Thursday, April 23, 2009

birds as signs

I believe some people are more in touch with the universe and its inhabitants than other people. I visited a spiritual intuitive (the real ones don't call themselves 'psychics') a few months ago, someone I had never met, and who knew absolutely nothing about me but my first name. It was an incredible session, and I won't go into it here. I just want to preface this entry by saying that she pegged me as someone the cosmos was sending birds to, that birds would be important to me, that birds would come as signs specifically for me. Basically, I should pay attention to the birds, she told me. I was stunned, thrilled, and deeply amused that the universe should be able to communicate so much that's already inherent in me to a complete stranger.

I had a harrowing five minutes earlier this week. It was the first time in my six or so years of nannying that I've lost a child. He ran off playing tag with a friend, and a crowd separated us. I was confident he would not cross the street, as he's a very rules-oriented kid, so I chatted for about 30 seconds with the mom of the friend he'd run off with. When I realized I could no longer see my charge, I grabbed girl-child's hand and we walked calmly in the direction he had gone. I looked up the block, down, and across, but he wasn't in sight. I thought asking the school crossing guard might yield information but she, instead of helping, went on a tirade about lazy babysitters. It was while she was talking to me and I was trying to keep girl-child calm ("this is not like him," she said, squeezing my hand) that I looked up. Far off and high in the distance, three great blue herons flew through a great blue sky, legs trailing behind. I understood instantly that things would work out fine and that boy-child was safe and would soon be returned to me. It was a split-second of utter calm when I realized the universe was sending me a sign, one I had forgotten to ask for. Moments later, with the crossing guard still jabbering, I heard someone calling my name - the friend's mom, right where I had left her, with both boys safely returned. Thank you, thank you, thank you, my heart cried to the universe, for their safe return, for a lesson learned, and for my first sign.

Friday, April 17, 2009

in nature's infinite book of secrecy, I can read a little

Yesterday I had work only from 6-9 p.m., so I made sure to get out into the sunshine for a few hours in the afternoon. Lots of the usual birds were about, creating an irregular but pleasant cacophony in the air all around. People were out in full force as well, lounging on the lawns, lobbing objects into the air to be retrieved by friends or canines, or just strolling joyfully into the green, like me.

I love the feeling I sometimes get of being in on Mother Nature's secrets, as if she puts her hand on my shoulder and whispers, "I made this just for you." Yesterday afternoon I had just come through the secluded Lullwater paths out to the bridge across from the Boathouse. I noticed a distinct shift in the feeling of peace in the air. It was a shift from my personal "reveling-in-nature's details" (fungi growing on fallen trees, robins buried in leaf litter in search of the perfect worm) sort of peace to a more communal "hey everyone, isn't this a great day to be alive" (let's throw sticks in the water and climb on rocks and soak in the sun) kind of feeling. It was just as I felt that kinship with all these human friends, in their separate lives joined by sunlit joy, that I felt Mother Nature's hand steer me to the water's edge. The gift she left for me that day was perched on a short branch sticking up from the water - an impossibly tiny eastern painted turtle. I looked around in disbelief that no one else had noticed or was marvelling at this tiny fellow, warming in the sun like the rest of us. I took some photos but they don't do justice to the smallitude of the creature. It's a hard lesson to learn, but some things are meant to be enjoyed in the moment of experience and only in fond memory thereafter.

Last night as I made my way to the train after work, I had a completely different experience. Two men had a powerful telescope set up outside Smiling Pizza, and I must have been smiling quizzically as I approached, because one of them asked if I'd like to look at Saturn. I jumped at the chance, of course, and saw that distant planet, its rings vertical, and two other heavenly bodies nearby, relatively speaking, and the blackness which holds them all. I saw something that's so impossibly far away that it makes everything we know to be past that point seem all the more unlikely. I love being reminded of just how small we are and how little we know, because it makes the journey to understanding that much longer and the drive to get somewhere that much more urgent. It's humbling yet challenging, and I think that's a good place for humanity to have to start over again and again. We're a curious and resilient species, and I hope we never find out all there is to know, because thenceforth there will be no place for hope in the world. And just as much as humans need love to survive, there's something to be said for the presence of hope in the individual and in society. I wondered briefly at the chances that any regular person would ever get to see something as magnificent and far-off as Saturn. Then I realized those men must love the sky and its contents as much as I love the Earth and its inhabitants. The wonders are waiting for us all around, hidden and giggling like guests at a surprise party. All we have to do as guests of honor is show up.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

what is it with ducks these days?

I've been doing 9-10 hour days with the kids all week, so my nature-time has been limited. But last night I got out of work at 7:15 and the daylight promised to float me home, so I traipsed through the park, following the whims of my feet. I didn't have my binoculars (I had planned to work until 8 and the forecast said rain anyway) but I have eyes. How often I have wished for a superpower! If I could choose, I'd pick binocular vision, so I could see wonders all the time, not just if I lug equipment along. I'm afraid of heights anyway, so I'd struggle to enjoy flying. I'm fine in airplanes though.

Over Easter weekend, while driving from Chrissy's family home to mine, I had my eyes on the grassy median between north- and southbound lanes of the highway. The median was a shallow valley that collected the rain into big puddles. We also saw some serious flurries. But twice on that short drive I laughed out loud to see pairs of ducks quite at home in the shallow puddles! I'd never seen an ordinary puddle put to such good use. Also on this drive we narrowly avoided hitting a roadkilled forest mammal(raccoon, perhaps?) but had plenty of time to see what must have been a raven flapping out into the road to pick at it. This bird was extremely tall, very black with perhaps a bluish sheen in the light, crowlike in body but with very powerful wings and quite the span. It was such a quick sighting as we drove past that I won't count it as a life bird, but damn, that thing was huge!

