Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Tonya and Roseann found them: wings scattered beside the river bank. Dozens and dozens of wings, bright yellow with stark black bars and fingerprints of orange and blue along the margins. Where had they come from?

Our entire class trooped over to observe. Leaf sized wings strewn on boulders at the north point of Girl Scout Island, Middle Prong of Little River, weekend naturalist skills course, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, perfect setting for our mission: not to know an answer but to learn to question. “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why were they here?

Only wings, no butterfly bodies. Had they congregated here to die? No dark females’ wings — were the males puddling, gleaning minerals for their spermatophores, and then attacked? Or had some devious predator collected the wings and brought them here to mystify us?

We crouched beneath the sycamore and hemlock while the mountain stream raced and chattered beside us. We parted the grasses, looked under rocks, collected a few wings and peered with our hand lenses. We paid attention. We were astonished.

Swallowtail wings

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The naturalist method and poetry have something in common. We want truth but we want to experience it directly. We make connections. We let light shine in dark places. And if we discover an answer it will likely bring with it not only a dollop of new knowledge but more than a dollop of wonder.

Susan Laughter Meyers has been a person and poet who has filled me with wonder. When her ultimate collection, Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, was published this year, two years after her untimely death, its poetry opened my heart and my mind again to the mystery and power of words. She was a fierce observer of the earth and all that is in it, the heron’s plume, the subtle change of hour, of season. And she was an uncompromising naturalist of the soul. In subtle phrase and in lancing stab she uncovers the dark places within us.

And lets in the light.

Oh, and as she reminds us, and as we beside the river finally remembered, besides looking back we must not forget to look up.


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If Not Birds Dodging Loneliness

The bluest ones in an open sky
fan reveries with their wings.
Dream time, that’s what they inhabit —
fabulous as the past and its dingy veils

I wore in a favorite childhood game:
dress-up with the girl whose father
ran a funeral home. The newest shroud
had no holes to trip us, one a princess

the other a bride. The least breeze
and the shroud would ripple, barely
kissing the skin. Wasn’t that a dalliance
to wish for? On days when birds soar

toward light, when they tip and wheel
and turn until they silhouette,
you’d think they’re being chased.
Or if not birds dodging loneliness,

then memories loosed into view.
Like the ones of a blindfolded
child with stick or pin-and-tail in hand,
steering toward a prize, when to win

the game is to break something
or make something whole again.
Fringed and fleeting, such remnants,
though the world is full of them.

There are moments in my life
when gravitating toward feels the same
as ducking from. Moments when,
for recompense, I look back. Or up.


Susan Laughter Meyers
from Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, Press 53, 2019

Smokies - Tremont

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The quotation “Pay attention . . . ” is excerpted from the poem Sometimes by Mary Oliver, from Red Bird, Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, page 37.

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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.   .   .   Think of the wren
and how little flesh is needed to make a song. 

from Why Regret?,  Galway Kinnell

Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Sitta pusilla

The Grandson and I are playing with Legos on the back porch. Above the constant chitter of the goldfinch kaffeeklatsch shines a sudden clear bright whistle. “Listen, Saul. That’s a Carolina Wren.”

After a few minutes of silent cogitation, a few more minutes of Lego cars brmmm-brmming across the planks, we hear the bird again. Saul remarks, “He’s saying Senner-pede, Senner-pede.”

“You mean centipede, the little crawly thing with a hundred legs?”

“No, Senner-pede.” Brmm, brmm. “I made that up.”

And the moral of the story: Encountering the logic of the philosopher, even if only six years old, it’s probably best to listen.

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The Carolina Wren is one of my favorites, feisty little troglodyte whose voice is 30 decibels too big for his 30 grams of fluff. Listen to enough wren song and you discover the birds can be quite individual. Scolds, chatters, and so many variations on that 2- or 3- or 4-note whistle: just when you think you know them all someone new moves into the neighborhood.

Fred Chappell is one of my other favorites. He’s one of the writers that inspired me about twenty years ago to rediscover the dark forest of Poetry. I carried a typescript copy of his poem Forever Mountain around in my wallet until it wore through and I’d about memorized it. As I sort through the piles on my shelves I think it’s safe to say I’ve bought every one of his books. The epigrams, the complex forms, the backsass, the cat poems . . .

