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.

Dried hydrangea

It’s probably not surprising that, as a birder, I occasionally dream about birds. Almost always, the birds I see in my dreams are unidentifiable. Instead of dreaming I saw actual tanagers, buntings, or grosbeaks, I often dream of seeing some weird creature I’ve never seen in books: the kind of creature you’d say you’d never dreamed of.

Rain on hydrangea leaves

In these dreams, I’m always without a field guide, so I spend most of the dream staring at the unusual bird and reciting its field marks to myself, forcing myself to remember a combination of colors that seems so striking, you’d think it would be easy to identify later. In nearly all instances, though, I wake up without remembering exactly what I saw. Was it an orange bird with green wings and a purple head? Or was it a purple bird with green wing-bars and an orange rump? Whether or not I actually remember any of the details, though, the simple fact remains: the birds of my dreams don’t exist. Even if I could remember their field marks, I’ll never find them in any field guide because they represent an idea that doesn’t exist outside of dreams.

One night last week, I dreamed I saw an unbelievably bright, lemon-colored bird, the size and stockiness of a large sparrow. It literally glowed in the tree it was in, its plumage similar in color to the reflective, Day-Glo vests that runners wear after dark to avoid getting hit by cars. More incredible, though, was the texture of its individual feathers, which were curly, giving the bird the nubbled appearance of a close-cropped poodle or short-tufted Berber rug. In my dream, the astonishing nature of this bird’s plumage reminded me of the overlapping, crowded and curled petals of dry hydrangea flowers, leading me to repeat to myself over and over, astonished, this most remarkable of field marks: “It looks like a yellow hydrangea-head! It looks like a yellow hydrangea-head!” And then I woke up.

Flyby

Last weekend, on our way home from seeing the sand sculptures at Revere Beach, J and I took a short stroll at Belle Isle Marsh in East Boston, a place we’d talked about exploring ever since our first outing to Revere Beach last October.

Egrets

Belle Isle is the last remaining salt marsh in Boston, and Belle Isle Marsh Reservation preserves 152 of the marsh’s 241 acres. Although most of the reservation is too marshy to be of much use to humans, these wetlands harbor a diverse population of plants, fish, shellfish, and birds.

More amenable to human visitors are the 28 acres of reservation land that are maintained as a park with landscaping, paths, and benches. Belle Isle Marsh is popular with local dog-walkers, baby strollers, and bird-watchers who don’t have cars, as the marsh is easily accessible via public transportation. Belle Isle is the kind of place you can drop by, briefly explore, and be back on your way, having taken a mini-vacation in less than an hour. While J and I explored the marsh last weekend, we saw several families taking afternoon walks with dogs and children, a chatty throng of middle-aged men on bicycles, and several lone men who seemed content simply to sit on benches in the sun. Belle Isle Marsh isn’t the kind of place tourists travel miles to see; instead, it’s a hidden jewel appreciated mostly by local folks.

Overhead

And then there are the planes. Although J and I went to Belle Isle Marsh intending to watch egrets, gulls, and other marsh birds, the most conspicuous “birds” flying overhead last weekend were of the silver-bellied gas-guzzling variety. Belle Isle Marsh is in East Boston, which means it’s directly in the flight path of Logan Airport. The egrets, gulls, and other marsh birds don’t seem to mind sharing airspace with silver-bellied gas-guzzlers; in fact, by the time we left Belle Isle, it somehow seemed natural to see wading birds fishing for aquatic morsels while a constant stream of planes flew overhead.

Humans, like many birds, are migratory creatures, their comings and goings following airline timetables rather than seasons. From the ground looking up, flybys are always awe-inspiring, regardless of whether the flying creature is feathered or jet-fueled.

Click here for a photo-set of images from Belle Isle Marsh. Enjoy!