My morning journaling practice was rebounding, a good feeling in the midst of uncertain times personally, locally, and globally. Absentminded words about what I could hear outside filled in behind my left hand. A flash of shape and color stirred me from my pleasant stupor. The cat had jumped to the window to watch what I was hearing, the movements of birds through the thin walls of my home. I peeled myself from a blanket and rummaged through my backpack. Binoculars might be another encumbrance, but this brick of lens and light is a cherished treasure, a life-long aid in standing up and paying attention.
Hearing voices in the treetops draws eyes to feathered forms. Echoes of twirls and leaps were flickering on alder boles, mingling with lightly waving shadows of toothed leaves against feathered lichen. Bouncing in the chartreuse were vireos, warblers, juncos, wrens, grosbeaks. I cannot stop myself from assigning names and behaviors, assuming segmentation of their habitual stratigraphy, as these beings went about their day mostly unaware of my second story perch close but also quite far. What I try to call up when I watch birds is not a clinical drone, but the impractical wonder of life that goes on all around. Does it cease to exist if I don’t stand up and peer out the window?
In my journal I had just been remarking on the number of Hutton’s Vireos of late. They are a much overlooked character, lost in the canopy, looking like a husky kinglet. An endless prattle of single notes and little wheezings pierce the air as they dart across the mottled alder canopy. I can only assume they are eating the caterpillars that have poked holes through many of the leaves, through which I catch glimpses of hooked bills and white spectacles, betraying stout and tan songbirds. Maybe I’ve been projecting, or my subconscious has been making connections without me, because there are a lot of vireos up there. Half a dozen flitting beasts chasing each other in the early sunshine of what promises to be a blazing day.
With them are their cream-bellied, clear-eyed cousins, Warbling Vireos. I almost missed them because they are silent, but equal in their frantic aerialism. As I wrote that last sentence, the world, invariably recalcitrant, pulled up a series of notes from the bird I was watching. What might be discernible as a bird of the year in my hand while banding, is not from my perch, but I do notice one of them begging for food from another. This is despite that the tree appears to hold plenty of choice morsels. Why else would they be there?
Also “silent” are Pacific-slope Flycatchers, spending more time sitting and flicking their tails than dancing. These wallflowers need to sit still and watch the flying insects they eat. Vireos busily investigate nooks and crannies, extending necks and tilting heads to peer on the undersides of leaves for green wrigglies.
I saw a flycatcher recently feeding a baby Brown-headed Cowbird. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness for this parent, doomed to feed only this unrelated bird, who will soon wander off on its own, detracting from the flycatcher gene pool. Fledgling cowbirds this time of year are often found plodding about on open ground, singular and seeming to be lost but far from it. On a nearby beach, while watching Puget Sound Gumweed swarm with bumble and digger bees, I noticed an indistinct brown bird drawn to the insects drifting about the tide wracks. Despite myself, I wondered if it was the same cowbird I’d seen being fed by that flycatcher in the pine tree in my yard. We have cowbirds everywhere because we cut down all the trees and killed all the buffalo in favor of cows, which are now everywhere. By we, I mean White people.
Standing out among the mossy backs of the other birds are Wilson’s Warblers. Not skulking in shrubs, spitting out staccato songs as they do in spring, but out in the open, part of the alder fest. Two unimaginably yellow birds with black caps, that out hue the few turning leaves, yellow from many dry days and impending fall. Even more than the vireos, they can’t seem to sit still and they shortly drift beyond my spyhole.
It seems almost ridiculous that I can stand and watch these birds out my window. They prepare to fly off to the Neotropics. I prepare to write words they’ll never comprehend about their lives, which I will never fully comprehend.
I sometimes wonder what will fail me first, my eyes or my ears (as if those will even be singular events). When I first got glasses, I remember walking outside the downtown Ballard optometrist, and looking up to the top of a Douglas fir, and seeing the individual fresh needles on its peak and the papery husks that fold away from male flowers. I saw such detail that I had forgotten was there, in a combination of near-sightedness and being a twenty first century teenager distracted by girls, computer games, and the need to be cool.
Recently I went to the doctor because I had a strange deep reverberation in my ear. I discovered that liquid had built up in my inner ear from some unknown mallady. Like my donning of glasses, bringing out details in the world, this was temporary and I seem to have my full hearing back.
If I had to choose which would go first, I’d choose neither because they are interwoven with my senses, reminding me that being human is about looking outside yourself as well as attending to the deep vibrations within. What if I lost my sense of touch or taste instead? We take too much for granted.
My morning, had I simply sat and pondered the noises out the window, wouldn’t have been a terrible one. My coffee would have been sipped warm. Currently it is tepid, from the hour I stood at the window gawking while the cat lobbied for an early breakfast with soft twists between my bare legs. Would I have been more, or less human without this pause to step outside my head to admire the intricate shadowboxing across the late summer layers of alder leaves? I suspect I would have merely continued to have a conversation with myself, unheard and unseen, but pretending to pay attention.