Flocking Together

I have always taken birds for granted. They all looked pretty much the same to me as I was growing up. My grandmother once had a canary, but except for being very colorful, it seemed just like an ordinary bird. Of course, some birds were big than others. In the Midwest there were pheasants in fall. Chickens and turkeys were so domesticated they didn’t really seem like birds at all. On vacations I sometimes saw birds that were unique. They were either in zoos or near oceans. Pelicans and egrets come to mind.

So I was little prepared for the extreme birding I found when I started working for YSI. Early on I learned of a trip a few folks were planning to Marin County. The intent was to see birds, especially hawks, sailing on the updrafts created by the Golden Gate in the stark and beautiful headlands of Marin just above and beyond the Bridge. Thinking this would be a good opportunity to learn a little, I joined the group. I was prepared to walk and talk, look at birds casually, eat lunch, and have a good time with good company.

We arrived at a spot high above the Gate that could only be accessed through prior arrangement. The rest of the crew broke out binoculars that they used as easily as I use the spectacles perched on my nose. They scanned the skies. One of them unloaded a chalkboard on which was written the names of several species of hawk. To me a hawk was a hawk, and I was lucky to know that.

They spotted hawks all right. And they knew their names. Soon they were gleefully tallying their “prey” on the chalkboard. There was good-natured banter as the group tried to keep from counting the same bird twice and tried to identify some of the trickier ones as they soared hundreds of feet above.

An hour passed, and another. I had been discovered as an interloper early on. While this sport continued, I sat on a bench conveniently placed so it looked out to sea and across the strait. It was early afternoon.

Suddenly ships came into sight–many ships. They formed a line steaming straight for the Gate. There passing beneath me were sailing ships from the pages of history books, gray navy ships conjured up in World War II, ships of all shapes and sizes. It was Fleet Week and I had the prize grandstand seat.

As the afternoon wore on, the avian specialists yearned to pursue their sport farther up the peninsula. A spot known to some as a keen one was our destination, and we loaded up to seek it out. What they had not considered was Fleet Week. Traffic was pouring into the City. In order to head the opposite direction, we needed first to cross it. This proved difficult–no, impossible.

We found ourselves in Sausalito, unable to get out. There was nothing to do but stop. We could not go north, and we certainly would get nowhere going south. We ended up on the water’s edge just north of the Bridge. Sitting on the bulkhead, our feet dangling over the Bay, we settled in just as the Blue Angels arrived flying a few feet above the water directly in front of us–under the Bridge.

Now this was some kind of extreme bird watching!

Big Bird, Big Gulp

There in the middle of the lawn on the hill overlooking Vasona Lake stood big bird. Big bird, in this case, was a Great Blue Heron standing over three feet tall. It was the middle of winter and rainy enough that the park was nearly deserted–at least by humans. It was the time of year you start getting hungry for, well, a nice plump gopher, that is if you’re a blue heron.

There is an island in the middle of the lake formed around a snag that was left when the lake was created back in 1935. After the dam was built winter rains ran off the hills, into the creeks and finally into the lake sweeping ahead of them branches, leaves, and loads of brown silt. Some of this debris caught in the snag and settled to create an island. It grew and became large enough for several willow trees and some Great Blue Herons.

Every winter the rains still come, the water in Vasona Lake turns from glistening blue-gray to dull mocha brown, and the herons nest on this island. And every year, for the last few, they can be seen in mid-winter on the broad gopher-pocked meadows of Vasona Park.

The bird on the lawn returned the next day and the next. Children visiting YSI were amazed to be so close to a bird that was bigger than they were. As a matter of fact, we all stopped and stared.

One evening as I was leaving, I noticed the bird standing still as a statue. As I watched it moved slightly, head cocked to one side. Slowly, ever so slowly, it inched forward, like a cat stalking its prey. It stopped, waited, moved forward again. Then in a flash it plunged its long bill into the earth. It had a gopher! With a long sweeping motion, it tossed its head high and the gopher, fur and all, disappeared down its throat.

