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.

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Engaging silence

“Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God.”

These words from the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton once greeted visitors to a barn in Monroe County, Michigan, that had been set apart as a place of quiet and prayer. The barn was closed a few years ago and has since been razed, but I thought of the sign on the door recently as I was reflecting on those among us who cannot live without constant sound. In their cars, they must have the audio system playing, and at home, the TV is always on, sometimes even as they fall asleep.

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Wood thrush. (This one is recovering on our deck after striking a window.)

In talking with friends who live or spend time with such people, I have pondered why this is so and, indeed, why all of us are uncomfortable with silence at times.

A writer friend tried to puzzle it out in an email as we were discussing the beginnings of this blog. She wrote, “What you’ve said reminds me of something I learned in Aristotle where he says the reason people are afraid to be alone (i.e., to be silent) is because they’re afraid of seeing who they really are. So, they fill their life with lots of distractions . . .”

Silence, as Merton suggested, does shine a light onto who and what we are, showing us things we would rather not see or consider. But perhaps it is just as true that our fondness for noise and stimulation is rooted in our fear of the seeming nothingness of silence and stillness – the vast abyss that looms before us when our tools and toys are set aside or turned off. The sheer magnitude of the quiet unsettles us and so we rush to fill it with something – anything – that can momentarily distract us and assuage our discomfort.

When blogger Kim Smith (NatureIsMyTherapy.com) wrote recently about her quest for more stillness and her struggle with distractions, she cited a piece in the Utne Reader on “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” In it, Christian Williams talks about “losing the ability to sit and do nothing” because he, like everyone around him, now habitually turns to a smart phone to fill down time. In urging us to “spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen,” he suggests that silence and stillness are breeding grounds for new ideas and solutions. I would add that being still is not so much a state of nothingness as a canvas ready to receive a different design or even a moment of delight. Silence is really a preparation, a cleansing, a clearing of the ground for something new or better that we will never hear or see if we constantly fill in the background with noise or stimulation. Some friends who have recently gone on silent retreats engage in this kind of purging when they agree to refrain from speaking, except to pray out loud or meet privately with a retreat leader. This discipline has a purpose: so they can hear the still, small voice of God that is often drowned out by the clamor of our lives.

The other morning, as I was waking, I heard a wood thrush singing outside. It is a sound I typically hear earlier in the spring and so I wasn’t especially listening for it, but the conditions were right: the window was open, the clock-radio was set for prime bird-singing time, and when it did go off, it was not blaring, but set to play gentle music at a low volume. I was also able to hear and enjoy this bird’s reedy song because I had made space to listen to and identify it some years ago. One spring evening, I followed the sound through the woods, eventually training my binoculars on its source and pairing the wood thrush I saw with the splendid sound I had been hearing. Had I not stilled myself and carved out some times of quiet to become an observer of birds, I would have missed this auditory treat, part of a rich feast of bird song available to anyone willing to listen and experience the enrichment it brings to life.

This is just one example, but in offering it, I mean to say that those who master silence and stillness lead lives that are anything but hollow. They may not have filled their minds, eyes, and ears with a panoply of ready stimuli that form the stuff of social chatter, but having confronted and engaged the seeming emptiness of silence and the initial discomfort it brings, they hear and see what so many miss – another layer of life that lies beyond and above the pressing business of what we call living.

 

The still life of a birdwatcher

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Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Kim Smith

The year I ventured into the world of serious birdwatching, I probably spent as much time observing the birders as the birds.

Something about the people who were able to discern the presence of a particular bird, first with the naked eye or ear and then through binoculars, fascinated me, as did the near-magical atmosphere of the wildlife area where they had flocked to seek out birds during the spring migration.

I saw serene, thoughtful countenances, felt a sense of quiet anticipation, and heard a whole new language spoken mostly in subdued tones: “Cooperative male Canada warbler with a nice necklace. Around 10 o’clock, where that branch with the clump of leaves forks. See? He just dropped down. There, to the right of that tangle.”

Like a star-struck groupie, I was drawn to these longtime avian enthusiasts who had the air of experience about them, yet would take time to help me through my early awkward efforts at birding, guiding me to my first sighting of a spectacular bird.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Kim Smith

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Kim Smith

They won me over not with flashy personalities, but with serene and generous spirits that beckoned me to share in the knowledge they had developed over years of keen observation. Although like every other group, birders are diverse, I noticed that some of the best are quiet types who don’t have the trappings of a big personality or the gift of clever repartee. They seem to possess an inner repose and so bring to birding a receptive spirit that settles in to listen and watch, easily tuning out distractions.

From watching and interacting with these tranquil beings, I wanted to be more like them, much as a young disciple looks to a spiritual father or mother as a model. I remember especially a man with a disabling physical condition who identified a Prairie warbler for me during my first year of birding. In succeeding years, he has no longer been able to easily navigate through the clusters of birders on the trail and so has done most of his birding from a folding stool, but whenever I see him, I am assured of hearing a report of some splendid sightings. I always have the sense that he sees and hears things the rest of us miss because we have to keep moving.

Regardless of their religious beliefs, birders have confirmed what my own spiritual tradition teaches: that the stillness, quiet, and attitude of listening birders bring to their pursuit are essential if we are to hear or see anything of lasting value. As Rumer Godden writes in the book, In This House of Brede, referring to an artist who has come to the monastery to work, “It was the silence of Brede that pleased him. ‘I can hear life,’ he said.”

White-throated Sparrow by Kim Smith

White-throated Sparrow. Photo by Kim Smith

In a world numbed by its attachment to technology and noise, the birders I have observed and emulated hear and see life, whether they are delighting in finding a tiny Blackburnian warbler with its brilliant orange “fire throat” or an American Woodcock whose brown camo coloring allows it to blend into the woodland landscape.

I share in this richness of the bird trail when I slow down enough to listen to the simple, soothing song of the White-throated Sparrow on these spring days, notice an Eastern Phoebe patiently waiting for the movement of an insect in my garden, or spy a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on a branch outside the kitchen window.

But I reap even more when I apply the lessons of birding to my daily life: when I am willing to wait and watch for something wonderful, when I listen for the sound of a distant song, and when I am still enough to believe in the Goodness of it all.

 

Where the birds are: If this post has piqued your interest in birding and you can travel to northwest Ohio, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” a great once-a-year opportunity awaits you during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins Tuesday, May 6, and continues through May 15. Also, Kim Smith, who blogs at natureismytherapy.com and graciously provided photos for this post, will be blogging from the Biggest Week and coordinating the efforts of the event’s blog team.