In case you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic on.
SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, a positive-sense RNA virus that originated in a bat and is currently dissolving peoples’ lungs worldwide. A little more than two weeks ago, there were 10,000 cases in the US; six days ago, we hit 100,000; and today, glory of glories, we hit the 200,000 count. (Almost a quarter of this, mind you, is accounted for by NYC cases alone.) This disease is going to come down like a hammer on the weakening anvil of our healthcare system—it already has—and will have outward-spreading catastrophic effects on the global economy. It already has. We are cooped up inside; I wear a mask to go to the grocery store, and basically go nowhere else; Amazon workers are striking; the US government is finally considering a pissant universal basic income stimulus package that will do absolutely nothing for anyone; and all rents, mortgages, and general debt payments will probably need to be halted for the time being if we hope to salvage any semblance of economic normality for the other side of this thing. Not that things were normal two months ago, when this began.
The birds do not care. I have taken up birding, and I am here to bring you pretty photographs of birds.
Have you noticed that during this period of quasi-quarantine people are cutting chaff down to the things they actually care about doing? Inasmuch as they can, of course—most people are still working, actively putting their bodies in danger because our current debt crisis has made it largely impossible for anyone to live without steady paychecks, but I digress, I swear I won’t talk about people much longer here, I would rather die than think about the human world for one more second basically. But everyone who can is making bread. Creating things. Making music on Instagram Live sessions. And also giving two shits about animals, I mean really, people love animals. Cats & dogs are logging in Zoom sessions, and their owners are all binging Animal Crossing and Tiger King. Well, everybody, I have a degree in animal behavior, I absolutely hate human beings as a conglomerate and everything we have created on a structural level (your individual persons and creations I exempt from this—everything you have made with your hands is wonderful), and now it’s all on fire, metaphorically speaking. The only thing left to do is go watch birds, which I will be doing obsessively until conditions improve, and I will write about it here.
The birds are comforting because, like I said, they truly don’t care about this. They don’t know what’s happening. It’s springtime. A week ago, I watched a gumdrop-red male cardinal feed his tan-colored girlfriend mouth to mouth like kissing, in my driveway. A week ago I watched a crow gather stripped tree bark for a nest. Seasonal migrants are crossing through my DC neighborhood on their way northwards. They will only be here for a few weeks. They aren’t mammals, the coronavirus won’t hurt them. They aren’t humans; they haven’t heard about this. Thank god.
I left the house as early as I could. It was a chore, I struggled out of bed. These days time seems a little formless and unmarked. Shrugged on my clothes, set up my camera. Walked out the door into hazy, chill morning light.
You never know what you’re going to see when you go out in the morning with a camera. In city neighborhoods, starlings and cardinals and robins are basically guaranteed. But once I hit the woods, the whole composition changes and stranger things become possible. I always beeline for this block-square patch of preserved woods that is, luck would have it, two blocks from my basement apartment in a northeast district town home. It’s an historic site on a tall little hill, so they’ve allowed trees to continue to exist there. Again: thank god.
Every time I get into the woods the first time, I think, there are no birds here. Because I don’t hear or see anything at first. But then I begin to sink into a kind of zen of searching. Maybe it’s just that as I get there, everyone shuts up—no one sings for a moment to absorb the startling encroachment of a human. Or maybe it’s just that my ears aren’t trained yet. But then as I settle into the earth, and feel my feet, I hear more calls. One, off in the middle distance to my left. Another, further, to the right. Much of the time I can identify these calls in a heartbeat—the EDM calls of cardinals, the round shrieking of a Carolina wren. But as I sink in further to my listening, calls emerge that I cannot identify. Sometimes I record them. Sometimes I don’t. Mainly their purpose to me, at this point, is to entice me onwards, deeper into the woods, with a promise of things unfamiliar. Things that I have never seen.
I always take three steps into the trees off of my city block, and pause right away. Now I am in the woods. This is all it takes.
