Sunday, March 14, 2010

In praise of the ordinary

Planning is overrated. I had plans to go out this weekend with my new little audio recorder to try to capture the sound of spring: the first Red-winged Blackbird that has returned to Milford harbor and has been down there in the reeds calling, calling, calling. He'd come back to crystal blue skies and gradually warming days, and his calls had filled me with such joy because they mean change and growth and color will be here any day now.

So of course when I planned to go out and try to record him, we were slammed with a wall of weather: 36 hours of unrelenting rain and brutal gales that left a few people dead, their cars crushed by trees. I would give you a listen to what the tempest sounded like from my porch, except that I can't get this damn thing to upload the file. Imagine the inside of Mawson's hut in Antarctica.

I finally ventured out this afternoon when it had calmed, but all the birds had very wisely cleared out. Except a pair of Mallards--there's always a pair of Mallards. Oh, and a shrubful of House Sparrows--there'll be House Sparrows at Armageddon.

Bored after being cooped up so long, I went for a drive to West Haven--and there they were, the birds. (Suddenly the name of the place made sense.) It wasn't the kind of birding that takes your breath away because you see something rare. It was just all the usual suspects there, as far as I could tell.

Except for a funny-looking goose. My point-and-shoot camera doesn't do this lovely goose justice. It was just majestic looking, to my eye. I watched it for ages, mesmerized by the soft caramel-colored patterns on its neck, the white blush on its face and rings around its eyes. This was no goose I had seen before . . . but no, it wasn't some rare find. It was a hybrid. A mishmash. A mixture of a Canada goose (they mostly inspire a yawn or a curse but little else) and just a plain old domestic goose, I'm guessing.

But to me it was just gorgeous, as astounding as any rare or noteworthy goose I might have hoped to find with my binoculars. Just the product of ordinary goose genes. Just an ordinary goose. Long live the ordinary!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fantasy birds

Things have been so gray of late. Interminable dark skies, frozen earth. It is a lonely, hard kind of a winter this one. The economy is still miserable no matter what the statistics say; my health insurance premium just tripled, which makes the petty sniping in Congress even harder to stomach. But I escaped last week. I was in Guatemala, a country as beautifully strange as its name.

And there at last I found my fantasy birds, all living amongst lush green fleshy plants, on rich volcanic slopes. Often I couldn't even see them, but only hear them calling to one another from deep within the greenness and the mist. Emerald Toucanets barking like dogs. Long-tailed Manikins that sounded like the sweetest clearest bells. Violaceous trogons doing a hollow haunting staccato sound.

My eyes found it hard to adjust to all that green life after being so accustomed to fields of white and bare twigs against a flat gray sky. But when I did catch a glimpse of one of these birds, it took my breath away.

Greens, turquoises reds, oranges, and yellows so rich and lustrous it didn't seem possible. Outlandish crests, extravagant trailing tails. Bright flashes of surreal shapes and hues flitting through the leaves so that at first I thought I had imagined them, dreamed them while awake.

I usually find it frustrating when I go birding and hear birds calling but can't find them, or when other people see a bird and I can't. But here, with an orchestra of bird calls all around me, big old trees, tangling vines, and the promise of seeing a flash of color and wing at any moment, I just didn't care. It was all beauty. And it was a source of joy knowing that I would never see some of the incredible birds that I could hear calling from behind towering stands of bamboo or across the other side of a densely forested valley. Here were the birds of my dreams living out their lives in secret. This was their kingdom.