Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Seen and the Unseen

This has happened to me before. A journal begun confidently in January, meandering wryly through March, only to founder in April and get stuck in the too-muchness of spring.

It's the birds' fault.  Between April and late May, there's this amazing influx of birds, most foraging and sojourning on their way north, some staying. Each bird occupies a particular place of resonance, especially in those first re-encounters. The fashionable new, whistleable cadenza of a Baltimore oriole, accompanied by its brilliant tangerine in a treetop. The bell-flute of a wood thrush, slightly echoey, the way they like it, in the woods. The darting, precise energy of multiple warblers and kinglets, various flickers of color, here-I-ams of song. It's equal parts reunion, capture, and wish-fulfillment, to be repeated in various woods, meadows, and cemeteries every eligible early morning, alone, with a friend, or in a company of fellow obsessives.

So this blog entry, like its title, and the whole agony-reward syndrome that birding is, has been an elusive quarry. I'm not even sure if I've got a good purchase on it now, three paragraphs in. The thing to do is watch for movement and keep hopeful. This often works better with writing than it does with birds.

Birds want to be noticed by rivals or potential mates, but not necessarily by human stalkers holding up clunky eye-extenders. On the other hand, there is the curiosity factor. What are we up to? Sometimes a threat needs to be checked out. Or sometimes we occupy a zone of opportunity: food, roost, nest site. Or at least the neutral zone of familiarity. They must have assigned us a certain place in their own inner Field Guide to Non-Birds, maybe subdividing the friendlies (birders) from the bewares (quail hunters, homewreckers, etc.). Whatever the odds, to see or not to see is a game of chance that can produce cinematic memories that you replay for decades, like the two pileated woodpeckers I saw in a forest clearing in Nova Scotia, or bitter confirmation of your lousy juju.

How much is skill and how much is luck? They intertwine. You work the chance. Hear the call, recognize it, follow it to the right tree, catch the movement (knowing where to look) and it emerges! in full sunlight! Or you lose the damn landmark between the eye and the binoculars and it disappears behind a barrier of leaves and before you have it, it flies away, a brief fleeing silhouette that is a seeing of sorts, but offering no kiss of color, nothing for the memory or even the imagination.

Does it help to have another set of eyes? Probably. I think of the indigo bunting singing away in the copse of trees by the stump dump at the Brooks Estate. I peered. Nothing. The song moved. It's a very cheerful song, but brief, like a memorized aphorism.  I studied the array of trees, watching for a clue, like a golfer regarding the lie. Another birder approached. He resembled a young Irish schoolteacher, with Yeatsian round glasses. He guided me to another spot, a different angle on the copse. He confirmed it was still there and fed me a careful map of reference points: the main tree, the leaning branch, the treeline behind, halfway up, and then I had it. As deeply glowingly blue as indigo buntings ever get in a shaft of late-afternoon sunlight. I drank it in. "I couldn't have done it without you," I said, and there was gratitude in that, and also a little bitterness. The bird you find on your own has a certain intimacy: you were meant for each other. But there is the pleasure of sharing: the ensemble moan of a group seeing the sunset throat of a Blackburnian warbler... And do I prefer self-failing to assisted-succeeding? What are you, crazy?

It also helps to be in the right place at the right time. I was at Mt. Auburn Cemetery early in May with friends, pursuing some warbler or other. I'd fallen into conversation, and by the time I caught up with my friend Helen, I learned what I had just missed by minutes. Flying over the cemetery in graceful formation was a trio of sandhill cranes. My grail bird! I had once missed seeing it by a day in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia. I had long fantasized about making a pilgrimage to the Platte River in Nebraska or Bosque del Apache in New Mexico where sandhills gather by the thousands. And here in the sky--three sandhill cranes passing overhead in formation. A rendezvous I had failed to keep. A picture I had to create from other people's descriptions and, in consolation, a photograph.

Not that it was a bad spring. I had a splendid encounter with a chestnut-sided warbler, didn't see a Canada, did see a Magnolia, a Nashville, a Tennessee, a Black-throated Blue, didn't see the Wilson's, the Hooded, the Kentucky. Did see redstarts. Did and didn't see a prothonotary warbler.

The prothonotary warbler is a southern beauty of marsh and swamp that I mainly know from bird books and for the fact that they are named for a rank of Catholic prelates who wear brilliant yellow robes. A fortunate wind had brought one of these golden-yellow and blue-winged warblers to Brooks Pond on the Estate. It didn't show up where last reported, but I only found out in early evening: time to tuck its giolden head under blue wing. Tomorrow morning, for sure.

I went with friend Ed, whose juju is better than mine. He had seen a pair of prothonotaries a week earlier on the Ipswich River. We worked the peninsulas along the pond, both sides. No luck. And then we ran into an uber-birder who pointed us to a group right around the corner who had the prothonotary in sight, in hand, there for the taking. It was in a fallen but leafy tree projecting out into the water. We joined the eager group. They gave us careful location notes. Ed saw it. I kept looking. "Don't try to find it with your binoculars," one burly photographer instructed me, taking me for a complete neophyte. "Look for movement first." As a result I hesitated before re-training my glasses on a yellow-and-something bird perched on the main limb. And it flew. That was it. And that was all.

There are rationalizations. The brief glimpse is realer, more birdlike, you tell yourself. Or you return in memory to the barely seen and fill it out, make the whole experience an adventure on a par with Audubon's, Nuttall's, Townsend's, any of those roving ornithologsts of the nineteenth century. Or you measure the unseen against the seen, and who's to say the prothonotary is worth more than the chestnut-sided, or if you want to add the really close look at the male rose-breasted grosbeak you saw, its fat ivory bill quivering with song. Or, fine, add the indigo too. And go ahead and throw in the pileated woodpeckers. Is the scale balanced yet? And remember, you saw it. Kind of. 

Anyway, seen or unseen, it got you to finish this blog entry. 

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