. . . and just when you think you know his song someone new moves into the neighborhood. At this year’s Sam Ragan Poetry Festival Fred revealed to us that he’s now writing fables, poems that tell a story with a moral. His voice just keeps getting bigger and bigger. And you can bet that a Fred Chappell fable is going to stretch your intellect and then bite you on the ass.

Feisty, yes; troglodyte, no.

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Fox and Bust - Chappell_crop01

Fox and Bust by Fred Chappell; read at Sam Ragan Poetry Festival,
Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, NC, on March 21, 2105


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Every year the North Carolina Poetry Society sponsors the Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, named for our state’s third and longest-serving Poet Laureate.  Sam was succeeded by Fred Chappell as our fourth Poet Laureate, illuminating that post from 1997-2002. In 2004 Fred collaborated with philanthropist and poet Marie Gilbert, assisted by William Jackson Blackley and a volunteer board, to create the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.  Each year since then three notable NC poets have been selected to serve as mentors, each to 3 or 4 students middle school to adult, to create and critique a body of poems, followed by public readings in libraries throughout the state.  Fred is still a guiding light for this endeavor, which celebrated its tenth anniversary at this year’s Sam Ragan Poetry Festival in Southern Pines on March 21, 2015.

The photos and poems from this and the five preceding GriffinPoetry posts commemorate that event.

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Weymouth Woods

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Doughton Park Tree #1

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 Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a songbird will come.
Chinese Proverb

It’s five o’clock.  The waterbuck and Thomson’s gazelle single-file it to their nighttime holding. Moms with strollers and jostling teenagers single-file it for Akiba exit.  I lean against the railing at Rhino as the breeze freshens and a suggestion of thunder growls to the south.  The last guest in the Park ignores his cell and joins me.

The great horned beasts are standing now, three of them in the distance across the browning field, the vast male turned profile to us.  First time I’ve actually seen them move – today’s rain popped July’s hot bubble and the rhinos now seem willing to forsake their shade.  The man eyes my camera.  “Bet you can really zoom in on them with that lens.”

“No, it’s not really much of a telephoto.  I got a good look with these, though.”  I fish my binoculars out of my pack and hand them to him.

He thanks me and sighs.  “I love the rhinos.  I came just to see them.  Oh, I love all the animals, but I really wanted to get a good look at the rhinos.”

Now all three are moving across our field of vision, a slow parade for the man who loves them.  He watches them out of sight.  At last he returns the binocs, thanks me again, and hustles toward the exit.  Tomorrow he and his family are on to Wilmington, but today he’s had his moment.


.      .      .      .      .

It was raining this morning, but I couldn’t go back to sleep.  I called Zoo Com and got permission to enter the Park early.  By 7:30 I had walked past bellowing alligators in the cypress swamp and crept to the edge of marsh (just below North America Plaza).  It was still sprinkling.  A yellowthroat sang.  Barn swallows perched at the tips of tall reeds in between their insect forays. Then in the world of muted green and gray something larger moved.

A green heron was perched on the lowest branch of a dead bush at marsh’s edge.  No, two green herons!  The lower one assumed hunting posture while the second, perched higher, preened.  My camera doesn’t have much of a telephoto; I would just have to watch them.  It was all I could do.  Bullfrogs and leopard frogs played a counterpoint duet.  The yellowthroat sang and sang from low in the water grasses.  Swallows flashed their ruddy chins and forked tails.  And the two herons acted as if their rapier bills, their fencer’s stance, and their plumage, hunter green and bronze, were just the most natural things imaginable.


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Pine Lake at Twilight

Whispering Pines, NC 1975

In the afterglow of February sundown
I hear the honking of two migrating ducks
over-flying our home –
fore-flyers of the flocks to come.

They swoop down over the pine-rimmed lake,
land on water, join the wintering mallards,
the pintails and widgeons feeding here
on the corn we spread at water’s edge.

The air tonight is soft as the lapping water,
sweet with songs of indefinable
pre-spring waking, quiet as the maples
lining the inlet to the pine-rimmed lake,

their branches reddening, swelling to liven
with starbursts of strange red-brown
tree flowers.  Something of last year’s
dying is in the air, swelling to ripen anew.

