I love to watch birds. We have an organic garden with a lot of flowers and some trees, so we attract a lot of birds. I’ve always spent a lot of my winter and summer vacations at home, and since I also spent a lot of years working from home, I found that I could concentrate best if my desk was by a window and I could look outside. Thus, when you step into my house, the first thing you see is my L shaped glass desk facing one window and with the wall of huge windows running along the side. I’ve been able to spot a tremendous variety of birds in my yard. Finches and chickadees are pretty common in the area, and of course, crows are ubiquitous everywhere. But it is something else entirely to stand in the window with a cup of tea and watch the sun rise and the hundreds of crows streak overhead from the their crow tree to their various daily haunts. (I call this the crow commute.)
I don’t live anywhere exciting, just a small house on a small lot in an old part of town that was developed over a hundred years ago. There are houses and kids and cars and neighbors all over the place, but there are also gardens and old trees and open spaces. People think cities don’t have interesting birds, but they are wrong. Especially in a city like Portland, filled with rivers and wetlands and trees everywhere and the country’s largest urban forest, the bird life is wide and varied. Sadly, I don’t have a pond, so I have to travel a few miles to see the great blue herons and the osprey and the ducks and geese and coots and cormorants on the water. But even from my home, I have seen some amazing things.
For example, one day while I was working from home, I got the feeling that I was being watched. I glanced up, only to find that I was being watched. A large raven had settled itself on to of my neighbor’s kids’ treehouse and was glaring at me with great focus. It watched me answer emails and grade online essays for quite some time, before flying away. (To be seen, alas, nevermore.)
On another occasion when my son was an infant, I was up late and heard the strangest loud sound. I went outside into the otherwise quiet night and stood still and breathed and listened. After a few minutes, the sounds repeated and repeated and repeated, and I tracked them to the top of the 50′ tall pine across the street. The bird shifted and settled and with a start, I realized that I was looking at a great horned owl. I had seen the occasional barn owl in the neighborhood over the years, but the great horned owl was a magnificent surprise.
In late winter and early spring, we always have a few flickers in the neighborhood. We hear them first, pecking away at trees and power poles, and, once alerted, I always watch for the birds themselves. They are large and quite beautiful, with unexpected patterns and colors. I saw the first one of the season swooping through the yard yesterday. Last year, I looked up from my desk and saw a mother flicker foraging for bugs in my side yard with a number of medium-sized flicker chicks in her wake.
Another surprising encounter was the hummingbirds. A few years ago, in early November, my son and I spotted a hummingbird in the yard. Surprised to see one so late in the yard, when the flowers were all gone, we rushed to the nursery and bought hummingbird feeders. The nursery folk told us that if we fed them, we had to always feed them, because they stop migrating in your yard and they will die without the supplemental food source. We have diligently kept the feeders in the front and back yard full ever since, even going so far in freezing weather as to rotate feeders in and out of the house so the birds always have a source of unfrozen food to eat. When I grade papers on my back deck, the hummingbirds will fly in and buzz above my head for a while and then drink from the feeders and dart back to the foliage on the apple trees, where they can keep an eye on me. We’ve had a pair frequently flying in and out of the camellia at the corner of the house over the last week, and there was a spectacular hummingbird territory fight in and around the bush the other day. I am hoping that soon we will see a tiny nest.
Last fall, a new plant in my neighbor’s yard produced a spectacular crop of black berries, and they drew the attention of a flock of cedar waxwings, which I had never seen in Portland before. They descended en masse, ripping each and every berry from the plant, and staggering increasingly drunkenly around as they frenzied over the plant. Staggering turned to downright wobbling, which turned to crazed flights in which they repeatedly slammed head first into our windows, and then fell onto the lawn, looking equal parts enraged and confused. Someone should take away their flying licenses. Once they metabolized a bit, they discovered that there was a second plant in another part of the yard, and the whole shebang started again. I’ve read that waxwings eat berries that other birds find toxic, and thus have some crazy responses to the berries as they burn out the poison. This is a wonderful adaptation which provides them additional food sources, but it makes it none the less hilarious when the birds repeatedly fall over beak first while attempting to walk until they give up and lie sideways on the lawn until they feel better.
The most amazing thing, however, was the day a just fledged golden eagle suddenly appeared. It crashed and slid down the rooftop, grabbed wildly at a branch outside my window, and swung itself into the most awkward landing I have ever seen an eagle execute. It shook its head, ruffled its wings in an irritated manner, and then assumed a serenely fierce “I meant to do that and don’t you little piece of meat try to say anything different.” Once it had finally worked up its nerve, it gave flying a second chance, at which point, it fell out of the tree and landed face first on the ground. With a look of shock and a fast learning curve, it picked itself up, launched itself into the air, and finally achieved a majestic glide. I stood at my window, gobsmacked, and watched as it dwindled into a speck and disappeared.
If you just take a moment to observe the seemingly ordinary world around you, you will find the most amazing things!