Birds


Carolina wren

This morning when I took the trash and recycling out to the garage, I heard a Carolina wren singing so loudly, I knew it had to be perched on the wooden fence along our driveway–and there it was, singing and flitting before dropping into our neighbors’ yard, out of sight.

These days, I do most of my birding by ear. Listening to birds is the ultimate form of multitasking, as you can keep an ear out while doing chores, walking the dog, or walking from house to car then from car to office. Any time you’re outside, you can keep an ear out for birds, and even if you can’t identify all the songs you hear, you can listen for anything different from the usual sonic backdrop. When you hear something unusual, stop and look around.

On this morning’s dog-walk, I heard the usual suburban suspects–blue jay, chickadee, titmouse, mourning dove, cardinal, house sparrow, house finch, song sparrow, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, and the aforementioned Carolina wren–all without the need to crane my neck or reach for binoculars. Birding by ear is a hands-free and completely immersive endeavor: you needn’t worry about looking in the wrong direction or having a bird sneak up on you since sound happens in all directions.

Many of the birds I see are ones I hear first, like a yellow-bellied sapsucker I saw earlier this year only because I looked up after hearing its distinctive squeal. It’s almost as if birds are trying to catch our attention.

Spruce

Today was a sunny day, and the birds think it’s spring. This morning I heard both a tufted titmouse and a white-throated sparrow singing. The white-throat was whistling softly and tentatively, as if trying to remember the words to a tune he hadn’t sung in a while: “Old…old Sam…old…old Sam Peeeaaa!”

The titmouse, on the other hand, was singing emphatically–so emphatically, in fact, I didn’t immediately notice the urgent whistles trickling through my barely-open bathroom window: “Peter! Peter! Peter!” It’s a song I hear constantly here in the suburbs in the spring and summer, but not now–not recently–so it was a jolt when my consciousness clicked to recognize it. Titmouse!

Then on this morning’s dogwalk, I saw a large shadow slice across the street, followed by soaring wings overhead: four turkey vultures circling over a neighbor’s house, roused from their roost when he took his elderly Shih Tzu outside.

“Are they coming for Patchy?” he worried.

“Oh, no,” I reassured. “Their beaks and feet are too weak to grasp and kill live prey, so they’re looking for roadkill.”

More alarming than a vulture’s appetite, though, is their very presence so early in the year. Mass Audubon tells me turkey vultures typically return to New England in March or maybe February, but here we are in late January, and at least some vultures have returned: another sign of a warming world where the birds think January is Spring.


Holly in snow

If my eyes were a camera I could use while driving, I’d show you yesterday’s bald eagle soaring over Route 9, its path bisecting a flannel-gray sky fringed with snowy trees.

Two redtails with crow

On this morning’s dogwalk, I heard a murder of crows cawing loudly from a cluster of backyard pine trees. There were a dozen or more birds flying and calling, but I couldn’t see what was triggering their reaction. The crows were clearly upset, but instead of ganging up against a specific antagonist, their distress was unfocused, as if they sensed danger but couldn’t locate its exact location.

Suddenly a red-tailed hawk zoomed from the opposite side of the street, flying low with a fringe of crows on its tail. And just like that, the cawing stopped: once the hawk had flown out of sight, the crows quieted and returned one by one to the pine they’d claimed as their own: hawk gone, mission accomplished.

I didn’t capture any photos of this morning’s interaction, but years ago I snapped a photo of a single crow harassing a pair of red-tails: an enmity that goes way back.


Turkey quintet

Last night while I was writing postcards for the Georgia Senate runoff in December, I heard a great-horned owl hooting in the darkness outside. Long winter nights are the domain of owls and other nocturnal creatures, and this one was intent on reclaiming his own.

This morning after I’d finished my morning kitchen tasks and before I ventured out to walk the dog, I heard the cluck and clatter of one or more wild turkeys flying from our yard into a neighbor’s tree. It’s their neighborhood: we just live here.


Pumpkin

Today was a proper Melvillean day: drippy and cold, as November is supposed to be. On this morning’s dog-walk, while Roxy was sniffing wet leaves beneath a woodsy cluster of pine and maple, I saw a white-throated sparrow skulking in the pine duff.

