Posted tagged ‘Birds of the PNW’

Dark-Eyed Strangers

January 14, 2013


A sudden fluttering drew my eye, and just like that the winter-frozen deck was alive with little birds, perhaps a dozen of them. They were showy, unfamiliar, and they were clustered around a potted grass that had gone to seed and not yet been cut back. They didn’t cheep or twitter, and they seemed enraptured by the grass.


At first I was confused, as I thought this little female was gathering stems for her nest, and it definitely isn’t nest-building time. The avian band was mainly males, and I thought it ironic that she was working while the guys just hopped around.DSC_5527

But then I realized that the rest of the birds were taking turns stripping seeds from the grass, hopping up to grab a stem in their beaks, then holding on as gravity pulled them downwards and the seeds fell in a shower around them.


They were calm, efficient, unafraid, having flown in from who knows where to stop at our house for lunch, unannounced. I had never thought of that particular grass as a part of the food web, but the birds had found it and recognized it and feasted on it in the time it took me to grab my camera.


They gazed at me darkly as they ate, ignoring the clicking of the camera, and I kept Beppo and Zazou away from the window so as not to spoil the birds’ lunch. And then a Big Bird came into view, a whirlybird, and as the downwash of sound from the helicopter’s passage reached their ears, the birds were gone as suddenly as they had appeared.

The magic of Google Images told me that they were Dark-Eyed Juncos, and although they’re supposedly a very common bird, I’ve never seen them before. But I like their poetic name, and I like the fact that a grass I planted five or six years ago, planted only for its feathery beauty, is still so inviting that it causes dark-eyed strangers to drop in for lunch.

Hummingbird Heaven

November 11, 2012

It’s mid-November. It’s gotten cold, it’s gotten rainy, but for some reason, undoubtedly related to climate change, my pineapple sage is still hanging in there, to the evident delight of the Anna’s hummingbirds.

While other local hummers, like the Rufous and the Black-chinned hummingbirds, have long since headed south to Texas and Mexico to pass the winter frolicking in warmer climes,

even though it’s thousands of miles of flying and they’re just feather weights,

the jewel-toned Anna’s, like this lovely little lady bird, manage to stick around throughout the damp and dreary Puget Sound winter.

Normally the pineapple sage would have long since given up the ghost, or I would have picked all the flowers to put in a salad, but this year the blooms are still going strong,

and I stopped picking them altogether when I realized that the hummingbirds were still dining early and often on our deck. They’re often the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning, and speaking of vision, if I’m out on the deck they’ll sometimes come and hover just in front of my face, fierce long bill pointing right between my eyes. I don’t know whether they’re being territorial and trying to scare me back inside in front of the fire, where I belong, or whether they’re thanking me for having so heavily fertilized the pineapple sage last spring. They speak in little clicks, and I haven’t mastered that language yet.

But even though I can’t fully understand their story, they’re definitely my model for strength in the face of adversity, artless beauty, and eating well in every season. Go pineapple sage!

The Yes-Yes Bird

November 4, 2012

Our first spring in this house we heard a bird saying “yes yes.” It was a metallic, almost mechanical-sounding trill, “yes yes.” We had no idea what bird it was, so naturally we started calling it the yes yes bird. I asked birder friends, no one could think of a bird that said yes yes. I Googled yes yes bird, bird call sounds like yes yes, and anything else I could think of, all to no avail.

And still they came to our yard, although we never saw them. Their call would come from high up in the Douglas firs and cedars, and we never saw so much as a feather. Some years we’d say “wow, there are a lot of yes yes birds this year.” One year we never heard any, and worried about whether climate change had driven our yes yes birds further north.

Then, this spring, I heard one that was very close. I’d suddenly had it with the not knowing, I wanted to see that yes yes bird and I wanted to see him now. I grabbed a pair of truly terrible binoculars and went outside. Finally I was able to track my yes yes bird into the crabapple tree, and I saw it. It was a spotted towhee, I was pretty sure, but remember, I had lamentable binoculars in my hand instead of a good camera. So I went in and found images of a spotted towhee online, and yes, that’s our yes yes bird.

So I formulated this quasi-scientific cockamamie theory that since we only hear them in the spring, they must be migrating through here then. And promptly forgot all about it. Until yesterday, while I was sitting right here at this very computer, a flashing and fluttering in the madrona outside my window caught my eye. Hey, wow, there was a yes yes bird right outside my window, flitting around like mad from branch to branch. My camera was on my desk, I grabbed it, and got exactly one shot before he flew off. A shot taken through the dirty window and the window screen, so hurrah camera. That’s the shot you see above, the one where he’s looking right at the camera, as if he’s saying “Look, it’s me, I’m the yes yes bird you’ve been seeking.”

He didn’t really say that, of course. In fact, he didn’t say anything. It’s November, and in November the yes yes bird says nothing nothing at all. His agreeable song is a springtime fling thing.

I can understand that, I don’t feel like saying yes yes all the time myself. The election season makes me say no no. Shel’s cancer makes me say help help. It’s easy to fall into the ambient existential anxiety, “la morosité ambiente.”  But I’m trying to get myself more in a yes yes kind of place. And since I love the holiday season, I mean to immerse myself in that source of warmth and cheer.

In French there’s a verb, positiver. It means to be optimistic, to maintain a positive feeling. It doesn’t translate exactly, but it kind of means “be more of a yes yes person.” If I were in France right now someone would tell me “il faut positiver” to mean be more yes yes-ish. Funny how it took a silent American bird telling me for me to get the message.