Tag Archives: migration

Vernal Voices

I’m delighted to note that my new essay about the meaning of music, The Voice of Tāne: Returning Wild Musick to its Place, at a Price, has just been published in About Place Journal. Click here to read.

Fresh green of spring in West Seattle.

Soft green mornings on my deck are filled with new music these days. The calls of our regulars—towhees, juncoes, robins, jays, and crows—have been joined by more lyrical tones of recent arrivals. The chattery trill of a Wilson’s Warbler first announced spring’s arrival in our yard, his clear tones piercing the thick woods of the wetland.

Wilson’s Warbler

Soon his song was joined by the quiet, clear whistles of a reclusive Pacific-slope Flycatcher, tiny of body but proud of sound.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher

Nearby, Orange-crowned Warblers added their arched tremolo to the choir.

Orange-crowned Warbler with spider prey

Most recently, a little trio of Black-headed Grosbeaks joined the chorus. At first shy and leery, they’d disappear from my feeder as soon as I moved inside the house. But now they’ve grown accustomed to my face as I sit quietly here on the deck, and all three, two males and a female, happily gorge themselves on sunflower seeds. When they retreat to the young cedars at the edge of the deck or into the old pear tree in the yard, they warble their lovely whistling melody, a cascading waterfall of pure tones.

Black-headed Grosbeaks, male (upper) and female (lower) in cedar beside deck

* * * * *

In The Moth Snowstorm, his lovely celebration of nature’s beauty, Michael McCarthy writes passionately of his joy upon examining online GPS data from tagged cuckoos in Africa one February, realizing that their northward migration in the Congo meant that from 4000 miles away, he could see spring coming.

Here in Seattle, the arrival of spring migrants is our clue, presaging an end to our long months of what locals call mizzle, the moist grayness that’s not quite mist, not quite rain.

Incessant April mizzle

Our winter starts in November and December with stiff south winds that bring delicious big winds and heavy rains, a welcome intensity that brings our perfect summers to a dramatic close: the snuggle season where we cozy up on the couch by the fire, watching the Doug firs and the cedars sway in their autumn dance in the early dark.

Winter view from our kitchen window: Douglas Firs in the unending rain


But by March…April…May, we’re ready for real sunlight, not just the lightening behind the clouds as the days grow longer. This year’s been a good one, with many more clear days than we’re used to. Usually, though, the music of the migrants means we’ve made it through yet another long gray doze, and we can allow ourselves to hope for light and new energy.

My partner Rob and I are as much audio folks as visual. He’s a composer and conductor, we’re both singers, we both play in our wonderful community orchestra. Spring’s visuals—fresh green woodlands, the delicate tips of the new leaves, the brightening sky—are all important to our relief at the dawn of the season of light. But without the chatter and trills and warbles, our joy in spring would be muffled, hushed; we’d be missing half of our vernal souls.

What would it mean for us if the birds’ songs were silenced, hushed by lack of food or safe places to hide or unfamiliar predators? Over fifty years ago, Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring warned of the loss of birds to chemical poisoning. We’ve managed to make real progress in diminishing that threat to the vernal voices. Yet other challenges have muted their music.

And what might song’s loss mean for the birds themselves? I imagine a little songbird, perhaps a Western Tanager, newly arrived in his spring home after an exhausting migration, happily full with seed from my feeder or native plants, excitedly starting his first song for a new love.

Western Tanager male, singing. Who’s there to listen to his song?

But where is she? Where are his fellow singers? What happens to his music? What might it mean for him, for his fellow birds, and for us when song’s silenced? And what can we do to help preserve those precious chatters and warbles and trills for our shared future?

In my new essay, The Voice of Tāne: Returning Wild Musick to its Place, at a Price, published this month in About Place Journal, I explore some of these questions in the context of New Zealand’s songbirds and their story. I hope you’ll take a look.

And while you’re reading, perhaps you can find a quiet place in the sun to enjoy love’s lullabies ringing through the soft spring air.

Singing Bellbird, Tiritiri Matangi, New Zealand



The Healing Rain

Rain, finally

After a record-breakingly dry, hot summer, the rain has finally blessed us with the sweet scent of moist soil. Desiccated trees and shrubs, having finally enjoyed a long-awaited drink, are releasing oxygen-laden sighs of relief. You can almost hear their joy as they perk up their leaves one last time before settling down for winter’s quiet herbal introversion.

Raindrop on salmonberry leaf

Rain-drenched cedar branch

Our bird life is changing too. This summer brought to the Salish Sea an extraordinary number of Caspian Terns, whose daily foraging route seemed to take them directly over our house while they filled the air with their raucous conversations.

Caspian Tern checking me out (Lowman Beach, West Seattle)

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of one of the last terns soaring high overhead, perhaps giving his summer home one last look before he heads south to Mexico for the winter.