Even as we do.  We go from one year,
one love, one life, to another,
knowing spring will unfold us, summer
fly us, autumn flay us, till our veins

burst with longing to understand,
and we drop down – to lie with mosses
and fungi – under layers of leaves,
flexing our muscles on stone.

Mary Belle Campbell

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Mary Belle Campbell was a devoted supporter of poetry in North Carolina, influencing a generation with her teaching, her encouragement, and her support of the NC Poetry Society and its endeavors.  She endowed the NCPS Brockman-Campbell Award, which has been bestowed upon such notable poets as A.R.Ammons, Charles Edward Eaton, James Applewhite, Fred Chappell, and many others.  When Peg, as she is known, was in her nineties she made a donation to become a lifetime member of the NC Poetry Society.  Our memories of her thrive.


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“I love all the animals.”  I believe you, rhinocerous-loving man.  I do, too.  But the birds I can just watch and watch.  There are Eastern Bluebirds nesting beneath the eaves just outside my window at Schindler Learning Center.  I hear the cheeping each time they bring an insect to the nestlings (like every five minutes); sometimes one parent will perch on the Handicapped Parking sign with a beakful while waiting for the other to finish at the nest.

This drizzly morning at Dragonfly Pointe I heard a familiar gravelly rattle across the water and spotted a Belted Kingfisher ascending to his surveillance vantage in a dead snag.  In just a minute or two he swooped down and caught a small fish; he carried it to the far shore of the lake to eat while swallows accompanied him.  Harassing?  Fighter escort?  They gave up when he reached his perch.

Yesterday at Oak Hill (a picnic area above Hippo Beach) I heard a Red-Shouldered Hawk with a somewhat tentative call.  Hmmm . . . suspicious.  Sure enough, soon enough two Blue Jays flew out of the huge white oak, one of them assuredly the mimic.


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For an hour or so this evening after all the visitors had vacated the Park I sat and wrote these comments.  It was after 6:00 when I left – as I passed Forest’s Edge, a raccoon was hunkered down in the giraffe’s high-mount feeding trough.  He looked quite sheepish when he realized I’d spotted him.


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Everything I love changes me, and if I can be true to love I will welcome the changes.

Hear the veery in the deep dapple-dark forest.  Hear the descending double-voiced yearning so airy and earthy, old when these broad poplars were jade-and-honey flowers in their mother’s hair, old when these smooth mossed stones had just cracked from their father’s face.  Sit in the silence of light retreating and perhaps the spirit-bird will join you, a momentary apparition of brown leaf shadow and speckled dusk.  With bright eyes it will accept you, hop once, fly, and in the next moment you will hear again, ancient and aching, Audubon’s flute.

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Creekside 01 crop_01

Audubon’s Flute

Audubon in the summer woods
by the afternoon river sips
his flute, his fingers swimming on
the silver as silver notes pour

by the afternoon river, sips
and fills the mosquito-note air
with silver as silver notes pour
two hundred miles from any wall.

And fills the mosquito-note air
as deer and herons pause, listen,
two hundred miles from any wall,
and sunset plays the stops of river.

As deer and herons pause, listen,
the silver pipe sings on his tongue
and sunset plays the stops of river,
his breath modeling a melody

the silver pipe sings on his tongue,
coloring the trees and canebrakes,
his breath modeling a melody
over calamus and brush country,

coloring the trees and canebrakes
to the horizon and beyond,
over calamus and brush country
where the whitest moon is rising

to the horizon and beyond
his flute, his fingers swimming on
where the whitest moon is rising.
Audubon in the summer woods.

Robert Morgan.

[Collected in Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, Sally Buckner, editor.  Carolina Academic Press, 1999.]

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Last Saturday I walked beside the creek and up the mountain with my sister while each veery called to the next that we were on our way.  Today Linda and I drive to Durham to meet my teacher, the first time in over thirty years, and to gather with his students gathering from fifty states.  Already we’ve been cataloguing the changes.  What do I love now that I didn’t love then?  How have I been true to the loves that entered me years ago?  Before the noisy afternoon, I take a moment to listen.  And when my bones are old as stones, trees, moss, how will my voice be recalled?