Anyway, walking home yesterday I entered the park at the Lafayette Monument on PPW and 9th Street and was just passing the picnic table and barbecue area when a red-tailed hawk swooped in over my left shoulder and landed on a tall and as yet budless tree. I followed and circled the tree to try to get a good photo from the front, but the bird turned around. As I tried to decide on an angle for the photo, the hawk took off and landed in an evergreen across the West Drive. I was about to follow when I heard loud quacking. This isn't a part of the park I normally associate with ducks, as the nearest water would be the Upper Pool, so I looked around confusedly. Who did I see making themselves comfortable in a temporary home on the West Drive? These two friends!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

a little outing

During yesterday's cloudy afternoon, girl child had a playdate out and boy child had soccer practice in the Long Meadow, so I had a chance to strap on the binoculars and see who was around. I walked one loop around the top of the Long Meadow and made a stop on Nellie's Lawn before the practice was over. I flushed a TON of flickers at the rim of the Vale of Cashmere. When I came out to Nellie's Lawn, I saw a redtail swoop up to the top of the tallest tree and perch just where I have seen it before. I made my way across the lawn to try to spot the nest I've read about, and it finally occurred to me that the hawk might be guarding the nest from afar. I spotted a likely looking evergreen and realized I was looking right at the nest! Someone was even home incubating. I haven't reached the nesting stage of my own pregnancy yet, but it looks pretty comfy.

As I made my way back to the soccer practice, I spotted four or five unfamiliar sparrows in small trees. They were quite obliging and I got to see a lot of their field marks, particularly their striking masks. When I had a chance to check my guide, I became fairly certain that they were chipping sparrows. I think the road to sparrow knowledge will be a long and repetitive one for me. It takes several real-life sightings for a single species to etch its home in my memory in any sort of permanent way. But at other times I find that all the paging idly through the field guide that I used to do on the train actually gave me a knowledge I didn't know I had and access to facts I had no idea I owned. I haven't checked my master list but I think the chipping sparrow is a new bird for me. Hopefully its features find a home in my brain and someday I'll think of it as an old friend.

I was able to leave work early from the soccer practice when the dad showed up, so I seized the waning daylight and walked home through the park. I'm sure I took a meandering route, drunk on the combination of chilly air and springtime vistas. I started to think about what old friends I might be seeing again soon, particularly black-crowned night herons. Well, it was sooner than I thought, for as I rounded Wellhouse Drive toward the western lakeshore, I spotted three of them close together in the reeds. It seemed like they'd soon have a good meal, as I saw several fish-splashes near their perch.

Here's my list for that day:

northern flicker
red-tailed hawk and nest
golden-crowned kinglet
white-throated sparrow
northern cardinal
American robin
European starling
tufted titmouse
northern waterthrush
red-winged blackbird
Canada goose
eastern phoebe
mute swan
mourning dove
white-breasted nuthatch
downy woodpecker
ruddy duck
northern shoveler
American coot
black-crowned night heron
chipping sparrow

Monday, April 6, 2009

sun, salt, and smoke

Chrissy and I took a walk around the loop at the Salt Marsh Nature Center on Sunday afternoon. It was the perfect weather - about 63 degrees with lots of warm sun and a light breeze. Lots of waterbirds about, but not much else. Most numerous on the water, to my delight, were buffleheads! I did not think I'd see them again once the weather got warm. All told, there were probably about 20-25 of the dapper little ducks. A double-crested cormorant kept his distance. Something about that bird reminds me more of dinosaurs than any other bird I've seen. I also had the pleasure of seeing several juvenile and/or female red-breasted mergansers. Four or five bobbed in the main neck of the water, while one pair lingered in the inlet near the green bridge. I enjoyed watching these two up close as they teamed up to herd fish into shallower water. They zoomed through the water, heads down, necks forming a straight line with their spines, beaks and sometimes even eyes in the water. I could see small silver fish flopping atop the water in their attempt to escape those serrated jaws. Also hanging about in this inlet were a few American wigeons and some mallards.

The salt marsh seems a little behind the rest of Brooklyn in its trees developing buds and the land becoming generally verdant. The dry brown phragmites waved and squeaked against one another in the wind, giving me false hopes about nesting species. The only land/air birds I saw were crows, red-winged blackbirds, robins, pigeons, and starlings. Not like Jamaica Bay, where you can see many species in one visit, if you are patient. I guess it has to do with the uniformity of habitat and lack of cover available at the salt marsh. And maybe it's just not time yet.

We also followed one of many unofficial paths a short distance, to see what we could see. What we found was this area, razed and burned, with the smell of smoke yet lingering. At first I thought perhaps some careless partiers started a fire they couldn't contain, but it seemed too clean and methodical to have been an accident. Maybe it's environmental management and they have something in mind for this area, or maybe it's an old fire and there was just really nothing left. I just hated to see a wasteland in the middle of a wonderland.

The highlight of my trip to the Salt Marsh Nature Center this weekend, though, was a new life bird! I spent some time scanning the water's edge, looking for resting birds along the shore. What I saw surprised me: a squat-bodied yet leggy shorebird, dark grey above with white underparts and a most unusual beak. It was long, and thick like a drinking straw, and bright red in color. "Oystercatcher?" I said incredulously, in the very voice you imagine. I took some mental notes of the bird so I could look it up at home. It didn't seem at the time to be an obvious or correct guess, since I had no idea, until that moment, that anything about oystercatchers had ever found a home in some corner of my bird-brain. But when I had checked my library of various field guides and looked up some photos online, I felt pretty confident about my ID (nobirdy else has that telltale beak and body type) and proud that I knew something I didn't know I knew. It feels good to have a little ounce of mastery over some field of knowledge. And to add a new bird to my life list - welcome American oystercatcher!