Bird Brain

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is a time to shake off winter’s gray. This year the dance is extra wild as we also bust out of our confines (for better or worse) of the past 15 months. 

Birds celebrate too, and I’ve relished watching the crows’ twitterpated circling and diving, then morphing into a nesting ritual. Our personal crow (doesn’t every yard have one?), built a nest in our huge cedar this spring. He (they?) struts and paces beneath, flies at other birds and squirrels, and runs errands with sticks, fuzz, and food. He tends to his territory by traveling a circuit around our house, flying from nest to telephone wire to bird bath (which quickly gets dirtier than a toilet).

Until this past year I rarely gave birds much thought. A murder of crows congregated in our Santa Barbara Acacia tree just outside the bedroom window. They were the bad boys of the neighborhood, fighting and trashing the driveway with droppings and leftover meals, in addition to a cacophony of early morning caws long before my appointed time to greet the world.

But this has been a year of slowing down, and here in Portland I’ve grown to appreciate and admire the eight or nine bird species that frequent our yard. Still, getting out to new places to observe them is a damn fine change.

The Ridgefield National Wildlife Preserve is just over the border in Washington with 5300 acres of streams, lakes, marshes, wetlands, grasslands, and forests. These provide a backdrop for a wide range of bird cameos and starring roles, as well as some non-bird supporting actors.

photo by Alan

A four mile gravel driving loop provides easy access to this bird wonderland, but we got in and out of the car many times and walked along the road or stood still, waiting and watching. The longer and quieter we stood, the more life popped out at us. The profusion of Red-wing Blackbirds at our first stop enthralled me, and I never tired of them; that flash of vermillion a thrilling burlesque fly-by. A Great Egret glowed white against the water, and a tall Great Blue Heron stalked the shallows, moving in slo-mo, neck stretching to scan the water’s surface, or bent in an S preparing to strike.

photo by Alan
Red-wing – one of many of Alan’s better-than-my photos on this page.

There may be as many types of ducks as there are conifers, and I haven’t been able to learn the differences or names of either. Pine, Duck, it’s always been enough. This day brought the gift of Cinnamon Teal ducks who stood out, easily seen, among the others, its name and color bestowing an easily memorized mnemonic.

I only know this because of the birder passersby. They are a friendly bunch, particularly the male of the species. When they discover that we are neophytes, they’re thrilled to share their knowledge, explaining things in great detail – birds, interesting routes, nearby hikes, and bird ID apps.

We’ll just have to come back to see all the rest!

One excitedly showed us a Sibley’s app photo of a Virginia Rail he’d just spotted, as well as a Black Phoebe. We never did spot a Rail, but the Phoebes were plentiful, and well, cute – a word that should be preserved for babies and puppies, but that fuzzy round black head was just that.

photo by Alan
Fuzzy little Black Phoebe

My new binoculars don’t compare to those of the pros, but as the reviews said, they put us at the “get in the game” level. I spotted a far off heron with a snake dangling from his beak, examined piles of turtles on logs and creekbanks, and watched a beaver amble along the river’s edge for a few seconds before disappearing behind the muddy grasses – our first beaver sighting ever! I examined the details of dams and distant Columbia Whitetail deer (who are making a comeback), and watched long strands of a heron’s head plumes blow in the breeze. My favorite was the new-to-me Tree Swallow with an iridescent blue head, zigzagging and darting up close, either protecting a nest, or just flirting. Perhaps some day we’ll get in the game in the camera department as well. But the internet is awash with stunning close ups.

photo by Alan
photo by Alan
photo by Alan

Many things we couldn’t identify, including a whistle that sounded just like my dad’s whistle when trying to find us in a public place. We always knew it was him, just four simple up and down notes. I wondered in that moment, for the first time, if he had adopted that whistle from a bird. Funny how being present suddenly throws you into the past.

Toward the end of the loop a vast grassland stretched out. The perfect spring day had all the necessary ingredients: intense blue sky, cumulus clouds drifting along the horizon, and the psithurism* of the breeze rippling through the grasslands. An eagle soared, a heron and egret fished. I needed nothing else from the world for just that moment.

Can’t you just hear the breeze in the grasses?

At the northern end of the preserve, the Cardi Lake area, a graceful pedestrian bridge stretches out over railroad tracks leading to a wooded loop and lakeside trail.

We came upon another birding couple who informed us – again at great length! – about birds, these woods, which paths to take, seasons to visit, other places to go, and about the three otters they just observed playing in the shallows. All good information, amusing in its thorough coverage. We also learned that we could have avoided the parking fee with our National Parks pass, which I’d forgotten we even have, since we’ve so seldom left the neighborhood this past year.

photo by Alan
Not 400 years old, but beautifully on its way.

As the afternoon grew late, the birds were mostly hidden and quiet. The woods revealed many large Douglas Firs stumps, the trees cut in favor of creating a more native (and beautiful) oak savannah, but we admired a 400-year-old oak, a stately replica Chinook plankhouse, and a small patch of Camas flowers, our first and only this year, always a cause for excitement because of their gorgeous but brief showing.

The brevity and exquisiteness of each moment outdoors is perhaps what birdwatching is all about for me.

photo by Alan

In Our Woods, Sometimes a Rare Music

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.

Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.

Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

*Psithurism is apparently “obsolete,” but I loved learning of its existence, as the sound of wind in leaves is definitely NOT obsolete.

I now realize that on our recent Sauvie Island trip, we saw Ridgefield just across the Columbia River. I love maps.
Ridgefield from the island, and Mt. Saint Helens beyond



10 thoughts on “Bird Brain

  1. Love, love, love. I am so not good about sitting and waiting and being watchful, thinking the wild things should just be there waiting for me. One day I will take a play out of your book. Quite possibly once I do, I will never go back to continuous movement. I could start on my own deck! Thank you for the beauty of your words and photos. And, always, Mary Oliver.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love that auto tour at Ridgefield ! You had a rich experience, to be sure. (I gotta laugh about the “bird people”. Although I’m still fairly new, I imagine I sound like that sometimes too. I have learned a deepening sense of attention and patience I never knew I had.) I think you would love Nisqually for it’s accessibility. Everything just feels closer, like you are a part of the place. Your photos are beautiful. Descriptions, spot on. Thanks for sharing your day !

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, Nisqually is calling to me, I can’t wait. So grateful my partner likes to take pictures, he catches everything I miss, and I need to go back and give him credit…. (and have been sharing your blog with him too.)
    While I laugh at birders’ enthusiasm, I am also taking close note, and see myself in them. There is nothing so wonderful as someone who is immersed in their endeavors. Thanks for visiting here.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. twitterpated – good one! had to look it up, along with Psithurism. Beautiful photos and descriptions. Once again, felt like I was on the road with you. Really fun. Hope to see you soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nancy
    I join others who absorbed a new vocabulary word..that I’ll have to spellcheck every time..psithurism…I try to type it!! Loved bird watching and listening with you in another local environment I have yet to explore! Yes, too much of only Mahler musical scores would jolt my joints. I prefer a variety as with bird calls.

    Liked by 2 people

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