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Robert Morgan was born in Hendersonville, North Carolina and grew up on the family farm in the Green River valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  He is currently the Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell but has returned to North Carolina many times as visiting professor and writer to Davidson, Duke, Appalachian State, and East Carolina.

The Veery (Catharus fuscescens) is a small thrush of deep moist woods, chestnut brown with a speckled breast.  All thrushsong is melodic and haunting, but to me the veery is most magical.  On a quiet afternoon you clearly hear him singing harmony with himself, the doubled notes possible only with an avian syrinx (unlike my limited tenor’s larynx).

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April 27, 2012 – first scarlet tanager of spring, Elkin, NC.

If I had an hour and good binoculars I could spot him, but I know he’s there.  There’s no other song like his, just exactly like a robin with a 40 pack-year smoking history.  He always arrives about a week after the big oaks in our neighborhood have fully leaved, and then he hangs out way up in the canopy.  I’ll come back tomorrow when the sun is high, follow my ears, and when he lunges from the greenery for a moth or a beetle, I’ll have him.  A red like no other red.

Last week Linda was drawing at her desk when Saul ran in from the next room.  “Granny, I seed a red-headed woodpecker on the bird feeder!”  He pulls her into the den and there is indeed a woodpecker on the feeder, a male downy, patch of red at his nape.  “Good, Saul!  That is a woodpecker.  But a red-headed woodpecker has a head that is red all over.”  About fifteen minutes later Saul is back.  “Granny, see this red-headed woodpecker!”  And it’s head is red all over.  A bright fiery cardinal.

Red birds.  So startling!  So noticeable, so eye-catching!  Is the northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, the state bird of seven out of fifty because it’s so familiar and recognizable or because it is exotic, unbelievable that something so bright would allow itself to be seen by mortals?  I remember the first time I actually saw Piranga olivacea, the scarlet tanager.  I’d heard plenty calling and singing but never spotted one.  June 17, 1994, I was visiting my brother-in-law Skip for a weekend at his place in southern Ohio (off the beaten path doesn’t half do it justice).  Mid-morning with the binocs, about to quit because of warbler-neck (cricked back searching the tops of trees for spots of color), and there he was.  Perched high in brightness, not even attempting to conceal his flame.

Just to share a moment of that creature’s living breath, to see something in clarity and commonplace that up until that moment has been so elusive and so desired, it is to feel the earth, nature, creation expanding around me and I am a single cell in the body of God.  And if the sun is shining tomorrow, I think I’ll walk around the block and try to see another.


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It’s been almost a year since I last saw a scarlet tanager.  It’s been about a year since I last read Mary Oliver’s book, Red Bird.  I need to return to both.  Scarlet tanagers aren’t rare, although one has to go where they are to see one.  And look up.  Mary Oliver’s poems don’t seem rare.  So conversational, so commonplace.  Being alive is not particularly rare.  Six-plus billion of us Homo sapiens are engaged in it today. Out of the one-thousand four-hundred and forty minutes in each day, I don’t pause to consider many of them rare.

Shouldn’t I?  Read this poem with me.  Read and let us, you and I, share a moment of each other’s living breath.

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Red Bird Explains Himself

“Yes, I was the brilliance floating over the snow
and I was the song in the summer leaves, but this was
only the first trick
I had hold of among my other mythologies,
for I also knew obedience: bringing sticks to the nest,
food to the young, kisses to my bride.

But don’t stop there, stay with me: listen.

If I was the song that entered your heart
then I was the music of your heart, that you wanted and needed,
and thus wilderness bloomed there, with all its
followers: gardeners, lovers, people who weep
for the death of rivers.

And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body.  Do you understand?  for truly the body needs
a song, a spirit, a soul.  And no less, to make this work,
the soul has need of a body,
and I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable
beauty of heaven
where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes,
and this is why I have been sent, to teach this to your heart.”

from Red Bird, Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, © 2008 by Mary Oliver

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Every Christmas for almost thirty years, Linda and I have sung with the Elkin Community Chorus.  This year marked the 51st annual performance of the Chorus, originally founded by Fran Greene, currently directed by David McCollum, and open to all comers . . . that is anyone who wants to commit every Thursday night to rehearsing Christmas anthems beginning way back in October.  Gets you in the spirit early!

