On Birdwatching

There’s a sort of cliché that it’s boring to listen to someone describe their dreams. It seems strange that it should be so, considering dreams exist in a bright, perplexing, logic-defying world. A world where anything and everything is possible; where fears, desires, and memories mingle. A world where you can create anything you can imagine, you can create things you can’t even imagine. A world where you can fly! Maybe it’s because words fail to capture dreams. I was thinking the other day that it’s a little like that with birdwatching. When you see a certain bird, it seems like the most important moment in the world, and something you should tell everyone about, it feels like a magical event. And we’ve been birdwatching for so long that memories of the birds we’ve seen and the places we’ve seen them are woven into the shifting layers of the years. But words can’t really do justice to the moment of catching a glimpse into the bright, unexpected dream-winged world of the birds.

We started birdwatching back in our courting days. We’d wake up as close to dawn as we could muster, we’d stop at Dunkin Donuts for some sweet coffee, and we’d listen to the Sudson Country radio show on the way out. Despite having been born in Kansas, I’d never listened to a lot of country music, and I’d never heard the classics. Kitty Wells, the undisputed queen of country; Lefty Frizzell, with his sweet, gentle voice; Hank Williams, with his twangy sass – they all seemed to fit, somehow, with our sleepy mood and the slanting morning light. Then we’d find our field or our trail, and we’d begin the slow, silent walk, stopping at every flutter of wings in the trees over our heads, stopping at every shifting leaf or burst of song, while the world and the field warmed up, and the sun brought out the sharp sweet smells of grass and nettles, multiflora rose and honeysuckle.

It’s hard to describe the thrill of seeing your first yellowthroat, your first oriole, warblers, vireos…good lord – wood thrushes and veeries – with their hopeful, haunting songs. It boggled my mind that all of these birds had been here, all along, so vivid, so loud. They weren’t new. I’d never bothered to look at them, I’d never taken the time to look up, and discover the colorful teeming world in the tangled branches of the trees. We’d come home and write our finds in a little turquoise-covered blank book that I’d been saving for years for something special. Birdwatching is a little like falling in love, in a way – you catch a glimpse of something bright and beautiful. You can’t believe it’s really alive, with its small warmth and its fast-beating heart. You’ve heard about it; you’ve read about it in your bird book. Other people claim to have seen it, but, frankly, you’re a little skeptical. You’re not convinced it even exists. Then when you’ve got it, you hold it in your sight, you know you’ll never understand it, but you try to identify it, this wild, fragile, lively thing.

After so many years we know who to expect in each place, certain birds come back year after year. But in May–in May–the warblers pass through. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? They never tell us! Mexico to Canada? Farther? Some stay with us for the summer, but many only stop by for a day or two, so to see one is remarkable, a bit of grace. They’re small and bright and feisty and busy. They each have their own song, which we have to learn again each year, which comes back like the memory of a dream. A yellow warbler sings Sweeta Sweeta Sweet Sweet Sweet from the treetops, a blue winged warbler hides in the dappled leaf-shade, and has a song like a sigh, inhale/exhale.

By mid-June it’s the old familiar birds, we hope to see them–we expect to see them, and hear them. Some birds, like the wood thrush and the veery, have songs you almost feel more than hear. The sound is moving on a different level from any other bird song, from any other sound in the world. I love the indigo bunting. A top-of-the-tree singer. Dark and unremarkable in certain lights, but when the sun hits him just right he’s the most beautiful, glowing, singing blue–shifting cerulean, lapis, indigo. I love anything that changes depending on the way you look at it.

One of our favorite birds to see is a Cuckoo. Cuckoos are famously hard to see, because they’re lurkers, they’re shy. Once, we thought we saw one, but it was very far away, and suspiciously similar to a kingbird. But I thought, if it’s just the two of us, and we both want to see a cuckoo, and we both decide we’ve seen a cuckoo, then we’ve seen a cuckoo! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about people seeing what they want to see and hearing what they want to hear. It’s such a tempting and dangerous practice to read the universe around you as you want to read it. We all do it, on some level, it’s unavoidable. I suppose the trick is to be aware of it, and then to expand and bend your universe-reading powers to the light, if possible. Eventually we did definitively see a pair of cuckoos, startlingly handsome, in plain view for quite a while. And you’ll never guess what they called us!

Everything talks to you, if you listen. The oracle of Delphi sits on a stool above a chasm in a rock, inhaling vapors from the earth. She makes predictions, in a gibberish language, and then a priest interprets them and predicts the future. But we don’t need a priest, we can hear what we want to hear, we can predict our future as we want to shape it, as everything around us is telling us it can be, if we listen carefully. And the birds speak in a language we don’t understand, but that’s ok. That’s wonderful, because it’s not for us, it’s for each other, it’s theirs.

Of course it feels more valuable to see a rarer bird. A blue jay or a cardinal is as pretty as a tanager or an indigo bunting, but we see them all the time, so we’re not as grateful to see them. But maybe we should be. Every starling or pigeon or crow, all of the baby house sparrows using our yard as a playpen, they’re all remarkable creatures: each a perfect combination of feathers, soft warm perfectly-weighted body, and their very own song. They’re all from a bright perplexing world of their own, a world they see from above, a world where they can fly.

2 replies »

  1. A lovely visit to the world of birds – that we’ve only begun to discover. Prompts me to hike with Jane and Charley – once the stormy weather passed, Par


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