1/1/2021 — Up early, hiking the trail in darkness. I focus my camera on a grizzled black oak perched on a hill on the west side of California’s great Central Valley. Perhaps four hundred years old, the oak stands alone against the sky and time. Gnarled from wind and storms, blackened at the base from countless fires, it seems ready to welcome the new day as much as it relishes the green shoots of spring grass, nourished by the recent winter storms and emerging in a soft carpet everywhere above the tree’s roots. If my camera could focus a hundred miles east from that oak, it might pick up the first light of the year reflecting off the side of Yosemite’s Half Dome — a beacon of hope, perhaps, for millions of people in the cities that dot the Central Valley between my camera on one side of the valley and the Sierra Nevada's and Yosemite on other.
I wait with anticipation for the moment a glow on the horizon hints at the new day and year. Welcome 2021! Breathing deeply, I snap a picture of the oak. As the shutter releases, a Great Horned Owl, previously unseen by me, drops to flight from a branch in the tree above. The camera’s click spooked it. Without moving its outstretched wings, the owl silently glides out over the valley, toward the mountains and into the sunrise.
As the owl soars away, I wonder what she might see on her flight this morning. What had she seen on flights over the last year? Did she see the changes the pandemic brought to people on the roads and in the houses below?
Many of us, including me, saw changes, moving about like birds with broken wings — unable to escape the onslaught of fears, real or perceived, that seemed present in every direction. The thought of flight, lightness of motion, dance, looking up to the sky — many simple pleasures were lost or forgotten as pandemic-driven days of social starvation and isolation slogged on.
I turn and start down the trail to the valley floor. Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno — cities across the valley were still bedded down for a winter’s nap in a darkness that seemed to have blanked the great breadbasket for most of the last year. Now that weight was being lifted by the light of the new year pouring over the Sierra crest. My family, like most I presume, was especially happy to say goodbye to 2020!
One good thing about 2020: More wildlife crisscrossing my neighborhood in Petaluma, California. Most people I talked to who lived in urban areas and were lucky enough to live near a park or spot of nature noticed the uptick in creatures. Birds, butterflies, coyotes, deer, bobcats, and more. Each sighting seemed to bring these people joy and meaning (maybe not everyone experienced joy seeing the coyotes and bobcats). Heck we even had a mountain lion walk through town last week and that has never occurred in the decade I have lived here.
What bought about the influx, especially in the bird numbers? Did the population really increase? Did less traffic mean fewer bugs, animals, and birds were done in by cars? Or were people just spending more time outdoors noticing the previously unseen? Birds seemed to sing louder. Or were their songs at the same volume but just more noticeable because everything else slowed and quieted down?
I don’t know if the owl was a sign, but I do know people react deeply to nature, as do I. Driving on the freeway a few weeks later in February, the traffic came to an abrupt halt for a snow geese migration passing above, filling the sky with a dance of wings. Rapt amazement powerful enough to stop a traveling mass of humanity, just from birds in the sky above.
Saying all this, I have to admit I am not a “birder” but more of an admirer of all species (and occasionally my own). I really look forward to seeing the cycles in nature at work. I anticipate intensely simple things like the swallowtail butterflies returning to my garden each spring. However, of earth’s ten million species, wild birds seem to stand out. It is estimated there are 6 wild birds for each person on earth. Creatures with the ability to dance though trees, navigate the sky, and cross the globe connect us as we enjoy the beauty of flight.
And it’s not just their dancing on the wind that can lifts our spirits. A northern European coworker described his happiness at hearing the first cry of the cuckoo as it returns from wintering in the south. Simple yet beautiful, a cuckoo call is the harbinger of spring through and through, in just two notes.
I, too, look forward to seeing several bird species in my daily travels. But it’s the unexpected encounters and visitors that I relish most.