This year’s Chorus has been a special joy for me for many reasons, but one is that David selected a piece by me for us to perform.  In 2010 my friend composer and director Mark Daniel Merritt asked me to write lyrics he could work into a Christmas suite for our semi-pro choral group Voce.  We premiered The Wanderer’s Carols last Christmas at Biltmore House, and this year on December 4th one hundred of my friends and neighbors in the Elkin Community Chorus sang the first movement, The Birds’ Carol.

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The Wanderer’s Carols
Music by Mark Merritt Lyrics by Bill Griffin
[copyright 2010]
Movement 1
The Birds’ Carol

“Morning!  Morning!” trills the lark,
“The Babe brings gold to the sky!
A song of light now showers the earth,
And we shall know God this day.
.    Now is the dawn of our new life,
.    And we shall know God this day.”

“This coat I wear,” caws the rook,
“So black, so heavy, so grim.
Only One knows the way to make it bright –
The Child who reclaims us from sin.
.    He lifts our burden upon himself,
.    The Child who reclaims us from sin.”

“Come rest with me,” coos the dove,
“In this humble stable take ease.
Kings and shepherds together embrace
The Prince who unites us in peace.
.    You make us one in all the earth,
.    O Prince who unites us in peace!”

“I . . . Thou, I . . . Thou,” vow the geese
From dark earth to heaven above –
“May we join with Thee in a world made new;
May we fly forever in love.
.    Give us wings of Your perfect light,
.    And we’ll fly forever in love.”

.     .     .     .     .


I’d like to share some thoughts about the background of these lyrics:

The Lark   –   Joy

In England the Sky Lark is known for its towering display flight, greeting the morning with loops and aerobatics, all the while filling the sky with its exuberant warble.  A fitting welcome for Christmas and the newborn Babe!

Our own North Carolina Meadowlark also sings a welcome to light returning to the earth   –   its melody seems to chant the words, “Spring of the year!”

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The Rook   –   Hope

Every one of us encounters darkness during our lives; there is no one that does not shoulder some burden.  The Rook proclaims hope in the coming of the Child who will take our burden upon Himself.  The One who can bring light into our darkness.

The English Rook is first cousin to our American Crow, both of them highly sociable and intelligent creatures.  If you’re smart, you know you must look beyond yourself for the hope of salvation.

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The Dove   –   Peace

The Dove has symbolized God’s promises since ancient times   –   picture the bird clasping an olive branch as it returns to Noah and the wanderers.  Today there is no more universal image of peace than the Dove.  In this verse, the Dove affirms that the peace of this Prince is promised to all people of whatever station in life, exalted or lowly, king or shepherd.  If we are to be united in all the earth, it will only be through Christ’s peace.

The Rock Dove is native to England’s cliffs and coasts, but after being imported to the new world it has become ubiquitous wherever there is human habitation   –   we call it a “pigeon.”  From the eaves of an abandoned building, doesn’t the sound of that cooing evoke peacefulness and home?

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The Geese   –   Love

Next time you hear a pair of Canada Geese flying overhead honking back and forth (the male perhaps slightly lower pitched than the female), imagine that they are not only calling to each other but also to their Creator   –   “I, Thou . . . I, Thou.”

For me these Geese are a powerful symbol of love.  They mate for life and may live twenty to thirty years in the wild.  They constantly watch out for each other.  They protect their goslings most ferociously.  And when I hear their call through the trees at dusk, it reminds me that the love of our Creator surrounds us and lifts us up.

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If you would like to listen to the choral group Voce performing The Wanderer’s Carols (with harp accompaniment and boy soprano), please follow these links:


1 – The Birds’ Carol

2 – Beside the Manger

3 – The Wanderer’s Prayer

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It’s just shy of 5 a.m., and I’m standing in the far corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot.  The leaves are still dripping from an all-night shower.  In exactly two minutes Nancy and Jean will pull in to meet me, we’ll check our gear and get into my car, then drive half an hour to our first designated stop.  For the next five or six hours we will be official volunteer employees of the US Geologic Service (Patuxent Wildlife Research Facility), joining about 3,000 others in US and Canada to complete the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey.

