Friday, May 11, 2007

Clean Light

I listened to the bird calls as I sleepily pedaled the bike up Moose Hill on Saturday morning. I heard the usual characters – cardinal, chipping sparrow, titmouse, chickadee – but I was opening my ears for new sounds from the woods. I heard a towhee; I knew they were back. But wait, was that an oriole? Was that a catbird? I was hopeful that I would see several recent arrivals from mysterious journeys.


I had a time limit, so I tried to get out of the house early and stay close to home. That usually means Hobbs Hill. I like this spot because it’s only half way up the hill and I can get there quickly. Because it’s removed from the sanctuary parking lot by a half mile or so, I’m less likely to see other people there. I find the hill itself comfortable in an innate sort of way. Its flat top with short ash and hickory trees and open understory (Thanks in large part to hungry deer.) feels a bit like an island in a sea of trees. The steep sides offer great places to sit and look down on the forest below.

As soon as I arrived at the top of the hill I caught a brief look at a thrush that reminded me of one I’d watched there last year. I hadn’t heard any wood thrush yet, so I thought this might be a hermit thrush. Another movement caught my eye, and I was treated to the sight of a pair of chickadees working to hollow out a cavity in a small ash stump. The entrance was only about three feet off the ground and the birds took turns flying into their new home and picking punky wood from the bottom of the cavity. There seemed to be a delicate balance between a tree that is rotten enough for these tiny birds to excavate and one that is strong enough to remain upright until the babies fledge.

I went to my usual rock, but the rising sun was in my face making it difficult to see small birds in tall trees, so I looked for a new spot. This was alternative rock in the Moose Hill sense, I guess, and it turned out to be a good choice. I felt like a raptor, perched on my rock and, between sips of coffee, scanning the forest below for any movement. Lifting my binoculars so my vision would be more like a hawk and less like an ageing human, I watched as a chipmunk emerged from under an old stump to shuffle the dry oak leaves.

Maybe I missed the dawn chorus, perhaps my timing was off by a few days, or maybe there are simply fewer birds around, but the woods seemed quiet. A few birds were going quietly about their business, such as the downy woodpecker and myrtle warbler that came by, but they seemed quiet and subdued; their calls more like whispers than the exuberant springtime singing I was hoping for.

It was another cool, calm, clear morning, so visibility was excellent. That made it all the more maddening to hear a few forgotten or unfamiliar bird songs but only catch fleeting glimpses as the birds move about. I’m not very good a craning my neck to study the undersides of tiny, hyperactive creatures.

With my sandwich gone and coffee intake sufficient, I decided to head back to the bike while taking time to identify just one or two interesting birds. I knew I didn’t have the time to chase after every tweet and twitter I heard, so I would try to focus on just a few. Just as I made that decision I was hearing a repetitive song, almost but not quite like the caroling of a robin. Just above where the chickadees were busy laboring, I saw a flash of brilliant red. A scarlet tanager!

With his scarlet body and starkly contrasting black wings, I can’t imagine a more exotic-looking bird in these woods. Because I was on the hill and the trees he was working in were rooted down below, he was just over my head. This was no fleeting glimpse. He sat, moved about examining tree buds and sang, offering one perfect view after the other. I worried about the challenges he and his kind faced as they migrated and wintered in the tropics.

Just then, a few yards below my feet working among the rocks of the craggy hillside I spotted one – and then another- hermit thrush. One was carrying a short, thin twig! I guess I wasn’t imagining the thrush I saw just as I arrived. This pair also offered wonderful views as they pumped their reddish tails and walked and hopped from twig to rock as if house-hunting. This spot struck me as perfect for a hermit. I imagined a cozy nest in a crack or crevice with a sheltering fern frond overhead. These two seemed united in their task and it seemed that even a hermit likes a little company once in a while.

Yet again, I was moved by the magic of Moose Hill. All I had to do was think about finding two good birds before heading for home, and I didn’t even have to leave my seat. Maybe it was the birds, maybe it was the caffeine, but as walked slowly along the trail through the sweet, fresh air back to my bike I was on a high. The sunlight filtering through the trees to illuminate the forest floor was so pure and clear that the eyes tricked the mind into thinking the thoughts were clear as well.

The flute-like song of a thrush lured me off the trail. At first I thought I was hearing my first wood thrush of the year, but the song was not quite right. I moved toward the bird and he moved toward me. I thought I saw the tail-pumping of another hermit thrush before he flew off. I knew the pleasant task of learning more about the thrushes of Moose Hill lay ahead of me.

As I arrived at my bike and prepared to head home, I wondered what it was about this place that so often makes my mind and senses feel so relaxed and alert at the same time. Part of the comfort I find in these woods comes from familiarity. By visiting many of the same places repeatedly over the past year, I find that each spot offers a history that links one visit to the next. Individual trees, rocks and even birds have stories to tell if I visit them often enough. At least, I think I hear this land telling tales. My hope is that the clear light will allow my mind to eventually understand the mysteries Moose Hill has to share.

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4 Comments:

At 1:46 PM, Blogger nina said...

Really enjoy this site, have been here many times. So glad you can hear the tales--for in passing them on, we all feel enriched.

 
At 10:27 PM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

You're drunk on the clear wine of May. Me, too. Wish I had hermit thrushes to listen to! I'll settle for wood thrushes, and the rude splats of chats.

 
At 7:06 PM, Blogger Larry said...

After reading this post I'm definitely planning on bringing some coffee with me some time and setting up camp.-Sounds nice.

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger Lilly said...

Ah, the sounds of spring. I was walking the other day at lunch around a suburban neighborhood near where I work, and I was struck by the quiet. Although the lawns were lush and the trees were plentiful, I didn't see the busy squirrels and chipmonks I do in Ithaca town. No birds were arguing or laughing with one another. No ducks flew overhead. No cats slunk between the bushes.

And then I caught a strange scent in the air, and noticed the little yellow flags on the lawns that read "chemlawn application this week." So, the chemicals had pushed them out. What an empty beauty in those manicured lawns.
Best to you,
Lilly

 

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