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July Perspective

Monday, July 9, 2007


Awhile ago, Mary asked us all to send pictures of our blogitat. I procrastinated for a couple of weeks, started to straighten up, gritted my teeth and then sent a picture of it as it is, papers and dog and all. This morning, I'm outside at the picnic table, looking over the meadow. Early sun slants across the grasstops. It's 58 degrees. A Carolina wren is caroling to my left, cardinals, titmice too. A scarlet tanager is teed up and singing slowly in a water maple. Hummingbirds bicker and buzz around two feeders. I can count six perched at once. A baby red-bellied woodpecker hops along the towertop, wheedling its dad to give it a peanut. A couple of fledgling blue-winged warblers are following their mother along the east border. I know because I chased down that zitt call two days ago, and found them, all green and wing-barred, pestering her to death. A white-eyed vireo sputters and cusses nearby. I can hear two more down the orchard. Two male eastern towhees bicker and fuss in the birch, posturing to each other with cocked, fanned tails and whisper songs of rage.

Now, here comes the blazing red male scarlet tanager who, along with his faded mate, bathes in the Bird Spa. Oh, he's feeding a baby! I snap a few bad photographs, then pause to examine the baby through binoculars. It's a brown-headed cowbird, whose biological mother laid her egg in this tanager's nest. What a waste of tanager energy and goodwill. I take comfort in having seen two baby scarlet tanagers being fed by the female in the front yard, only yesterday. Dad's clearly been hoodwinked into wasting good caterpillars on a cowbird, but it hasn't been a lost season for them.

I'm out here because it's ridiculous not to be out here. I can get a weak wireless signal from the picnic table, maybe 100 feet from the front door. And I'm out here because on the morningof July 6, while watching a dozen barn swallows trundling happily out on the garage roof, where we strew baked eggshells for their calcium-boosting pleasure, I saw a newly fledged rose-breasted grosbeak hopping among them. You know those cartoons where the character's eyes pop out of his head --ah--OOOO---gah! and then pop back in? That was me. Nearly 15 years I've been watching everything that happens in and around these 80 acres, and I've never seen a baby rose-breasted grosbeak, in July or any month. My mind flew back to my little spring gift--the pale male rose-breast who ate peanuts on the front porch for almost a week, past the rose-breast's "safe date" of June 4 after which you can suspect the bird is a breeder in Ohio. I had convinced myself he was just a late migrant, in questionable condition. He smacked himself hard on the studio window, showed up on the bonsai bench that afternoon, perched on my hand for a few golden moments, and I really lost hope that this peculiar little bird might be a viable breeder. I just hoped he'd live through it all.

So I'm sitting here, tapping away, looking at everything that happens, listening to the bluebird babies piping in their newly-changed, mite-free nest just 50 feet to my left, and I hear the thin, sharp EEK! of a rose-breasted grosbeak. A pale streaky brown bird flies over, white wing patches contrasting weakly against the sky. All right, then. The juvenile grosbeak is still around. I leap up and trot around the corner of the house,following him, Chet Baker thundering in front of me, he hoping for a long photo-safari, me hoping just for a lousy snapshot to document the occurrence. I stare at the line of trees. Two cardinals, a white-eyed vireo...and a parti-colored bird flies out of the thick cherry leaves and tees up for a moment in a dead ash. Binoculars lock on him--and I think I know this bird. It's an adult male rose-breast, with a little dash of white behind each eye. If he's got a pink breast, it's too pale to see in profile. He's a bit messy. Yes. Maybe my little spring gift never left. And perhaps he had a mate hidden away, or where would that baby have come from?

I trot down the orchard after him when he flies. Baker thunders ahead like Secretariat in the last furlong, brrrump brrump brrrump! I stop in the clearing where I stand a chance of seeing the bird again. A pair of indigo buntings scolds indignantly, and a rank young towhee, barely recognizable in warm brown, pops up while his parents dither around him. I get an acceptable photo of the male bunting, but only because he's so mad at me. I wait, but there's no grosbeak. And then he sings, just one phrase of his liquid song, from the sugar maples. Thank you.

I still don't know for sure whether it's the same bird who visited my peanut feeders in the first week of June. Chances are that it's not. But it's a rose-breast record, with a freshly fledged juvenile, in early July, and that's good enough for me.

This is unprecedented for Indigo Hill, way down here in southern Ohio, at least 100 miles south of where rose-breasts might be expected to breed, and yet a gentleman in Devola, 18 miles southwest of here, has had two males, an adult female, and now a juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak being fed at his feeder all summer. How I envied him when that e-mail came in! And all along, it was happening on my own turf. One of my favorite birds of all, and a well-marked, distinctive individual at that, never before (to my knowledge) recorded breeding in my county, raises a baby practically on my doorstep, and it takes until mid-July for me to find out.

Why do I ever leave this place? What else has happened while I've been chasing warblers and wildflowers? I'm trying to come to peace with my life, to settle back in where I belong. Quite aside from the packing and unpacking, the turmoil and time spent sardined in airplane seats, travel has a psychic cost for me that I pay, with interest. Traveling so much makes it hard for me to settle when I do come home. It stacks up deadlines and obligations just as it does laundry and housework. And yet...those things will always dog me. And I've had the most wonderful tiime, chasing spring north, smelling lilacs from April to late June, from Ohio to Wisconsin to North Dakota to Maine. And I've seen warblers and godwits and puffins and Bigfoot, and I've taken gobs of pictures and written tens of thousands of words and shared it all with my husband, my kids, and with you. It's a good life, and I am deeply blessed, and my time home in July is for sitting back and realizing that.

Wherever you are, you're missing something somewhere else. As if to punctuate that simple maxim that's come of an hour's writing, a cedar waxwing lands and fluffs his feathers, wiping his bill in the birch right in front of me. It's the same tree where the towhees fought, the bluebird rested, the indigo bunting sang, and the tanager fed the cowbird. All in the space of an hour. I wonder why he's wiping his bill so much. Birds do that after they eat something messy, like the pin cherries that are coming into ripeness. They also do it when they've just fed young. Has he got a nest nearby? Watch, note, and wonder. Most of all, notice. No detail is so small as to be unimportant. It's by ascribing significance to the smallest things that naturalists make their observations, and synthesize them into a story. It's good to be home, and working again.

So, if you're still with me, I've got a question for you bloggers out there. Are you a grasshopper, coming up with something new each time you post, or an ant, patiently storing away blog posts against the time when you'll be too busy to sit down and write one de novo? Tell me true. I understand that we're all one or the other from time to time, but on the whole, which one are you? It might be good to add how long you've been blogging, since I suspect that a grasshopper might on occasion decide to act like an ant, and an ant might cross over to the grasshopper side.

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