This is my seventeenth consecutive year counting Route 63027, “Copeland.”  There are fifty stops a half-mile apart, starting in Yadkin County on Old Rockford Road and ending all they way into Wilkes County.  At each stop I identify every bird I can hear or see within three minutes – Nancy is my timer and scribe, Jean counts cars and records “excess noise,” but only one person is permitted to count.  Nancy and Jean aren’t even allowed to point. From late May to the end of June, individuals and teams in all fifty states and Canada are counting along similar pre-mapped routes.  This “citizen scientist” data has allowed groups like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to identify continent-wide trends in wild bird populations, such as the major crash in the House Finch population about fifteen years ago (eventually discovered to be due to an epizootic of chlamydia).




Our first stop is a gravel drive just past Double Creek.  It’s misty, still dark, and the frogs are way louder than the birds this morning.  (I’m no expert on frog calls, but I hear tree frogs, leopard frogs (I think), a bullfrog, and an American Toad.)  A Northern Cardinal across the road is so persistent it’s hard to concentrate, but there’s an Eastern Phoebe near the creek, a Pine Warbler, and now, yes, across the field, the first one starts singing – Indigo Bunting.

Every year, as I transmit the data to the USGS, I keep my own personal tally of the number of species and number of individuals.  On a sunny day on any stretch of North Carolina piedmont roadside, an Indigo will be singing.  Constantly.  They like to perch on a wire or dead limb where they can be seen, and they are tirelessly vocal – so easy to count.  Every year Indigo Bunting is the number one most numerous individual, even when there are flocks of twenty Cedar Waxwings or thirty European Starlings.  This year, though, it is overcast right up to our forty-fifth stop, and I just don’t feel like I’m hearing many Indigos. Oh, we’ve seen quite a few, and some are singing, but I’m afraid this will be the first year they don’t “win.”

Why do I love these tiny dark cavaliers?  I remember the first one I ever saw, on Fodderstack Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway, singing, of course, in the tip top of a dead tree.  And when the sun struck him OW! the iridescence and electricity of that little body.  When I drive down any country road in the summer with my windows down, I find myself muttering every minute or so: “Indigo . . . Indigo . . . Indigo.”  They thrive at forest’s edge, and since we’ve sliced up so much woodland into scattered chunks it just leaves more prime bunting habitat.  So how about this cool counting day when birds that usually steal away in the heat are active right up until our finish?  Will they overtake my Indigos?  Total up the hash marks on the tally sheet.  Here it comes: Chipping Sparrows – 35; American Robins – 46; and (the envelope, please) . . . Indigo Buntings – 57.


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Bird Watching
John Ciardi

Every time we put crumbs out and sunflower
seeds something comes.  Most often sparrows.
Frequently a jay.  Now and then a junco or
a cardinal.  And once – immediately and never
again, but as commonly as any miracle while it
is happening, and then instantly incredible for-
ever – the tiniest (was it?) yellow warbler
as nearly as I could thumb through the bird
book for it, or was it an escaped canary? or
simply the one impossible bright bird that is
always there during a miracle, and then never?

I, certainly, do not know all that comes to us
at times.  A bird is a bird as long as it is
there.  Then it is a miracle our crumbs and
sunflower seeds caught and let go.  Is there
a book to look through for the identity
of a miracle?  No bird that is there is
miracle enough.  Every bird that has been is
entirely one.  And if some miracles are rarer
than others, every incredible bird has crumbs
and seeds in common with every other.  Let there
be bread and seed in time: all else will follow.

.     .     .     .     .

[John Ciardi, 1916-1986, was the long-time poetry editor of Saturday Review and directed the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.  His book How Does a Poem Mean? was the first instruction I ever read on how to write and appreciate poetry, and for many years was a standard.  He was also a renowned etymologist; I remember him from his NPR program on word histories.  This poem is collected in Bright Wings, 2010 Columbia University Press, edited by Billy Collins.]