One of the last Caspian Terns of summer

I’ll miss the terns’ elegant soaring grace. But while the terns seek winter refuge in the Baja California area, others birds are arriving to seek winter refuge here, bringing their own voices and flashes of beauty to the turning palette of autumn.

Male partner of first Varied Thrush pair of the season

Some, like this Varied Thrush, will be with us all winter, sweetening the days’ ever-earlier dusks with their mysterious two-toned calls.

Others are just breezing through, like the warblers I encountered yesterday at one of my city’s large parks by the lake. My dear friend Nancy and I walked in spitting rain along marshes and swamps, catching quick flitting movements through willows and oceanspray. With their quick movements and leafy colors, the warblers were almost impossible to photograph, but I managed by sheer luck, a large-capacity photo card, and a bit of stubborn persistence to get a couple in focus.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with spider prey (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

The warblers are en route from Alaska and northern Canada down to Mexico. Bug-rich waystations like these wetlands are crucial to their survival, providing  essential protein, fruit, seeds, and shelter. It’s only because of intensive preservation and restoration efforts that these refuges still exist; not too many years ago, this land served as a naval air station. Collaboration among government, private companies, and nonprofits is transforming much of the military facility into a vibrant wildlife habitat and sanctuary.

We also discovered small companionable flocks of American Goldfinches making their way through the trees. This one made me chuckle with his decorated beak. I can just hear him thinking “What’re you lookin’ at?”

American Goldfinch, probably a juvenile (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Just a few days ago, I’d had a similar flock at my feeder. A juvenile (on the left) seemed to be successfully begging from its parent—but perhaps the middle goldfinch was simply scolding her companion, since by now the young birds should be pretty self-sufficient.

American Goldfinches

Here at the end of September, young goldfinches gather in flocks of increasing size, chattering as they explore in search of the season’s abundant food. Goldfinches will be with us all year, though their numbers will gradually drop as autumn progresses and many disperse to new territories.

Season of abundance, season of change; summer’s treasures disappear and new joys arrive, some for a brief shining moment and some for a lifetime. Now is the time of transition.

This year’s September has been hard. Some loved ones have left us forever. Others’ light has flickered briefly but will return bright and strong. Some hover on the edge of darkness, and only time will unfold the rest of their story.

But as summer turns to autumn, with time’s horizon inexorably lowering toward winter, the darkening season brings the comfort of quiet. We light the candles for wisdom as we embrace both loss and love; we welcome those who bring their harvest gifts of color and their notes of hope: rain on the roof, a two-toned voice in the gathering dusk.

Varied Thrush


Love in the Time of Extinction

For the past few weeks, Rob’s been spending his weekend days clearing the immense nonnative laurel trees from our new back yard, opening up their shadowed land to light it hasn’t seen in decades. We can now see from our living room and deck all the way into the adjacent protected wetland.

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

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Long Journeys to Hidden Homes: International Migratory Bird Day, May 11

“Congratulations – it’s a FOY!”

Janeanne, Mark, and I were peering last week through binoculars at a fuzzy blob on the top of a Western Hemlock on the other side of the little clearing. Janeanne, a far better spotter and diagnoser than I, called it: a Western Tanager. Since it was the first tanager any of us had seen this year, that made it a FOY (first of year), always very exciting.

Tanagers are lovely little birds, the males glowing yellow with an incandescent reddish head. So you’d think in our fifty-shades-of-green Pacific Northwest forest, they’d be easy to spot. But no: it turns out that these beautiful feather-people love to hang out in Pacific Madrones, whose peeling bark is a translucent brown-orange and whose aging leaves turn yellow and then deep orange. Perfect camouflage for a brilliantly-colored traveler.

Fortunately, in today’s fresh clear morning, an energetic tanager chose an east-facing Madrone to forage through, and I finally got my first-ever recognizable photos of one.

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

He was right on time. Here in the Upper Left-Hand Corner, our tanagers start arriving in late April and really increase in numbers after early May. (That is, according to our local birders’ listserv, Tweeters. I hardly ever see them until a really good birder like Janeanne or Mark points them out. Sigh.)

Western Tanager, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Western Tanager
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

The Western Tanagers are presumably here in my neighborhood park to build their little cup nests on one of our abundant conifers and to snack on forest food. To do that, they fly all the way from Central America or Mexico, around 3000 miles.

Western Tanager Range Map
(From Fieldguide.mt.gov)

They’re not the only well-traveled spring arrivals in our woods. On April 28 I heard the FOY call of a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and the warblers have been spreading through the trees for about the last ten days. (The two below visited today – check out the Lincoln Park Bird List for photos of several more warbler species.) While tanagers build their nests up pretty high in trees, warbler nests are soft weavings of soft moss and grass, hidden carefully near the ground.

