaves burst forth all around me as I meander along a path cutting through the woods. The forest floor is covered with trilliums, trout lilies, violets, and a host of other wildflowers. The songbirds are all singing – robins have been at it since the first glimmer of predawn light. I don’t know how long the warblers have been back, but I see them all around me now.  The natural world is coming alive and I am giddy with it.

What is this feeling overtaking me just now, like an inner glow that won’t quit?  Is this happiness?  Is it possible to be driven to joy by the mere outbreak of blue sky, balmy temps and fresh verdure? Of course it is. We are more creatures of the earth than we care to admit.  The robins are rejoicing.  Why shouldn’t we?

Matika lags behind me, backlogged in smells that she has found along the way. She is smiling. Some say that animals do not express emotion, but I know when my dog is happy. Quite often her moods are a reflection of mine. We both like to run wild for a day.

Springtime is so glorious that words cannot do it justice – especially now as everything brown suddenly turns green after such a long wait.  I grab a branch and pull an apple blossom close to my nose, inhaling deeply, intoxicated by its perfumed insinuation into the world. And to think the growing season is only beginning…  No wonder I’m so giddy.

Had I but one month to live, I would choose May, when there is nothing afoot but promise and potential, when the bee and the butterfly are just starting to go about their business, when the memory of a cold, dark winter is still fresh in my mind. And, as I sit on a knoll overlooking a drowned marsh where marigolds thrive, I can’t help but feel lucky to be alive and experiencing all this once again, one more time.

Indeed, it is too glorious for words.

 

 

 

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Jan 27 2011

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Surviving the Cold

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Monday morning we awoke to frigid temperatures here in the North Country.  Thermometers registered seventeen below zero in Saint Albans, and even colder in outlying towns.  That’s the coldest it has been in years.  That’s cold enough for spit to freeze seconds after hitting the ground.  Furnaces worked overtime, everyone bundled up, and some cars wouldn’t start.  No one went anywhere they didn’t have to go.

The cold snap lasted three days.  Now we’re back to normal temps – back to days with 20-25 degree highs, that is.  Yet people complain.  It’s midwinter, the snow is piled high and sub-freezing temps continue unabated.

I’m just about to start complaining myself, then I look out my kitchen window.  A few feet away from the warmth that I enjoy, a dozen birds are fighting for survival.  Literally.

Sparrows, finches, juncos and chickadees – they all take what they can from the bird feeders dangling from the naked branches of an old lilac bush before some other bird beaks them away.  Others vie for the seeds that have fallen to the ground.  Still others peck at the suet.

They all look fat and healthy, but looks can be deceiving.  Their feathers are puffed up, providing maximum insulation against the cold.  Most of their kind flew south for the winter, but these few decided to winter over.  Why?  Judy and I put up our feeders late last month, long after the migration ended.  What would become of these birds if there weren’t any feeders?  I shudder to think.

Like most people who spend their hard-earned money feeding wild birds, we enjoy seeing some sign of life out our kitchen window.  We especially enjoy the bright red cardinals and charming woodpeckers, but any bird will do.  Seeing them makes winter seem temporary.  The snow will melt and the grass will green again, no doubt.  It’s just a matter of time.

That said, I can’t help but wonder how a winged creature weighing only a few ounces can survive the punishing cold, day after day for months on end.  It seems highly unlikely that any of them will make it through.    Yet somehow most of them do.

Some wild animals can survive the worst conditions – conditions that would make the healthiest of domestic creatures keel over in a matter of days.  I can’t help but admire scrappy birds even while watching them fight over crumbs.  Then I turn away from the window, sip my hot tea, and return to my indoor work happy that I’m not one of them.  As long as my furnace keeps working and my cupboards are full, I’ve got it made.

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Mar 18 2010

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The Red-wing Returns

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When does spring begin?  Everyone has a different idea about that.  For some spring arrives when the crocuses pop up.  The more skeptical wait for lilacs.  Many look for robins feeding in their front yards.  For me it’s the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  Once they’re back, everything starts changing and changing fast.

