Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is the title of Anne Lamott’s revered book, subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, so I couldn’t resist borrowing it for this mini-tale of amateur birding.

The origins of the title, as explained by Lamott, are sweet, and an encouragement for any pursuit, birding or otherwise:

 Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

I was a bit overwhelmed myself when I sat down to do my part for Project Feederwatch recently. I was not overwhelmed by the task itself, but rather by the realization that it was truly quite difficult to commit to sit for at least an hour at a time, at least 2 days in a row. What does this say about me, and about my life? Well, part of it is a general tendency towards restlessness, but at least in equal measure it speaks to how much there is to do. This is a wakeup call to keep an eye on what is truly important—not just essential “to dos”—some of which are unavoidable–but what actually matters. I’ve decided that the birds matter greatly. Mary Oliver wrote something that resonates with me deeply in this regard, because the experience of attending to them did feel like an act of meaningful devotion:

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And looking up “attend” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, I realize it means so much more than “show up:”

attend (v.)

c.1300, “to direct one’s mind or energies,” from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + tendere “stretch” (see tenet). The notion is of “stretching” one’s mind toward something. Sense of “take care of, wait upon” is from early 14c. Meaning “to pay attention” is early 15c.; that of “to be in attendance” is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.

I like the idea that I was stretching my mind toward the birds at the feeder, taking care of them, waiting upon them… waiting for them to show me so many moments of joy, and also literally being their waitress (slinging bird hash by trudging through the deep snow to their dining room!) .

What a delight to realize that there are whole communities of birds that are visiting my yard daily, most starting their nests and families and some passing through. And how nice, also, to see fellow bird adorers like me pipe in on Facebook, where I took a poll to figure out if I had Dark-eyed Juncos eating my seeds.

Just 2 hours on 2 snowy days (and, full disclosure, on the first day I was SUPPOSED to be working and not looking out the window every 5 minutes) yielded a great mix, the most exotic being my Kestrel (yes, mine: I feel some possessiveness about her), who was not at the feeder but on a nearby deck post. I was surprised by the 2 types of woodpeckers, who I rarely spot with casual glances around the neighborhood. And, by the way, has anyone noticed that the birds seem to congregate at the feeder when it is snowing? Of course, food is harder to find as it becomes covered up but maybe they also know how gorgeous they look among the snowflakes?. Here’s some more information on birds in cold weather.

One of the nicest moments was the iridescent appearance of our Mourning Doves as they flew down to the ground below the feeder. We see them often in our driveway and I hadn’t before appreciated their beauty in flight.

The Project FeederWatch system asked me to confirm the Kestrel—apparently an unlikely find for my area this time of year. But, yes, I’m pretty sure it was a female American Kestrel (Northern) after checking several Google images. It perched just a little way off from these species:

Mourning Dove

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

American Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

I think I need to apply Lamott’s advice to both writing and birding. One word at a time, one gift of a winged moment at a time. I’m looking forward to more Bird by Birding.

Morning with Raptors (Soundtrack included)

One morning recently, when it was just barely light, I stopped the electric toothbrush to listen. Unseen, coming from a tree over the garage, an Eastern Screech Owl cried. I am a truly amateur bird watcher and listener, so I had only a faint idea about what I was hearing. But the nice thing about being an amateur these days is that you have a world of resources just a few key strokes away. To me, the screech sounded like half whinny, half screaming woman—it sent a chill of alarm through me before I figured out that it was a raptor. Here’s a link to the audio. The dramatic, human quality of the call reminded me of the start to Mystery on PBS years ago (the part of this video where the helpless woman is crying in distress from atop, for some reason, a large tombstone. Creepy, with Edward Gorey graphics.)

I loved the unexpected treat of this unseen visitor. That owl sat on the same branch, I think, where Gavin had once spotted a juvenile bald eagle, in all its magnificence, looking down at our garage. (we have mice and chipmunk visitors to the garage—has the word spread in the bird of prey community?). I was so impressed I had to try a poem that day (it’s at the bottom of this post).

What was it about this particular Saturday morning that had the raptors showing themselves to me? A half hour after the Screech Owl, I was only two blocks into my walk when I pulled out my iPhone to try to record a Red-Shouldered Hawk at the very top of a tall pine. My friend Chris paused her own walk to stare up and take photos with me, and I had a new appreciation for nature photographers/videographers. Of course, I had no zoom lens, but to even get just a recognizable profile I had to wait, patiently, until the guy (or gal) turned his/her head. And I started to feel like the bird was intentionally withholding its call now that I was trying to capture it. I got a neck cramp watching and waiting, but finally it graced me with its song and I hit the “record” button with success. Here’s a link to hear what the hawk sounds like (my free version of WordPress won’t let me upload videos, but I am quite proud of my own recorded song). Here’s the best picture I managed (as handy as the phone camera is, I am putting a compact camera with zoom on my wish list):redShoulderhawk

Last year, Gavin and I attended an Audubon Society “Owl Prowl”—a nighttime walk in the freezing cold led by an expert birder and caller. The only owl we saw and heard was the baby one they were rehabilitating inside—I think it may have been another Eastern Screech (I remember its fluffy ear tufts). But it was endlessly amusing to witness this 50- or 60-something woman expertly contorting her vocal chords to cry out like an owl. I don’t remember her doing the Eastern Screech call though—that would have been an impressive feat. I see there’s another Owl Prowl in the works (this one in Milford, CT, but, for locals, I bet others will be scheduled soon—watch the Audubon Web sites).

And this strays from the raptor topic, since I’ve never seen a raptor at my bird feeder, but Project FeederWatch, an opportunity to be a citizen scientist and tune in more to birds even as the winter weather zooms in (an initiative by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada) is underway. Participants are asked to select 2 feeder watch days at least a week apart, and record what they see. If you get into it, winter also brings the Great Backyard Bird Count in February 2015. I am not a cold weather lover but the distraction of birding makes it a much more enriching time for me!

Wishing you your own morning with raptors, for it truly is a gift to be visited by these magnificent creatures.

Should I remember anything of this day,
it will be the bald eagle on bare branch
framed against the Sunday afternoon sky

Watched me watching him,
nearly motionless,
incongruous in his largeness

Stayed during my afternoon nap
(perhaps he had one too),
screeched as I roused,
just before he flew

I searched each limb from
every pane of my own aerie

Found him again between
the spaces in this poem