Orange-crowned Warbler Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Orange-crowned Warbler
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson's Warbler Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Wilson’s Warbler
Near Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Of course, it’s not just the migratory birds who’re building nests this time of year. A pair of Northern Flickers have been diligently working on their nest hole—

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker pair greeting each other at nest hole
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Northern Flicker excavating and cleaning her nest
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

—and if you’re quiet and attentive, you’ll notice lots of little birds preparing homes for themselves and their children.

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Pine Siskin gathering nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

"A robin feathering her nest Has very little time to rest, While gathering her bits of twine and twig..."

“A robin feathering her nest
Has very little time to rest,
While gathering her bits of twine and twig…”

Hutton's Vireo gathering nest material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Hutton’s Vireo gathering nest material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

If we just consider the tanagers and the six warbler species who spend summer in our park, that’s 21,000 miles traveled by the seven species—times, oh, say, 50 birds per species in our area—gets us to over one million miles traveled by little birds in order to build their nests in our neighborhoods.

That’s a million bird-miles through storms, wind, mountains, hunger, thirst, massive weather systems–as well as navigating around lost habitat and other human-generated challenges. Of course, then they have to go back south at the end of the summer, bringing us to two million miles of travel.

All that effort, and it just takes one dog running through the shrubbery, or one group of people chatting as they push through a trail-free area, to disrupt the delicate nesting process that’s the culmination of weeks of effort, the future of that little family.

May 11, 2013 is International Migratory Bird Day. Celebrate the wonder of warblers, the thrill of tanagers, by taking a quiet moment to imagine the forest as a network of fragile hidden homes: cherished cradles that need and deserve our protection.

Happy Bird-Day to you!

Reading Home

All my naturalist senses were cranked up as I walked along the dark gray sand. How quickly could I recognize my quarry? Would I be able to sneak up on it quietly enough to get a few quick, good-enough pictures without disturbing it?

I had heard that it tended to rest on beach logs that were about the same color as it was, so I scanned each log carefully for a pair of eyes that seemed to be looking out at me from the wood itself.

Hoping for a wider field of view, I climbed to the crest of the spit. The stiff ocean breeze whipped my face; my eyes teared up so I couldn’t see. Hastily wiping them, I finally spotted my object.

Which actually wasn’t that hard, considering the Snowy Owl was glowing white against a field of orange grasses, at the center of a respectfully-wide circle of lenses the diameter of my head pointed directly at him. So much for sneaky naturalist skills. And my 400mm Nikon zoom started looking pretty puny in this gathering of Big Optics.

Hey, anybody seen an owl around here? Anybody?

The object of all the attention: Snowy Owl looking toward Mt. Rainier

Exotic visitors

 Birders around here, and from a fair bit away, are going nuts taking pictures of the exquisite Snowy Owls who’ve treated us to a rare winter visit. Although it’s not too uncommon to see them in winter in the US Northeast, an irruption here in the Pacific Northwest makes even us non-twitcher backyard birders leap into our cars to head to their latest gathering spots.

[Graphic from Blix 2005]

For the past couple of months, I had been in awe of the stunning images of this photogenic bird that were making the rounds on Tweeters (our local birders’ email list) and the local news outlets. Glowing yellow eyes, soft white feathers, beautiful postures evocatively set against picturesque backgrounds. As a devoted but amateur photographer, I could only imagine the skills that had led to these astounding photos.

Then I got to owl country and found that these birds’ habits, along with their beauty and that of the setting, mean that you basically just walk up to one (of course staying a careful few tens of yards away), point your camera, click, and there’s your gorgeous photo.[2] They tend to stay around human-eye level, remain awake during the day, and turn their heads frequently from side to side so that everyone around gets a good profile view at some point. (I developed a magical ability to tell where the owl was looking even with my eyes closed…with the help of the sudden clickety-clickety-clicking emanating from the sector of circled photographers she happened to face at any given moment.)

Reading home

So what can we learn from these observations about how surprisingly easy it is to photograph Snowy Owls, and what those resulting photos show? What can we learn about the home to which they’ve adapted over millennia?

Lots, as it turns out. Take the fact that they tend to hang out at lens level, which we experience as unusual.

Snowy Owl, Damon Point, WA

Yes, of course many of our native birds show up a few feet off the ground, but they don’t tend to just stay there; they spend a few moments foraging and then off they go into a nearby tree, or perhaps under a shrub.

But in the Snowy Owls’ Arctic home, there are no trees. So the owls aren’t used to high places, and don’t tend to hang out in them. At least at first; apparently once they’ve been here a while, they start to experiment with this new vertical notion, eventually getting to actual trees.

What about this way the Snowies have of looking around all the time, and doing it when humans tend to be awake? Almost always when I go to visit my neighborhood Barred Owls on my late-morning walks, they’re peacefully snoozing the day away on a high branch under the cover of an overhanging pine. They start coming alive at dusk. So what’s different about a Snowy Owl’s home from ours?

