Category Archives: birds

old lady marsh hawk

Ran into an old lady on my run. I was standing in the road – a crushed asphalt road fronting the marsh – binoculars out, watching a shoveler cruising the reeds of the far shore.
“Can I tell you something?” she said.
“Sure you can.”
Had I ever seen a heron on the road, she asked. A big great blue heron on the road?
I knew the answer. No, I said.
“He was walking up and down,” she said. “Up by the bridge.”
By bridge she meant the wooden footbridge connecting a dirt parking lot with the stadium.
The old lady was walking with a cane, in an old parka and loose pants, a baseball cap. She was watching me out of the corner of her eye as she spoke, and also watching the marsh, relishing her story.
“Then out from under the bridge came three little ones in the water, not a feather between them.” She laughed. “And then the mother came right behind them.”
I’d seen a heron many times in the marsh, I said, but nothing like that. I was thinking how birders seem to be mesmerized by herons in the same way some are by trains or tankers. The thing is just so large. Its largeness is bottomless for them. But this old lady’s story was better of course. Big birds with their tiny young are an impressive, and somewhat rare, sight.
“I’ll keep my eyes out,” I said, aware that the story was over, starting to walk again, readying to break into a run.
“Oh, it’s been a bit now. It’ll be too late,” she said, pleased.

"Can I tell you something?" she asked.

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Snow day, with birds

junco and robin pass by


Everyone was out today. Everyone came to visit. Or as my mother has come to call them, “my livestock,” the birds. Most every one of them came by to eat.

It was the snow. The snow came down in the night. While we were asleep, my wife and I, the Husband and the Wife.

The snow was still falling when I came into the kitchen, just before sunup, to make coffee. The humming bird was in the fir tree where he always is, my wild helper for washing dishes. He saw me from his perch, the lone curved twig. Among the same green needles, heavy and clodded into islands of snow. He came down through the needles the way all hummingbirds do, lowering himself in a series of meticulously articulated, orthogonal moves. Hovering, dropping, stopping. Then lateral. Then dropping, then lateral again. Until he was at the feeder of sugar water piled like the needles with snow. He couldn’t find the flowers to drink from. He made a show of it. He flew to each of the four perches, sticking his bill in the snow. Pulling it out snowy.

I put on shoes and went out into the snow. The fir tree was drooping with all the weight so it was easy to be of help. I just reached up, about chin level, and brushed away the snow. The hummer buzzed around me as I worked. He made his wings hum in a loud thrum. It was awesome. I could have caught him easily. He was there, very close, showing me how difficult it all was, prying futilely at the underside of the yellow plastic petals – the wrong spot to try as it always has been, and a spot normally he wouldn’t try at all. So I did a little more finish work, brushed a bit more of the snow away. Made it as close as I could to the perfection of his flying technique. Before long, after I’d gone back inside, not long after the coffee was done and poured into a cup, with food warming on the stove and in the oven, he was back at his perch on the twig. And at the feeder, I couldn’t believe it, a woman hummingbird was drinking.

A girlfriend! Finally a mate. Before today, he’d chased off every hummer ever since he moved in, made the sugar water his own, chattering and insistent, nasal divebomber, spiraling over the pear tree and behind the roof of the neighbor’s house in hot pursuit. Women or men it didn’t matter which. For more than a year now, my sugar water has been his and only his. Always preferring to be alone on his twig. Restful, blinking, occasionally drinking. Puffed into a soft round ball in winter. Thin and glimmering in summer, hard as an ornament.

Today was different. While she drank, her spear wings at rest, rocking lightly, he sat a few feet above her totally unconcerned. Preening, running his bill through his feathers, stretching his feathers free. She was in. She’s his girlfriend.

The flickers were out front hammering the suet. Wary as they always are. Never caught by cats. Loose spotted feathers like a slinky skin. Two new ones today, out front anyway. Younger, smaller, but still big. One with a barbed moustache. Both with black bibs.
“We’re on the flicker map,” I said. “Finally.” The wife said, “Took forever.”

Seems like it was about two years, as awful as that sounds.
The towhees came to the suet one-by-one, sitting on the cake of fat, cramming themselves against the feeder and looking into the house. Or at themselves in the reflection of the glass, maybe it was that. Pecking into the cake. Sitting there chewing and looking.

More than ever. Like all the other birds today. With the snow coming down. Maybe they were more visible against all the white. But definitely they were more. Maybe they were filling up. Not knowing how long the snow would hide the ground. They’re instincts told them to go out.

The bushtits, they huddled against each other like bats. With their musical sounds, keeping track of one another as they moved through. And they are always moving through. A swarm on its daily rounds. Never around long. Their muted peeping preceding them. Always heard first. And unlike other birds, who are solo or in small loose groups, the bushtits freely brush against one another at the fatcake. As they land they bump onto each other, softening their landing. And none mind. There is no fighting among them, the way finches, sparrows and hummingbirds fight. The bushtits were eating as many as four side-by-side on the cake, wing to wing, back to the world. And always, as is their specialty, eating upside-down. The ones eating not having to watch because the ones in line or in the hedge and in the bushes were. They came around a few different times today, and in larger numbers than I’ve ever seen. Maybe there were twenty birds on the cake and feeder.

The wren was about out back. He was working along the house, checking my sandals, the grill, the wood pile. Gleaning the pine and the big cedar. The flickers were out back too, working the big cedar vertically. Going down it slow and awkward like an elevator with a hundred stops. The wren went sideways crablike, twitching his curved bill no, his tail up, erect.

The varied thrush, at least one, came through with some robins. They were working the needles under the pine, where the snow was less. There is something starstruck about a varied thrush. Standing there. Waiting. Listening. Catching so much light with the mottled orange against gunmetal greys.

They tolerated the thrush, but not much. Kept chasing him from under the pine into the open. He would fly out of sight into the cedar. Then return. And for awhile the robins wouldn’t notice.

They left delicate prints hopping through the snow. One chased another through the bare branches of the winter bushes. Then another chase ensued on the deck. Unusual to see, among juncos, for me anyway.

While the Wife and I were at Cantebury – we’d stopped for lunch on our way out for groceries – a hawk, maybe a sharp-shinned or a cooper’s, flew right down 15th. People were cross country skiing in the street. People were out walking, just out to see how the world was different now that there was the snow. Such a good day in that way. So the hawk flew low and then braked with both wings, soaring abruptly up and then dropping lightly onto a telephone wire just outside the bar. People on the far sidewalk, five of them, each in a different hat, stopped to take in the hawk. They looked vaguely rockband like. Young and very cool anyway. They stood long enough, and the Wife and I craned our necks long enough, that people in the booths deeper in the room asked, “What are they looking at out there?”

“A hawk,” I said, turning around only long enough to see that pretty much everyone was wondering what was going on out in the snow.

And someone half-said, then muffled short their question, but I heard it – “What kind of hawk?”

I laughed. I leaned across the old table to my wife. “Did you hear that?” I said. “Someone also asked, ‘What kind?’ But they knew someone would say, ‘What kind? That guy’s crazy.’”

But I’d heard. I knew. There was another bird lover in our midst. Such uplifting snow. Even the bird lovers were out in the wide open.

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