In April a Red-shouldered Hawk made a surprise appearance in my neighborhood that I am still tingling from. This raptor had me enraptured. It seemed to glow and radiate light as it darted in and out of the forest canopy in a muscular yet soft dance. Against the muted tones and notes of the branches in the black oak canopy, its flight’s glory filled the sky.
I had been stalking this hawk the better part of the morning and when I finally got close enough to put it in my camera viewfinder and focus, I was shaking. Eyes locked, we shared a few moments with an intensity that will last my lifetime. I believe at one point we were smiling at each other. I suspected it would fly off once the camera shutter started clicking, so I was in no hurry. What am I hiding, what beauty inside still needs to fledge?
After a long stare down, I shot a photo burst. With the first click the hawk rose to wing. The auto-focus locked on and off trying to keep up with the bird, taking successive shots as the hawk’s wings expanded and it rose to the trees. With a fluid motion, gentle yet absolute in power, it disappeared into the top of the forest canopy in seconds.
I flew alongside it into the canopy until the camera completely lost focus and began to shudder. Watching those wings took me to the flying dreams of my youth, one carried away all to quickly by the weight of time passing. But the lightness of wings can erase all that weighing of the mind — how and where we occupy space and time. I say look to the sky for there is nothing else but to fly.
Should I have taken those shots at all or just watched and experienced the bird in silence and honor? I wondered about that later in the week as I walked out to my backyard studio. Perhaps it was a good omen; there had been a few lately.
Its now late May and 2021 is already a better year; people are getting vaccinated and restrictions are being lifted. In-person public celebrations are coming, as is indoor restaurant dining, for the first time in a year.
Approaching my studio, I noticed a bird flying into the small folk art birdhouse I put up years ago as decoration. I had never seen that happen before. I bought it in a garage sale and I honestly thought it was just decorative.
It soon became clear from the frequent comings and goings that a pair of Chickadees, always one of my favorite birds, were nesting in that tiny birdhouse. My heart took wing. Where I live in Northern California, their range and variety of habitat is impressive — from coastal thickets and forests all the way to the tree line near the top of the Sierra Nevadas hundreds of miles to the east. Weighing a few ounces at most, Chickadees are one of the smaller birds to have such a range.
They are also one of the most spirited. Though their voices are tiny, their call and songs are easily recognized and fill most any forest. But for me the kicker is their tenacity. They stand up to any weather or foe. In winter storms, when snow and cold have pushed all other creatures to seek cover, this small bird can be seen surfing the wind from tree to tree with its cry of “chickadee, chickadee.” Part challenge, part cry of joy. “Chickadee, chickadee” — “look at me, look at me — I challenge you to be this free!”
Over the course or the next few weeks, I became intimate with this Chickadee couple and their growing family. I make dozens of trips daily from my studio to the house for snacks, meals, the restroom, and to confer with the family. I was constantly looking out for the Chickadees as their home base was right next to my studio door. I did not want to disturb them or cause them to abandon the nest.
This bird family got into my head. It wasn’t just that I was working right on the other side of the wall from the nest. (A six-inch wall separated me from eggs, bugs, guts, babies and the drama of life’s creation). But it was the speed and determination with which they worked.
I set up a camera on a tripod with a remote viewing and shooting application on my computer. As I worked inside the studio, I could watch what was happening just on the other side of the wall (as well as capture images and video). During lunch I videoed and timed all the comings and goings of the parents. I was shocked at the speed and regularity of the campaign. They averaged seven minutes per bug run. I am amazed they could fly off and safely navigate the forest to find one fat bug with such precision and turn around and do it again for hours on end. And the bugs they came back with were impressive — beetles, caterpillars, worms, flies, moths, and more. If I looked closely, I could see them panting like race horses after each run, their tiny chests rising and falling mightily. The thrill of the chase, a full-on aerial sprint, all day, back and forth every seven minutes.