Who would believe me when I told them this story? Surely I had not seen clearly in the half-light.

Three more times I witnessed such scenes, always when the lake was like chocolate obscuring the fish that lived in its depths. Once the heron dove into the sod and came up empty, but usually the gophers were easy prey.

Finally one day the storms disappeared. The sun shone, as it hadn’t for days. It was nearly noon when I noticed the heron some distance away by the big oak tree. I went for my camera, installing the zoom lens just as the stalking began. Like a fashion photographer at a magazine shoot, I clicked furiously. Each step was recorded as the heron scored, threw its head back, swallowed, then bobbed up and down several times as the lump in its throat slowly descended. Sated, it walked to the crest of the hill where it hurled itself into space, dipped down a bit with its loaded belly, then sailed toward the island.

The world now has fewer gophers and more believers. But, “Yuck!”

A Bird in the Hand

A dead bird lay in the middle of the patio. It hadn’t been there in the morning. It showed no sign of injuries, of having been grabbed by a cat, or of having had to fight for its life. It couldn’t have flown into a window. It was too far from the house and the windows weren’t clean enough to fool any bird. Did it simply fall from the sky with a bird-sized heart attack or stroke leaving a small hole in the air to be filled by a new generation?

I wasn’t certain what kind of bird it was. I could tell from its short stubby beak that it had been a seedeater. I suspected a finch, probably a female house finch since it looked about the right size and lacked the rosy red breast of the male. But dead it was and smack dab in the center of the path to the garden, not an ideal spot to leave it in, at least from my perspective.

Turkey vultures circled overhead as was their custom at that hour in the late afternoon. Daily they appeared, singly or in loose formations. It was business as usual for them on the mountain. I took the dead bird to the fire trail just beyond the house and put it out in the middle thinking to provide the vultures the kind of meal they were looking for, a meal they would probably have discovered for themselves had I left it on the path to the garden. Three drifted overhead wheeling, turning, gliding back and forth close to the ground. I have often watched them as they sail over the hillside cocking their heads from side to side and imagine them to have an eye keen enough to penetrate the chaparral and spot any fallen creature that might be there. The finch would make an easy target.

I went back up the driveway to a sheltered spot where I could watch from a distance. Several times the vultures flew directly over the hapless finch but gave no indication of having seen it. I waited. A fourth one joined the circling. Slowly they extended their searching pattern farther down the valley. At last they were gone. This finch was not to depart this world so quickly.

Perhaps the yellow jackets, much smaller but equally well suited to deal with nature’s dead, would be the final beneficiaries of the remains of the fallen finch. I have seen yellow jackets completely consume a well-fed rattlesnake with a bulging belly that perished after getting stuck in a fence, a feat that took less than a day.

I left the finch where it was, knowing somehow life on the mountain could deal with this death, more effectively than I could, cleaning up after its own.

The next morning birds once again filled the air. On the fire trail the finch was gone. Close to where the finch had been, I picked up a bottle and a candy wrapper and took them back to the garbage can.

It’s About Time

The band-tailed pigeons have returned. Not that they’ve been gone; they’ve just been eating acorns in the woods.

Elderberry bushes and band-tailed pigeons have both been here far longer than most of our ancestors. The elusive band-tails come out of the woods as soon as the elderberries start to ripen on sunny slopes in summer. And the elderberries start to ripen as soon as it’s warm enough. Where I live this can mean any time from the Fourth of July to mid-August.

The band-tailed pigeon is not your ordinary pigeon. This large light-colored bird with dark bands across its tail endears itself by perching on the highest tiniest twig or wire it can find where it teeters back and forth alarmingly trying to get its balance. I usually start seeing them low on the mountain where the elderberries ripen in late spring. Week by week they work their way uphill as the elderberries ripen at higher and higher altitudes. When the elderberries are gone, the band-tails disappear until the next year when, somehow, they know precisely when and where to find a new crop.

