Tony Vagneur: Sometimes, life’s best moments are for the bird
Just as the sun begins to push the dullness of first light away, the migration and insistence of life begins. First, the great blue herons, two of them about 100 yards apart, begin their upvalley steady flap of wings to reach their preferred fishing grounds, followed almost immediately by the smaller, closer to the ground species.
Robins, sparrows, juncos, chickadees, bluebirds and other species flit from grass to bush to willow to cottonwood, all looking for a little breakfast. Those birds are not here all at once, but come and go during the day or over the course of several days, a blessing to my eyes and ears.
The magpies and ravens seem to sleep in a bit longer, usually making their appearance at the full break of day. If you carelessly leave the door open, a hummingbird might buzz in, immediately forgetting how it got into such foreign environment and require rescue.
Birds are beautiful to watch, to listen to and to wonder about, but there is cruelty in their world just as there is for everything in the natural realm. The great blue herons, having established themselves fairly recently in the Woody Creek Canyon, put together a marvelous rookery down the road about a mile, with large, skillfully constructed nests high in some old and mighty cottonwoods.
After several years of peaceful living and, at just about hatching time, a couple of big owls moved in to some nearby cottonwoods, their intent not entirely clear. However, after a couple of days of observing, they made an after-dark raid on the heron rookery, eating and destroying the chicks and unhatched eggs.
The cries of the adult great blues were tragic, desperate and gut-wrenching but, as nature intended, the owls won. We wondered if that might be the end of great blue herons in Woody Creek, that they might decide to move, but that was not to be, and today’s survivors are as wild and striking as ever before. Occasionally, the hoot of an owl can be heard in the darkness.
Sometimes, if at all, two bald eagles fly up the valley, usually about mid-afternoon, one-by-one, about a mile apart. Where exactly they go, we can’t be certain mostly because we haven’t checked but, along toward dusk, they fly back down, about a mile apart. You could almost set a clock by observing their flight paths.
The other morning, rather than a few errant magpies checking out the yard, a huge flock of them began sailing up the creek, traveling in twos and threes and congregating in several large bushes at the edge of a hayfield. What could it mean? Usually they are very vocal when they group together like that, such as when they have a juvenile red-tailed hawk on the ground and are trying to kill it, or when calling in the group to a recent carcass or dying animal along the trail.
But on this day, they were totally silent within their group which to me, and maybe only to me, was a bit unsettling, particularly for such noisy birds. It was a short meeting and then they dispersed in all four directions of the wind, to not reappear in such a fashion. Ravens are like that, as well, meeting for various reasons, including gathering for homage to a dead comrade.
When I was very young, a couple of high school boys working for my dad during the summer lived in our basement. They had heard, somewhere along the way, that magpies could be taught to talk, much like parrots and other similar birds. Those boys raided a couple of spring magpie nests, gathering three or four birds for their experiments, a futile try at bridging a gap between bird and man. Magpies, although they may rarely, or accidently, mimic a few human words, cannot be taught to talk in our terms. Sometimes just by watching, even when very young, we learn things we shouldn’t ever do when we get bigger.
At the close of day, when the bald eagles and great blue herons have gone home, as dark shadows creep down the hill across the creek, we sit on the porch and listen to the slow wind-down of the smaller bird world, chirps here, mews, trills, deedles and clucks there and every once in awhile, a raven will surreptitiously sit on a fence post around the corner of the cabin making a sound much like a human and I look to see who is there.
The sun disappears over the horizon, the sounds, one-by-one fade away and my cabin becomes but a quiet flicker of light in a dark universe where I sit and type out stories like this.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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