From emptiness, fullness of joy

The Phoebe nest is empty and its occupants have moved off into the trees, leaving the garden to wrens and hummingbirds.

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A House Wren pauses briefly in the garden.

In relocating their fledged chicks to a place with more cover, the Phoebes have lifted a curtain on our surroundings, revealing activity we had barely noticed during their frenzied feeding phase.

Suddenly, it seems, we are hearing and seeing afresh the chatter and flitting of House Wrens and the movements of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, both of which seem to have claimed the territory formerly ruled by the Phoebes.

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A Ruby-throated Hummingbird over the Bee Balm.

Now, instead of watching the aerial feats of flycatchers, our eyes are trained on the hummingbirds feeding on Bee Balm and Salvia and the wrens busily tending their young in an assortment of dwellings.

We are appreciating anew the songs of cardinals and robins, the bold whistle of the Great-crested Flycatcher, the varied sounds of the Tufted Titmouse, and the simple notes of the Black-capped Chickadee, all occasionally punctuated by a Phoebe crying “FEE-bee, FEE-bee.”

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We last saw a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher during the spring migration, so were quite pleased when this one showed up under the summer sun.

We have been on the lookout, too, for birds that seemed scarce, likely because they were having their young, and now are reappearing more frequently closer to the house. Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Red-headed woodpeckers and Northern Flickers have shown themselves again along with a Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher we had seen earlier in the season.

As in life, it seems the absence of something we had become accustomed to seeing has given us fresh eyes and ears for other things we might not have noticed in our midst, or had taken for granted. Just as the departure of a high-achieving first-born can open our hearts to the quiet beauty of a younger child who has been living in an older sibling’s shadow, so changes in our landscape have the potential to enrich our awareness and appreciation of what is around us.

When we allow change to show us what is present instead of what is missing, we hear and see things that may have been obscured or drowned out by our focus on the very thing we had cherished. Just so, if we can bear to be quiet and brush away the distractions that drive our culture, perhaps we can open ourselves to receiving that which is given only in stillness.

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One of the last photos taken of the Phoebe chicks before their departure from the nest.

The Phoebe chicks, by the way, fledged on July 10. They were in the nest when I left that morning and gone when I returned in the afternoon. The day before, we managed to snap a few last photos of them in the nest. For days afterward, we saw nothing more than one adult, but my husband has since discovered them in an area of pine trees on the edge of the woods.

With a change of season approaching, we know it won’t be long before they will be moving on, along with the other migratory birds who have been with us in the spring and summer. When they leave, another curtain will be pulled back on a garden fading into fall, revealing a new landscape. May we look on it with eyes that are open to seeing its gifts instead of longing for what is passing.

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Phoebe summer

It has been more than two months since I wrote about the return of Eastern Phoebes to a nest on our house, and amid the busyness of spring and summer, I’ve been remiss in not reporting what transpired.

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These two chicks stayed in the tree near the nest long enough for us to snap their photo on May 29.

I’m pleased to say that we are having another Phoebe summer, just like the ones we had enjoyed before the last few seasons when these favorite birds arrived on schedule, but did not produce families. In May, the nest on the stone façade of the house just under the soffit yielded two chicks, who lingered long enough after fledging to allow me to snap their photo on the 29th.

Even better, as of this writing, the adults are feeding another family of what looks to be at least three chicks. For several weeks now, the parents have been sallying between garden and nest, snatching bugs and ferrying them back to gaping beaks. Those days appear to be numbered, however. In just the last week, the bulging mass of beaks and feathers we had been observing is now a clearly defined family that is outgrowing the nest and will soon be urged to depart.

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The porch railing post has been a favorite stopping-off point for the adults before they take food to the nest.

That rite of passage always is tinged with sadness for us because we know we won’t be seeing these beloved birds as often, but the days leading to it are pure delight. Throughout the day and in the evening, we love watching the adults fly into the garden, perch on branches, arbors, and posts, stop by the bird bath, or use the porch railing as a segue between their little nursery and the food supply. As they move about, they seem to become accustomed to our presence, allowing us to train the camera lens on them or weed and water the garden while they are in it, provided we keep a respectable distance.

Before the last few chick-less seasons and after several consecutive years of Phoebe summers, we had come to take the presence of these charming flycatchers for granted. This year, having experienced drought, we are reveling in the joy of abundance, enjoying every sighting of a drab brown-and-white Phoebe, whether we are walking outside, sitting on the screened porch, or peering through the kitchen window.

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Time to leave? This shot taken on July 7 clearly shows the chicks are outgrowing the nest.

We are hardly the first to discover that Phoebes make companionable and beneficial seasonal guests. In Birds of America, a treasured early 20th-century book we keep alongside our Sibley Guide to Birds, George Gladden writes, “ . . . the [Eastern Phoebe’s] confiding ways and gentle manners have won the real affection of its human neighbors, who should realize as well that it is very useful as a destroyer of noxious insects.” Gladden also praises the Phoebe’s skill and speed in pursuing its prey and provides this apt description of its movements: “Like its relatives it generally selects a perch on a dead limb or fencepost whence it has an unobstructed view of the immediate surroundings, and it is likely to return to this perch after each darting sally.”

Lest anyone even think of discouraging these migrants when they build their nests near human habitations, he writes: “Let the Phoebe remain just where it is. Let it occupy the orchard, the garden, the dooryard, and build its nest in the barn, the carriage house, or the shed. It pays ample rent for its accommodations.”

I couldn’t agree more. From its insistent call in the spring to its aerial feats, bobbing tail, and appetite for pesky insects, the Phoebe brings us many gifts, not the least of which is the window it opens into a world designed to work all things to the good.