Imagine yourself living without a watch, without a calendar. The adjustment might be jarring at first after having lived your life with time regimented by the precise increments these tools provide. How would you know when to get up, when to go to work, when to eat? You would know. You would know in the same way the band-tailed pigeons know it is time to climb the mountain following a trail of ripening elderberries.

Is there a way to capture some of this same freedom of opportunity in a world that now familiarly deals not just with minutes, but with nanoseconds? Can the tyranny of time somehow be kept at least partially at bay?

The first time I became consciously aware of the dramatic role my surroundings could play in orienting me in time and space was during an all night car trip with friends when I was in college. I was next to a window in the back seat on one of those dark, but bright, moonless nights—the kind where each star stands out brilliantly against a deep navy sky.

We were traveling east to west on a course that went unswervingly across a broad expanse of the Midwest. I slept and woke periodically and suddenly realized that the heavens were shifting above me. In that one night I learned how far the heavens travel in ten hours and got a sense of the passing of time that transcended the tick of a clock—a lesson that had eluded me during all the sunrises and sunsets of the two decades before.

I have a friend who had high blood pressure whose doctor prescribed that he quit wearing a watch. Although he works for a high-tech company, has three children and many commitments to his family and community, he took his doctor’s advice. He does not ignore time; he asks others what time it is when he senses he needs to. He finally got over looking at his wrist every few minutes. He is much more relaxed and seems not to always be in a rush. His blood pressure is now normal.

I am not advocating a life without calendars and clocks. But maybe having a few touchstones in the world to help locate us in time and space without worrying about the hour, the week, or the year can give us a chance to savor more elderberries when they are ripe.

Flights of Fancy

It was July 3, a day before one expects dazzling aerial displays. And it was the middle of the day, about two o’clock, long before the prime pyrotechnic hour. On this nearly perfect afternoon I sat in the shade of an apricot tree looking at the mountains on the other side of the valley, the valley containing the well-known San Andreas Fault, contemplating the slow changes that had shaped these heights. The large oval of sky above was a blue no pigment can match. It was a deep crystalline blue, filled with depth and light and framed with black-green pines, gray-green oaks and yellow-green elderberry. The rugged textures contrasted sharply with the smooth polish of the sky. Bees worked orange, magenta, and lavender blossoms. Hummingbirds climbed high, dropped, and then rested on low slung limbs. Warm enough to encourage complete relaxation of mind and body, the day was also cool enough to keep the sometimes-maddening insects at a warmer level high above the ground. I floated, like a bather in a tepid ocean.

Suddenly the oval sky was pierced diagonally by a bird flying fast and straight as an arrow. Another bird followed and then a dozen more. Another dozen and another. Now swooping, pirouetting, diving, turning. The sky was filled with birds with light underbellies, black wings and tails and fast as lightning. The warm silence of the day was punctuated with the sound of cheeps and chirps. The hummers abandoned their acrobatics releasing the air to these sky dancers. Wings fluttered then canted in motionless aerodynamic perfection as the sleek forms knifed through the blue. The appearance from below suggested penguins swimming swiftly and effortlessly through a glacial blue ocean, but flashes of brilliant iridescence caught in the rays of the sun as the birds wheeled about the sky. Never stopping, the plunging, soaring, seemingly random dance continued on and on leaving me dazzled and transfixed.

Finally, little by little, the air cleared. Only a few random swallows remained feeding on the insects that had produced this amazing spectacle. More abundant insects further on lured the rest of the troupe to new performances for other audiences.

And suddenly the day once again became still. The seemingly eternal mountains on the other side of the valley continued their unseen drift northward interrupted every decade or two by a minute, but sometimes devastating, lurch. More insects with life spans of an hour, a day or a week filled the sky again. Will there be Violet-Green Swallows bringing brilliant performances to languid summer days as Los Angeles glides steadily northward and aligns itself on the ridge across the valley some millions of years from now?

What a vision of independence for mind, body, and spirit this spectacle encouraged! And what a stage setting! No Independence Day festival can rival this celebration of freedom; no fireworks can be as grand.