Night. During the Arctic summer, there isn’t any.

So if you’re going to make a living up there, you’d better be good at hunting during the day, scanning your turf so you’ll catch that lemming in motion.

Snowy Owl in flight

What else can we learn about the home of these ethereal, exotic creatures from an encounter chez nous? Now I’m developing more questions than answers. Take a look at this profile:

Snowy Owl, showing soft face

No wonder I kept worrying that my photos seemed out of focus: the owl’s face is softened by the short feathers, in contrast to my local Barred Owl’s, which even with this young owl’s baby fluffiness, has a flatter overall configuration and lots more open space around his eyes:

Young Barred Owl, Lincoln Park, WA

Does the Snowy Owl’s downy covering shield his face from the Arctic cold, perhaps?

And I’m betting those evocatively lidded eyes on our Snowy help protect his eyes from what must be pretty glaring sun bouncing off the northern snow and ice.

Snowy Owl, Damon Point, WA

Thickly padded feet? Really cold stuff to stand on!

Snowy Owl scratching face, Damon Point, WA

Learning a new landguage, remembering the old

Learning to “read” the ecology of the Snowy Owl’s home from his characteristics and behavior opens a world of stories to us. Can we learn to read our own features and ways of encountering the world to discern something about our proper home? If you were a creature touring a far-distant place, what could a local naturalist learn about your home from observing you?

I also wonder whether it’s possible to learn to read ourselves to figure out where we truly belong, where our home really is. I grew up in East Coast megalopolis suburbs and spent most summers in rural Connecticut. Is that obvious? My original “language of landscape” involves syntax of spotted newt, vocabulary of spring peeper, grammar of metamorphic rocks, dialect of old rolling hills. How did my mother (nature) tongue shape me, as the Snowy Owl’s ancestral land shaped her?

It took me lots of intense self-instruction to learn the new “land-guage” out here in Seattle: craggy mountains on both sides, baby glacial sediments, assortments of landforms I couldn’t easily translate. I’m pretty fluent at reading this new language now, after 25 years. But sometimes it’s nice to return to my ancestral land and relax into the Old Speech, read the old volumes I love so much.

The Snowy Owls will return home soon; they don’t usually hang around here past mid-March on those rare occasions when they do visit us. They’ll blend in and find their familiar hunting grounds, and perhaps raise a few chicks to carry on the traditions. I wonder if this strange land of trees and summer nights and circles of clicking optics will show up in their dreams.

Snowy Owl, meditative at sunset

[1] Arctic animals and their adaptations to life on the edge.  Arnoldus Schytte Blix. Tapir Academic Press, 2005.

[2] Yes, yes, I know: gorgeous doesn’t mean either perfect or artistically stunning, and just going “click” doesn’t make you an exceptional photographer! There’s that rare owl look-in-the-eye—that moment of purely astounding light—that glimpse of glory through the everyday—that separate the truly gifted and skilled photographers from the rest of us. But those owls set that bar quite a bit higher than it had been.

Birding from the Bedroom

As you know, excellent birders rise before the sun and tiptoe quietly into nature to set up their spotting scopes and get their cameras and tripods ready to start clicking at first light. They’re rewarded with sparkling photos of remarkable birds with soulful eyes, splashed at just the right angle with the golden light of dawn.

But I’m not one of those. I sleep in and have quiet time with my cats and my journal, do my stretches, eventually wander down for breakfast. I usually get around to loading up my gear and making it out to the park about the crack of 10 am. That’s when the air’s warmed up a bit so that insects are moving around, so birds can find them and I can find the birds…but mostly I just like to move slowly, to enter the day contemplatively.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was stretching, I was chastising myself for being so slug-like, since it was a rare lovely day for this time of year: sunny and mild and alluring. I just knew that somewhere deep in the forest a beautiful early bird was catching a particularly picturesque worm, and I was going to miss it.

But then a movement in the hawthorne outside my bedroom window caught my eye, so I grabbed my camera from the next room and took a look.

Warblers! Beautiful bright warblers like avian flowers, hopping among the bright green leaves and red berries, lit by the low sun, not three feet from my bedroom window. I had to look up one of them whom I hadn’t seen in years, yellow with a dark eye mask: a Townsend’s Warbler, probably pausing—undeniably picturesquely—on his way down to Central America.

Townsend's Warbler

I spent most of the next hour taking pictures of the Townsend’s Warbler and then the Yellow Warbler who showed up next, with an occasional shift to the other window to try to catch the Red-Breasted Sapsucker and Downy Woodpecker who were working the huge Atlas Spruce to the west.

Townsend's Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Slugdom had finally paid off: a two-warbler, two-woodpecker morning without even leaving my bedroom…now that’s what I call excellent birding.

Townsend's Warbler