I heard the red-wing’s unmistakable call the other day, while I was indoors reading.  I got up and went to the kitchen window and, sure enough, there it was on the ground right below the bird feeders.  The red and yellow markings on that bird are distinct.  The red-winged blackbirds are back.  The calendar on the wall tells me they shouldn’t be, but they are.

Judy and I spotted a tufted titmouse at the feeder nearly a week ago.  According to my bird book titmice don’t migrate, so seeing one doesn’t really count as sign of spring.  But we couldn’t help but take it as a good omen.  The red-winged blackbirds appeared shortly thereafter.

The grackles and cowbirds have also returned.  My wife doesn’t want me badmouthing those troublemakers like I did last year, so I won’t say anything more about them.  It’s clear, though, that the red-winged blackbirds are only the beginning of a great migration north.  The robins can’t be far behind.

We have twelve hours of daylight now.  The Vernal Equinox takes place the day after tomorrow.  While that doesn’t necessarily mark the end of winter this far north, there are several indications that spring has come early this year.  The first green shoots of day lilies have pushed up in my front yard.  The grass is greening.  Mud wasps have already appeared on my porch.  And while there’s still plenty of snow in the woods, the snow piles around town are almost gone.

Where are my binoculars?  I keep hearing an unfamiliar bird song and want to go out and identify it.  Yeah, I’ve got the fever already.  No, I’m not foolish enough to put away my snow shovels just yet, or peel the caulk from my windows.  But there’s no sense denying what I see, hear or feel . . .

Suddenly a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  Soon my hiking boots will be caked with mud.  Bring on the cold rain.  I’m ready to wander aimlessly through a misty awakening forest as polypody and evergreen woodferns slowly spring back to life.  Something deep within me is stirring.  You can wait for a 70-degree day if you want, but I’m calling it right now.  It’s spring!

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Mar 26 2009

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Those Pesky Grackles

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Robins are what come to mind when most people think of birds returning in early spring, and sure enough they do, but assorted brown and black birds soon follow.  Sometimes these darker birds beat the robins to the punch.  It’s hard to say who actually reaches the North Country first.  All I know is that while looking around for a delightful, red-breasted songbird, I often spot a great flock of red-winged blackbirds gathered high in a naked tree, or a smaller gang of grackles on the ground.  When the dark birds arrive, they’re hard to miss.

I don’t know what the proper name is for a flock of grackles, but the word “gang” seems appropriate.  They act like gangsters when they arrive at the feeder, pushing aside the finches, sparrows and other small birds to make the food source their own.  Like gangsters, they ally themselves with similar birds, namely cowbirds and starlings.  They aren’t above raiding other birds’ nests for eggs, and will even take out a songbird on occasion.  They are, in fact, very opportunistic creatures, feeding on worms, insects, small reptiles, fruit, seeds – pretty much anything they can find.  Not what we generally associate with springtime.  Nothing like thrushes, vireos or sweet-singing warblers.  Yeah, these are the tough guys of the winged world.

Recently my wife, Judy, has been perturbed by the grackles voraciously eating the suet that she hung up for the cardinals, woodpeckers and other birds that have wintered over.  Every morning she looks out the kitchen window and sees a grackle picking away at the suet all by itself.  She insists that it’s the same fat grackle, day after day, but later in the morning I usually see a half dozen of them out there munching away.  I think they’re taking turns.  Either way, they’re eating us out of house and home.

Menacing or no, Judy and I agree that grackles are quite beautiful in their own right.  The iridescent blue sheen of their heads is quite remarkable, even by avian standards, and if you look closely you’ll even see a little purple or green there.  If they weren’t so common, birders and other aesthetes would probably hold them in high regard.  Maybe they secretly do.

For years I have been arguing that wild nature is both harsh and beautiful, and that the true wonder of the world is bound up in the tension between the two.  Yesterday I finished writing a set of philosophical essays emphasizing this point.  In general, I’ve encountered considerable resistance to this worldview – most people preferring to think that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, or that nature is fundamentally benign.  Meanwhile, the spring season slowly advances and those pesky grackles keep munching away.  Judy is making sure to get plenty of pictures of them.

