Tuesday, September 27, 2011



This morning I could have sworn I heard a woodpecker tap out "shave and a hair-cut, two bits!" Foraging, I suppose, not drumming. There's one drumming pattern I hear here regularly--sounds like a rusty hinge just starting to move. We have two woodpecker species who send representatives to our suet feeders (downy and the paradoxically named red-bellied) but my husband says he's also seen a pileated woodpecker in the neighborhood occasionally. He knows more about birds than I do—unlike you, he's not quite a birder, but rather a good, solid generalist naturalist. Obviously, that’s one of the reasons he and I get along. He has named the birds at the feeders for me; American goldfinches, tufted titmice, the two woodpeckers, finches…cardinals, jays and doves I knew already. But he doesn't know which woodpecker does the drumming.

As you know, I’m not a birder, either. If birding were all visual I could do it—I learn birds by sight fairly easily, though I’ve never put the effort into learning a lot of species. But so much of it is auditory, and the songs mostly all sound the same to me. You could imitate a call, or play a recording, and I’d forget what it sounded like before I could hear it again. The only time I’ve had any success learning bird songs was when I was working out west at that one job where I HAD to learn the songs. And I had access to a computer quiz program that would play the songs over and over so you could guess the names. I learned maybe half a dozen of them, plus the two doves and the woodpeckers that don’t really sing. It was great—I could go out to the study site and know what was going on, where all the territories were, who was fighting, who had chicks, where the fledglings from that nest over by that big mesquite clump had gotten to…it was like listening to gossip. People fantasize about being able to understand the language of animals, and I think it’s perfectly possible to do it, but what they’re saying isn’t complicated, like paragraphs of English. They’re saying who they are, where they are, how they feel…I’m not sure if it even needs to be translated; a bird who says “twitter, twitter, tweet” doesn’t mean “get off my territory” or “please be my mate,” he means “twitter, twitter, tweet.” I wish I could have kept it up when I got back here, monitored and mapped just like I did at that job, but I don’t know enough the songs here, and mapping territories takes a lot of work, and I don’t want to disturb nesting birds for no good reason besides my own curiosity. By now I’ve forgotten most of what I learned.

Speaking of mates, I never ask after yours, though you often ask after mine. Maybe it’s because your relationship is still new, it seems more private, like I shouldn’t ask. Maybe it’s because I am married and you are not; I used to think there was no difference between married and unmarried couples, since some of each split up, and some of each stay together forever, but at some point I realized that getting married isn’t about the relationship between the partners, it’s about the relationship between the partners and their friends and family. Getting married means asking other people to get involved. A ring, perhaps, is a kind of singing, and invites a song in return; “so, how is your husband?” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a girl-friend as opposed to a wife, and maybe I’m overanalyzing what is simply shyness on my part, but maybe in not being married, you are implicitly saying this is one thing you are not ready to share with anyone?

I am sleepy this morning. I'm having a hard time concentrating. I would like to tell you more stories, and I would like to hear more of yours, though I need to get back to work, and doubtless so do you. I sometimes day-dream of having enough time to talk with you properly, without worrying about running out of time, or giving you too much to read, just talk until we don’t feel like talking for a while. Maybe someday you (and your mate?) will come here for a visit; you can read fantasy novels in the hammock, play with our dogs, and my husband can teach you to sail his boat. And we can sit and chat in my outdoor office under the holly trees and you can eavesdrop on the birds and tell me all their local gossip.

-best, C.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Walking in June

Hi, my friend. You asked for "lots of letters" when we last spoke, so here you go.

The Chuck-Will's-Widow is doing its (his?) thing in the evenings now. We live in a wooded area, and when my husband and I were courting we would take long walks here in the evenings and it was summer and sticky, hot and green and then moonlit, and we'd come back under bats patrolling the air over the street and the one or two resident Chuck-Wills calling. So I like hearing them.