And there is danger all around. A blue jay noticed the nest the next day and I had a “My Octopus Teacher” moment. In that epic drama, the documentarian has a dilemma. Intervene and save the octopus from a shark, or not. He chose not; I took the other path. The blue jay stood on top of the birdhouse, shoving its pointy beak in and out of the tiny opening, trying to pummel what young chick or eggs were in there. I drew the line — come on, pick on someone your own size! I chased it off.
The following morning, I saw my neighbor had a tree removal crew park right behind my studio. I was crestfallen. The crew proceeded to remove several large trees. The branches were fed into a huge grinder that raged all day. My studio and everything within 100 feet shook for hours as the iron hurricane teeth of death did their work.
The day dragged on and when finally the crew left, several huge trees were fully erased from the earth. In the aftermath of the tree massacre the next morning, the Chickadees were nowhere to be seen or heard. This was not typical and I feared the birds abandoned the nest.
I had to look. I was ready for heartache, broken shells or, worse, bodies. Nothing, a clean nest. The birds had fledged the night before the chipper of death! Over the next few weeks I watched Chickadee parents, as well as finches and robins, teach their young learn to fly. A few even flew in the house and I helped them back out, and even helped one or two who needed a hand up (away from dogs and cats).
The success of the nest got me thinking about how blessed I am to be part of the bird family cycle of life. Becoming a grandparent again just a few months before had me tuned to the brilliance of birth, and the bird family miracle of birth brought me right back there again. Who knew songbirds can fledge within two weeks of being laid? Some of us are in our later decades are still learning to fly. I am so glad the Chickadees were gone the night before the wood chipper, or the increasingly aggressive blue jay might have been the end of them.
The Cycle Continues
A hopeful feeling washed over me for the first time in what seemed like forever. I celebrated with a bike ride down sleepy country lanes near my house the next day. Riding along a stretch of road where a huge hedge and greenbelt lined the far side, I spot a Swallowtail butterfly making a beautiful dance along the road. The yellow of the butterfly floating against the green expanse of the hedge was breathtaking. But more beautiful were the notes it was playing on the wind with its flight.
Butterflies are easy targets for predators, so they typically fly on a herky-jerky, unpredictable path. This swallowtail was different. It was flying in a straight path along the hedge and rising and falling along a very symmetrical and linear path. It seemed to be going up and down along an invisible music scale where it would slightly strike a note with its wing beat for a different musical cord — C to E then to D and back up to B. Like it was singing a song with its path on the wing, similar to what I see in the flight of some Chickadees. “Look at me,” “I can fly,” “I am so free.” Just when I thought it could not get better, a second swallowtail joined the first and together they flew in harmony along the hedge.
This was too much to take. I was feeling fortunate to see such a perfect dance of color, wings, and flight. A memory flashed to me of the first time I deeply felt the wind and thought about flying. I was probably five years old. Someone had given me two feathers. I held one in each hand with outstretched arms and flapped my arms and pretended to fly. How many of us experienced that childhood fantasy?
I was about to pass the dancing Swallowtails when, in a flash, a bird, which looked suspiciously like a Chickadee (perhaps one from my nest!) flew by me just over my shoulder. I recoiled in horror as in the next moment that bird pick up the trailing Swallowtail mid-air and disappear in a flash with it behind the hedge.
I watched in sadness the lead Swallowtail continue on. Did it understand what had just occurred? The death and destruction that was just behind it? I am not sure, it seemed fly down the hedgerow on the same path — “Look at me, look at me, I am free”… up and down on invisible scales that faded off into the horizon.
Perhaps the butterfly stays the same path, without a look behind or reflection. But this begs the question, from the post-pandemic perch on which we are now poised to stand, will we do the same?
I hope you enjoyed this blog. Beyond amazing for how they fill and enliven our lives, wild bird habitats can be part of natural solutions to climate change, according to a recent Audubon Report. Support your local wild birds and consider a donation to the work done by the Audubon Society.
Robert Ernest Watson 7/8/2021
PS: See 628Elm.com for artwork related to this story. Any referrals to galleries or contacts who maybe interested in representing this work are appreciated.