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Mar 19 2009

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Cold Mud

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Through binoculars I watched a robin singing the other day.  It was the first robin I’d seen or heard this year so it was quite a treat.  My neighbors must have thought I was crazy.  I stood in my back yard at sundown, in flip-flops and a t-shirt despite a chill in the air and the spongy, cold mud beneath my feet.  And in that moment I accepted the obvious:  Spring has come early to Vermont this year.

The birds are back, the remnant snow pile in my front yard has melted away, and the first green shoots of day lilies have broken ground.  More to the point, the sun has been burning brightly through a clear sky for days now, warming up the earth – a long, warm sun, rising an hour after I do in the morning and setting well after dinner.  Such a welcome surprise.  Until that robin appeared, I had been waiting for the next winter storm to bury me in snow.  Am glad to be wrong about that.

For several days running now, Matika and I have been going for long walks.  Judy joined us for one at the beginning of the week, just as the last of the snow was melting from the Rail Trail.  Second day out, I tramped through the woods until my shirt was drenched in sweat.  Atop Aldis Hill, I bent down and grabbed a handful of cold mud just to remind myself what the earth feels like.  It was a handful of joy, pure and simple.

Some folks don’t think it’s spring until the wildflowers bloom in May.  Others grumble until the air temperatures are in the 60s or 70s.  Still others wait impatiently for summer.  I relish each and every day of this, the earth’s great awakening, often leaving my house with binoculars in hand.  I pull on hiking boots whenever I can.  I love sinking into cold mud as I hike and don’t mind the rain when it comes.  Early spring is more gray and brown than green, but that’s all right by me.  My dog, Matika, agrees.  Rain or shine, it’s all good.  And every day another harbinger of spring comes, mocking the bleakness.

After winter’s long sigh, the spring breeze is a godsend.  I feel a sudden surge of happiness as a grackle pulls a worm from the ground.  I didn’t know they ate worms – either that or I forgot.  What other small surprises await me this season?  What other forgotten pleasures will I soon enjoy?

The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game, I realize.  Happiness usually comes when we least expect it, in commonplace settings, mostly from inconsequential things.  But I’ll be on the lookout for it this spring all the same – the season of renewal rarely disappointing in that regard.  Yeah, it’s all good, if you are as partial to cold mud as I am.  This season is chock full of it.

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Feb 25 2009

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For the Birds

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Hungry for a little color and vitality in the depths of winter, Judy went out and bought a bird feeder.  We hung it up, along with some suet, and soon added another feeder to the mix.  That was several weeks ago.  Since then, we have thoroughly enjoyed the avian circus playing out just beyond our kitchen window.  Some new species arrives every third day or so.  It’s been a good show and promises to get even more interesting as spring approaches.

Chickadees were the first to find our feeders, of course.  Sparrows, finches and juncos quickly followed.  Because of the suet, we’ve seen some larger birds as well: cardinals, blue jays and even a woodpecker.  That’s a lot of wildbird activity on a blustery, cold, snow-covered day.  Several times during the past few weeks, I’ve asked myself:  “Why didn’t we put up a feeder before now?”  No idea why.  All I know is that a bird identification book and a pair of binoculars rest permanently on our kitchen counter now, and we use them daily.  The newcomers have greatly enriched our lives.

Backyard naturalizing isn’t exactly high adventure, and birdwatching seems particularly genteel – the kind of thing one might expect from graying folks – but I engage in it now and then.  I have friends who are much more into it, who keep life lists, belong to birding organizations, and do bird counts.  I know one fellow who can hear a birdsong in the distance and tell you who’s singing it, nine times out of ten.  I’ve always envied him that.  But my interest in birds has never gone beyond the casual.  As for my wife, Judy, she’s relatively new to birdwatching.  She might really take to it this spring when the warblers return.  We’ll see.

