Mar 16, 2018

Singing Shamelessly

I wake up unsure if I will make it out to sketch today. After fighting off a sinus infection all week it seems like rest might be the more reasonable path. But as I mill about the kitchen making breakfast the room fills up with sunlight and Chickadee songs, the outdoors have a way of improving one's health on sunny days. I decide that the truly reasonable path is the boardwalk at Jackson-Frazier. It is short, surrounded by wild, bird-filled wetlands and has no elevation gain what-so-ever that might tax my busy immune system.

I leave after breakfast and take a slow saunter into the park. Just a few yards in I hear an Anna's hummingbird. I spot him flying straight up, diving dramatically downward and then flying off after his preferred mate. Another catches my ear, he is sitting on the tip of a branch turning from side to side, his magenta feathers catching the sun like a signal lamp every time he turns toward me.

The Juncos are up in the tree tops for once making their little chit chit noises while the Towhees scree over the ethereal round of Red-winged Blackbirds, their obliquely shaped melodies ringing electric at the height of each crescendo.

Along the boardwalk I greet another human. “What a beautiful day!” we both say because we are human and exclaiming the weather is our song. We share our excitement over the spring and all the bird song and continue on in our separate directions.

The sun is lulling me into a strange contentment, my own thoughts hold no interest, sifting through my attention while I tend to the more important business of listening for birds. I look up just in time to see a male harrier slip over the treetops into the meadow, the bright sun making dramatic shadows on his wings so they look almost black next to his white body.

Around the corner I hear a female Harrier squeak, she is sitting on the low branch of a tree at the edge of the meadow her chest glowing like last autumn in the sun. I see the male again, his formidable wingspan moving through the sky in the watery way only harriers do. He enters another little meadow I can barely see into through the trees. There he climbs into the air like the hummingbird did and dives straight down with such speed I think I see his wings ripple like fabric. He lifts up just before the ground. I have never seen them do this, did he catch a mouse? It was so stunningly acrobatic. Then I see him flying in circles with a female. So, it is she he is after with the splendor of his flight.

A bit down the boardwalk I stop a woman with binoculars to tell her about this, she confirms that's what they do when they mate. Having built a modest ego for myself, one of having more control and class than boasters and name droppers, it is a shock to find myself blurting out all the tiny scraps of knowledge I have about birds anytime I encounter a birder. I am as amateur and unstudied as could be, who exactly am I trying to impress?

These threadbare egos of ours take such a beating when we decide we want to be evolved. Perhaps this compulsion is as natural as the territorial songs of my beloved birds. This is my trail, because I love it, I come here all the time. Those are my Marsh Hawks because I love them and read about them on Also, that first bench on the sunny side, that's my favorite, don't sit there. 

I look for a spot to sketch and end up at the start of the walk where I saw the Anna's. The trees before me are small and thin, it will be a challenge to make an interesting painting with them but I have always admired the stark and rhythmic lines of their branches, each one placed just so. An immature Anna's lands on the tip of one branch and starts singing shamelessly. It's his tree, his beloved home. I have been warned.

Mar 2, 2018

Fairy-tale Style

It is sprinkling a bit at Witham Hill Natural Area, a chorus of crows lauding the morning at the house across the street, Robins and Chickadees keeping the background melodic with their usual songs. Misty rain is one of the things I love about Oregon and it doesn't happen as often as it used to so the day feels like a special occasion.

I start up the trail and hear a metallic drumming from the neighborhood—who is being so industrious (and inconsiderate) on a Saturday morning? I hear it again and realize it is a Northern Flicker carving out its mating territory by drumming on something metal, a chimney perhaps. What a boon metal fixtures are for the prowess of the woodpecker, a development not unlike that of the guitar amp for musicians. I walk up the hill listening for other birds and breathing as deeply as I can; I'm finally in the woods where I have wanted to be all week.

 This park has lots of twisty old oaks, there is no shortage of places to paint. Along the trail I hear the peeps of Junkos and rustling of Towhees in the undergrowth. Most of the time when I hear a bird making a ton of noise in the brush it is a Spotted Towhee, I told Jay last weekend on our first birding walk together. We were at Finley and saw more birds from the car on the way to and from the hike than we did on foot.

Stellar Jays dominated the outing and while they are by no means an unusual spotting their luminous blue with stark black crests never get old. We also had the privilege of admiring the orange brows of four Varied Thrushes and spotting a few Kinglets of some sort. That was it beside the neighborhood regulars.

Neither of us was looking for a flush list, it was nice just to be out together. Later in the day Jay read to me from Victor Emanuel's One More Warbler, a surprisingly fascinating book about birding he picked up after learning it was an interest of mine.

This was my favorite part of the weekend. To hear someone who loves words read aloud, to be snuggled against the vibrating drum of their body. He reads differently than he speaks. His normal lingo and exaggerated inflections peg him as someone who smokes a decent amount of pot. This is not exactly my preference in dating partners so I was tempted to leave our first date after one cup of tea. But the two month e-mail conversation we had prior was so enjoyable I wanted to find some shred of the person I imagined I'd been talking to.

We took a stroll through the park. Being outside improves everything—maybe I was too quick to judge, I thought. Then he wrapped both arms around me and my heart opened up with the kind of crystalline warble that defies sense with fairy-tale style.

So we spent the following weekend together, my fairy tale bound with a convenient ambiguity about his occasional pot use. The chapter Jay read to me had a more genuine magic about an ornithologist failing at academics who devoted his life to field work. He ended up living a charmed life in remote forests, his heart full of caring friends and interesting neighbors, all the while making an epic contribution to his field identifying countless birds and their songs.

It was a touching story. It was also fun to imagine Jay's new voice was the real him just waiting to be coaxed out of a deep sleep with a brilliant kiss or maybe just a newfound interest in birds. I did not get to entertain this fantasy for more than a few hours; ambiguities piled on top of one another and no amount of fairy dust could save me from their impending collapse.

The Towhee, meanwhile, had hopped up on a branch and was screeing at me or the other Towhees, maybe the whole forest. Another Towhee across the way would respond dutifully. A female, still sifting through the leaves of the underbrush, would join in almost absent-mindedly with a soft scree like a friend who wants you to believe they’re paying attention.

As I walk into the middle of the park I hear the songs of Pacific Wrens and then, high above me, the transcendental opera of a hidden warbler. The high pitched tune is so pure and crystalline, my whole being is drawn into its beauty. It makes me think about the importance I give to the songs in my heart, as if she should only sing for the things I am meant to keep.

 A brief rain passes through, I find a lumpy old tree to sketch and, like clock-work, I am suddenly tired and have to pee. As if it would be torture to engage fully in this endeavor, the one that makes no pretense of happily-ever-after yet keeps me afloat in life like a magic canoe on a wild ocean.

I wander off for privacy then come back to my tree to make some studies. While I draw the traffic noise and bird songs disappear, it is just me and the intrigue I have with the exact shape of each tree, its exact relationship with all its neighbors. Each immersed in its own amazing tale of birdsong and bug travels, storm clouds and fairy dust.