Skulk” is a word rarely used by respectable folks but regularly used by birders. Criminals skulk, but so do sparrows and winter wrens and occasionally brown creepers. If you’re a small, nondescript bird, there’s no shame in skulking: sparrows, wrens, and creepers know the good stuff is low on the ground, in the undergrowth beneath trees and shrubs.

These shady spots are the same places where children hide: kids are also skulkers, knowing that small spaces are portals into wonder and magic. Forget the crowds basking in the sun: seek out the hidden corners under tables, beneath blankets, and under nodding tree limbs: the secret gardens and treasure troves where only the skulkers go.


Backyard cardinal

It’s a hot and sunny day, with clear skies, so J and I are hoping to see Comet NEOWISE tonight, either in our backyard, which is fringed with trees, or at the neighborhood Little League field, which provides a broad, less obstructed view.

In advance of sundown, I’ve gotten my binoculars out, and in doing so, I realize I can’t remember the last time I used them, which is a shame since they are a nice set of optics–Nikon Monarchs–with a pleasing heft in the hand.

Birding is something I used to enjoy, which is to say it is something I enjoyed when I made time for it. There is a hushed expectancy that birding inspires–you train yourself to be quiet and attentive, honed to notice anything that looks or sounds usual.

This watchful demeanor is something birding and meditation share–both require you to intentionally focus your attention. When I used to go on Brookline Bird Club bird walks at Mount Auburn Cemetery, I’d practice the art of selective attention, peeling back the layers of conversation among the birders around me to focus on the faint chirps and whistles in the background, like removing a song’s vocal track to focus on the bass line.

When you go birding, you aren’t necessarily looking for any particular bird–or at least, I’ve never had much luck looking for and then finding a specific species. Instead, you keep your eyes and ears open for anything that seems different from the norm–a sound that doesn’t match the ambient noise, or a movement that runs counter to the usual grain.

In this sense, birding is as much about looking for clues as it is about hunting down specific species–or at least, that is how it usually works for me. The most interesting things I find are usually the things that appear by accident or surprise, like an unexpected eruption of mushrooms after summer storms.

This is why looking for wildflowers underfoot is a great accompaniment for listening to birds overheard. While you occupy your fidgety mind with one thing, you create an expectant opening for something else to appear.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

Immature Cooper's hawk

On Friday afternoon while I was out running my usual weekly errands, I saw an immature Cooper’s hawk perched on the lattice outside Eastern Bank on Commonwealth Avenue. I was at the gas station next door, so I got out of my car, took several pictures, walked over to the bank and took several more, then returned to my car to pump gas before driving away.

Immature Cooper's hawk

During the five minutes or so I was walking around a bank obviously taking pictures, not only did nobody ask what I was doing, nobody even acknowledged my presence. I had, in other words, reached peak invisibility as a Middle-Aged White Woman. Had I been a black- or brown-skinned man taking pictures outside a bank on a Friday night, how long would it have taken for someone to report my suspicious behavior?

Immature Cooper's hawk

I remember taking pictures once on a side street near MIT’s nuclear engineering labs. The buildings look unremarkable from the outside but presumably contain sensitive research inside. I was crouched on the sidewalk photographing an interestingly-angled shadow when a campus security vehicle pulled up and an officer gruffly asked through a lowered window what exactly I was doing.

Filler 'er up

I straightened up and offered some feeble explanation about noticing an interesting shadow on the sidewalk, but it was immediately clear it didn’t matter what I said. The officer simply chuckled and good-naturedly told me to Carry On, his entire demeanor changing the moment he saw I was the most (presumably) harmless of creatures, a Middle-Aged White Woman.

Peekaboo

I know the suspicion that awaits black- and brown-skinned folks who commit the crime of birding while black. Cameras and binoculars are tools of surveillance: threatening in the “wrong” hands, but innocuous if those hands are older and whiter. In broad daylight on a Friday afternoon in suburban Boston, a sharp-clawed killer was perched in plain sight, but nobody noticed him or the presumably harmless individual who both spied and shot him. “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the age of homeland insecurity, but what happens when your preconceived notions knit a veil of blindness right over your eyes?

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Next Page »