The nice thing about birding is that anyone can do it.  Aside from a pair of binoculars and a bird book, no special gear is required.  And while hardcore birders take trips to faraway, exotic places, one can watch birds just about anywhere.  I first got into it while sitting in front of my bookstore during a slow year.  Yeah, they can be found in cities as well as forests and fields.  I once saw an owl in the middle of the road.  Go figure.

Okay, maybe putting up a feeder and watching birds flock to it is a sign of cabin fever – the desperate act of nature lovers in dire need of something vibrant in the end of winter.  I must admit, my eyes are hungry for green.  Judy’s eyes welcome any color other than brown, white, or gray.  We are both glad to have wildlife in our lives again.

Winter is long here in the North Country.  Some of our biggest snowstorms have come in mid-March.  And piles of the white stuff will linger another month, at least.  But the days are noticeably longer, water drips off roofs at midday, and the sap will start running soon.  Spring will come eventually.  It always does.  Until then our feeders will entertain us, no doubt.  Every day brings some small, new discovery – a great pleasure, always, even though it’s all for the birds.

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Jul 24 2008

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Hearing the Wood Thrush

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The melodic, flute-like song of the wood thrush rang through the trees the other day, stopping me in my tracks the same way it did decades ago when I first heard it. Amazing. That little brown bird still has some strange power over me.

Like Thoreau, I feel the gates of heaven are not shut against me when I hear that song. In fact, they are wide open as I venture ever deeper into the shadowy forest. Manifest in those few simple notes is the great mystery of the wild itself and my unspeakable desire to fuse with it, to become as much a part of the forest as possible. After hearing the wood thrush, each step I take becomes a prayer – a whole new way of being in the world. All the travails of my species become some sad travesty performed in the distance. They are largely irrelevant in the face of the real. And for a second, maybe two, I know what it feels like to be fully human.

For years I have tried to articulate that feeling, to lend words to a visceral belief in the essential goodness of the world. So far I have not succeeded. When I tramp alone in deep woods and hear the thrush, I know in my heart that my own wickedness prevents me from speaking for the wild in any meaningful way. Like all other human beings, I am too arrogant, self-righteous, too caught up in my own sense of self-importance to say what needs to be said. And the moment I try, I become a charlatan.

There are times when I am wild. Standing naked on a rock next to an emerald pool in a mountain stream, dripping wet, I understand as the other animals do exactly what it means to be fully in the world. But that knowledge escapes me as I dress, and I am left wondering if perhaps there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with the way me and my kind have organized our lives down in the developed lowlands. What’s out of whack? I must confess that I have no more of an answer to this question now than I did thirty years ago. All I know is that an essential part of myself is as wild as the forest and no less endangered.

Last night I read an article in Audubon magazine about the wood thrush and how its numbers have diminished over the past half century. My wife brought the piece to my attention suspecting, no doubt, that it contained something I should know about. I can’t say I learned anything new. The article was rife with the kind of environmentalism that has become standard fare in our day and age. But somehow it left me with an even better sense of what the wood thrush stands for and why I continue writing and publishing under that name.

The wood thrush is a bird that needs large patches of unbroken forest to prosper. So do I. And there is still enough primate in all of us, I believe, for this to be universally true. We need the forest, we need the wild in ways that can’t be measured. And if the day comes when there is no longer enough wildland for the wood thrush to survive, then we will not survive either. Life will go on, the planet will turn, and some kind of brainy biped will persist. But not the human.

As goes the wild, goes the human. Of this I am now certain. The only question remaining is which way the story will play out. Will we ultimately win the Darwinian struggle for existence, or will we join the long list of species that have come and gone? The answer, I believe, lies in our collective will to wildness, or the lack thereof.

The great danger, of course, lies in how we define both nature and ourselves. As Emerson said, “Nature converts itself into a vast promise, and will not be rashly explained.” The same can be said about being human. This isn’t easy terrain to navigate. Yet the song of the wood thrush provides a clue as to where to begin. Hearing it, I know I must go deeper into the forest to understand – much deeper. The wild is waiting for me there.

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