I like that group categorically, the Whippoorwills, Poorwills, and their kin. Nightjars, I believe they're called. Do they all call at night like that, even the Night Hawks? Except for Night Hawks I think all of them are named after the cry they make. Chuck Will! Chuck Will! Chuck Will!  A phrase comes to mind; "how to describe this marvelous bird, which no one has seen and which everyone's heard?" That's the opening couplet of The Google Book, which you really ought to read if you haven't yet. If you were about to have a grandchild (oh, calm down!) I'd get you a copy as a present. The name has nothing to do with the search engine, of course; the book predates the internet by decades. It's about birds, all of them imaginary, page after page of amazing paintings and rhymed descriptions, an avian bestiary. It was written by a turn-of (last) century economist who was also very much into birds, like you. My Mom read it to me when I was little. My favorite was always the Lemon Squeezer, which has a swelling in its bill for squeezing lemons with and is pictured feeding lemon juice to its chicks, named Herbert and Louisa, each with its own beak-swelling, too small yet for lemons. Perhaps the chicks start out with kumquats, teethe, as it were, on small fruit? The first bird mentioned, however, the marvelous one no one has seen, is the Lesser Nockit, which bears no resemblance to a nightjar other than that the first couplet applies equally well to both.

I've heard Whippoorwills in the South staining the night with their sound, this huge noise coming from just one tree, so it must have been just one bird--crying to his mate? To rivals? To the sky like an avian coyote? I wish I knew. Maybe you'll tell me, or I could go look it up. But we could not see the bird making the noise--and no one tried to. I didn't even know what they look like. They should look extravagant and strange, like neon egrets or something, with a noise like that. They don't, of course. But I did see one, once. I was sitting above a rocky cliff near the Appalachian Trail at dusk. There was this huge view of the valley before us and consequently a beautiful view of the purpling sky, and this Whippoorwill started up right below me on the rocks. It was so close I could hear an odd knocking sound at the beginning of the call; [cluck] Whi! Poor! Will! [cluck] Whi! Poor! Will! [cluck] Whi! Poor! Will! And then this hiker, who called himself Two Tails, came up, and he thought he was so smart, knowing where the bird was, and he tried to get closer and it flew away. I saw it fly. End of show. The man didn't even know enough to regret it. Sometimes you've got to leave well enough alone.

Except I did get a good look at another nightjar once--not sure what kind. Some kind of Poorwill, maybe. It was in Arizona, near Kingman. We had a project destroying a dirt road (what fun!) and someone says "Hey, come look at this bird!" So we all went over and looked under this creosote bush. There was what looked like a weathered piece of wood underneath it. I looked in front that piece, over it, around it, on the other side of it...couldn't see any bird. Of course, the piece of wood was the bird. I was about two feet from it and it was in plain sight, yet almost invisible. It was about the shape and size of a pigeon, mottled brown, and so dappled and speckled that although it did not blend in particularly--you could see something was there easily enough--it didn't look like a bird. You could sit and look at it and not see it for what it was. I'm no birder, but I read a lot, and I remember what I read, and I'd just read an article on nightjars in National Geographic, so I explained to the group that we'd found one, and that this was seriously cool, and that we'd probably never get a good look at one again. They all ignored me, and went on speculating as to its identity--some sort of owl or some sort of pigeon was the general consensus. I was a voice in the wilderness (literally, we were in a Federally Designated Wilderness Area) crying "it's a nightjar!" and nobody paid me any attention. Well, we left that bird in peace and went back to destroying the road, throwing rocks and transplanting cacti into the dirt road bed.

The following week our supervisor came up to me and said "I looked it up. It's a nightjar."
Our supervisor, I'll call him Rogue, could be difficult to deal with at times. I don't think you'd like him, though I did. He was the best I've ever seen at most of the things I ever saw him do, and he hardly ever did anything he couldn't be the best at doing. But Rogue could admit he was wrong, and did so with remarkable grace. One week someone said "hey, I'm bad-ass!" so of course somebody else said "hi, Bad-Ass, I'm Kick-Ass," and within a few hours everybody had "ass" nicknames. A part-time crew-member became Half-Ass, the supervisor's assistant became Super-Ass...Rogue himself was Punk-Ass, which he called himself anyway, but I couldn't think of a name. "Ass" isn't really my kind of word. So Rogue named me Smart-Ass. Under the circumstances, I took it as a compliment.

I don't think Rogue liked that I could best him at anything, but he never denied that I could, and he never tried to be the best at anyone else's expense, not really. He had nothing to prove. I'd agree to being as cocky as Rogue was, if it meant I could be that brave. If he crowed, it was simply his song to the night.