Last week I opened the door of my potting shed and heard fluttering in one corner, down below the shelves. I spoke softly, bent down and easily caught in my hands a small brown bird.
I stepped outside and examined the soft russet plumage, spotted breast and the slight beginnings of a buffy eye ring that identified this juvenile Swainson’s Thrush. The species breeds in the ravine behind the shed, and likely the fluffy creature in my hand had hatched there within the past month. When I opened my hand to release the bird, it stood still and looked back at me.
We shared a precious several moments, our eyes only a foot or two apart. Only when I lifted my hand and gently launched the bird into the air did it take flight.
That moment of intimacy with the tiny brown bird stayed with me all day.
I asked myself why the bird seemed so unafraid of me? Was it exhausted from being trapped and needed time to recuperate before flying off? Did it not yet know that large moving objects like myself are usually predators looking to harm fluffy little birds? Or — and I beg a moment of anthropomorphizing from my ornithologists colleagues — was it actually engaged in a moment of inter-species wonderment?
We expect that type of communication with dogs, cats and other domesticated animals, even tame birds. But we don’t often find it with wild animals.
I remember while whale-watching down in Baja California a young calf spy-hopped inches from our small open boat. The whale’s eye looked us over, trying, it seemed, to figure out who we were and what we were doing in its birthing waters.
Unlike the whale, I doubt the small bird was trying to communicate with me. Yet, I had the sense of experiencing a special blessing. Was it the unexpected closeness to that flighty being, the opportunity to look deeply into this wild creature’s eyes, or the brief moment when fearful instincts are forgotten?
Other less intimate moments can hold the same mystery and magic:
When the eagle that lives along our bluff lifts off in the early morning light and sails out over the bay, circling, flapping lazily, scouting out what the nighttime tides may have deposited on the beach.
When, on a warm evening, my husband and I linger on our back deck after dinner and two dazzling goldfinches flutter to our softly bubbling water fountain to sip.
When the first hummingbird returns in the spring and hovers at the exact spot where we hung our sugar water feeder last year.
I’m not sure when I stopped needing to rush around and rack up a long life list of bird species or to travel to exotic birding destinations in order to be enraptured by birds.
Now I’m more interested in collecting intimate moments with birds. Each of those moments fills my heart with a reverence for life.
Recently, my 92-year-old mother-in-law visited and I was full of questions about how she viewed life at her age. I asked her, what gives you joy? She mentioned several things but the one thing that stuck with me was this: good memories. Even with her limited physical abilities, she spent time outdoors, enjoying the trees, flowers and birds around our home, so she could take those memories back with her.
I recall the last time I saw my own mother alive. On that spring day she asked me to push her wheelchair out into the garden of the care facility where she was staying. The rhododendrons were blooming and she wanted to see and smell them. She had been a gardener all her life, and she needed a fresh shot of good nature memories.
As I get older, more and more I want to fill up my bank account of intimate moments with birds. So I take walks in nature. I go kayaking or hiking. I move slowly around my garden listening and watching for birds.
Yesterday, while out weeding, my eye caught movement in the flowerbed, and I noticed a young Bewick’s Wren. The tiny brown bird with the suggestion of dark tail bars and a white eye-stripe must have been attracted to the insects and grubs unearthed as I yanked out weeds. As I knelt, it pecked along, hopped up on my shoe and nipped at a seed stuck to my sock. It looked around, hopped down and busily continued along its journey, undisturbed by my presence.
Wow! Another golden moment for my bank account of intimate moments with birds.
Visit Frances Wood’s blog — click here. Read about her finding a pure white eagle’s feather.