Hawk & Crow Mobbing
I was beginning to see birds as my eyes settled in, which is a thing that happens after my ears have already settled. The flicker of tiny wings is different from the movement of leaves in a breeze. The more I let my eyes gently unfocus, the more I see them. But I am always tracking at different distances: The underbrush around me. The understory overhead, and the canopy above that. And then there is the farthest distance, the soarable open sky above. Today a characteristic movement caught the corner of my eye at this distance, a massive white bird, lazily circling. I saw from its heft, and the russet of its tail—hawk, redtail hawk. As I watched, I heard an American crow begin to call closer to me. American crows hate hawks; I have spent some lovely moments of my life watching American crows mob red-tails in particular, and I thought this one might do so now. I was right: It kept calling, a higher caw that sounded oddly like “Hawk! Hawk!”, and then I saw it, flying upwards to intercept its adversary. Divebombing and evading, they soared together into the distance, and I lost them.
Warblers on the Hilltop
I climbed to the top of the forested hill. There used to be a fort here, it was used as a lookout by Union soldiers during the Civil War, but I do not care about people, only birds, so you will need to read about that elsewhere if you’re curious. Interesting things happen at the top of the hill. Sometimes there are few birds there, especially at the dimming of the day. Other times, I stand still for a few minutes, and many little bodies reveal themselves to me.
Today it was three tiny migrants, all, I think, feeding on the trees themselves, or little bugs on the branches. Two new world warblers—a pine warbler, Setophaga pinus, and a palm warbler, Setophaga palmarum, cousins—and a tiny bird whose taxonomy is uncertain, a golden-crowned kinglet, Regulus satrapa. These birds are bitsy—the kinglet is as light as 6 grams, which is about a teaspoonful of flour. And they flit about constantly. A kinglet prevented from feeding for 20 minutes could lose 2 of those grams in weight, so strenuous is their metabolism. How tiring, to spend a life on such a knife’s edge, so direly in service to one’s own needs. They must rely, almost completely, on never being touched or harmed by anyone or anything—indeed, on never being interrupted at all from the work of eating.
The kinglet wintered here, apparently, but by summer will probably be far to the north. The warblers, similarly, are now making their way northwards. It is spring. By summer they will have settled into their breeding grounds in the north; by fall, they will return on their journeys southwards; and by winter, they will be established in the tropics. The mystery of such tiny things, in such desperate and constant need of food, flying such vast distances.
Near to the warblers, I paused and watched as a medium-sized bird flitted woodpeckerly over my head, and landed vertically on a tree trunk. Woodpeckers have such a peculiar way of flying, in big gasping flaps. I am sure this has something to do with their tree’d environs, perhaps they are always pulling their wings in in anticipation of getting through a narrow space. It was a badly-named red-bellied woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, for they have bright red heads. It paused on the tree, perfectly still, and then I caught a shot as another woodpecker suddenly exploded out from behind the same tree. Less of its head was covered in the characteristic red; it was a female. The two had been conversing. I would like to find out in future if the males feed their females, because I think that might have been what was happening. I think they were a mated pair.
My entire time in the woods I’d caught glimpses of Northern flickers, Colaptes auratus. They are quite secretive, the flickers; not in their voices—at one point I was surrounded by their yawping cries, and knew suddenly that there were far more of them around me that I had realized—but in their hiding. They don’t purposefully hide one bit, but for some reason in my little patch of woods I only ever seen glimpses of them as they sidle stealthily behind a tree trunk, or flit away into the obscure distance. These glimpses of such beautiful things make me feel dizzy—flickers are really pretty: Buff colored with cheetah-spots and zebra stripes, a startling black mustache and a red splash on the back of the head. A graceful, marked-up animal, too dramatically ornamented for a creature at this latitude; you think of tropical animals bearing this extent of decoration, only. They seem like a treat. Just as I resolved to leave my woods, I turned back once more to scan the understory. A medium sized bird—again with the distinctive flight habit of a woodpecker—launched itself into a tree in the distance. They look like dinosaurs to me, more than most birds. I knew it was one of the flickers I’d heard laughing, and snapped my first photo of one.
I’m going to try to upload Bird Reports on a regular basis. It’s the bird news. What’s the word, birds? I would like to hear about something besides pathogens. Good news! The birds are here. And they do not care about us. Thank god.