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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Our Woods, Sometimes a Rare MusicMary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings
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.
*Psithurism is apparently “obsolete,” but I loved learning of its existence, as the sound of wind in leaves is definitely NOT obsolete.
THANKS TO ALAN FOR LETTING ME USE HIS PHOTOS.
HIS GOOD EYE AND LOVE FOR HIS SUBJECTS SHINE THROUGH HIS PHOTOS!!