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USGS Breeding Bird Survey, Route 63027
May 28, 2011

Canada Goose   –   19
Green Heron   –   1
Black Vulture   –   2
Turkey Vulture   –   1
Red-shouldered Hawk   –   2
Red-tailed Hawk   –   1
Killdeer   –   3
Mourning Dove   –   37
Chimney Swift   –   29
Red-bellied Woodpecker   –   6
Downy Woodpecker   –   2
Yellow-shafted Flicker   –   1
Pileated Woodpecker   –   2
Eastern Wood Pewee   –   2
Eastern Phoebe   –   6
Great Crested Flycatcher   –   3
Eastern Kingbird   –   2
Red-eyed Vireo   –   8
Blue Jay   –   10
American Crow   –   35
Northern Rough-winged Swallow   –   2
Barn Swallow   –   15
Carolina Chickadee   –   5
Tufted Titmouse   –   17
White-breasted Nuthatch   –   2
Carolina Wren   –   24
House Wren   –   1
Eastern Bluebird   –   24
Wood Thrush   –   4
American Robin   –   46
Gray Catbird   –   6
Northern Mockingbird   –   21
Brown Thrasher   –   7
European Starling   –   29
Cedar Waxwing   –   13
Pine Warbler   –   6
Common Yellowthroat   –   10
Scarlet Tanager   –   1
Eastern Towhee   –   16
Chipping Sparrow   –   35
Field Sparrow   –   11
Song Sparrow   –   10
Northern Cardinal   –   33
Blue Grosbeak   –   2
Indigo Bunting   –   57
Red-winged Blackbird   –   2
Eastern Meadowlark   –   5
Common Grackle   –   39
Brown-headed Cowbird   –   7
House Finch   –   5
American Goldfinch   –   8
House Sparrow   –   7
White-throated Sparrow   –   2 (non-breeding)
53 species


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I’ve made a whole lot of bird lists over the past twenty years. (Made a BIG one yesterday – see the post in a couple of days.)  I’ve got lists for my yard, my neighborhood, for Elkin and Surry County, for Pine Knoll Shores, for NC and a bunch of other states, and then of course the master list, the “life” list.  I’ve even gone on a couple of organized trips where a guide would point to the bird and tell you what it was — then you add it to another list.  And check it off in your database when you get home.

But among all those lists, among the thousands of data points, for some reason there are some individual birds I never forget.  My first Northern Parula – right here in my own backyard, but I waited almost an hour for it to show itself at the tip of the big white oak.  The Black-Throated Blue Warbler Mary Ellen and I spotted near Muskrat Creek Shelter on the AT, our last evening together on the trail.  The Common Yellowthroat Nancy and I stalked through briars so she could see her first one.  On and on.  I’m thankful for each creature’s tiny jewelled body.  I’m thankful they decided not to conceal themselves forever.

The birds I added to my list during organized trips are just not as memorable as the others (well, maybe the Harlequin Duck bobbing in the surf at the pier in Rodanthe . . .).  Am I saying that we treasure most those things we have to work for?  Good Puritan ethic! But that’s not exactly it; I guess I would rather say we treasure those things we discover for ourselves.  The branches are full of warblers – will I raise my eyes and look?

This is the closing section of my poem Leave and Come Home.  My journey as father is about to enter unmapped territory – the mountains and coves of grandfather.  Warblers are returning from their wintering grounds to make a new home.  How have they found their way?  How will Josh and I find ours?  Some vast unseen magnetism compels us.  Perhaps home has always been, although unnamed and so often unseen, that inner will to discover.  Maybe home is always that very thing we hope to find.


.     .     .     .     .

Leave and Come Home
Backyard, Elkin, North Carolina

Which one is home: what I know and leave behind
or what I have yet to reach?
May 1st storms all day and night but this bright morning
frees the migrants from their cover – tree limbs fill
with warblers.  In an hour they’ll resume their passage north,
but for now they’re willing to reveal themselves
if we have the will to notice.

In a few days Josh will become a father. I watch
the corner of his mouth for a hint of one laconic smile . . .
there it is!  He follows a trail of a hundred steps to assemble
my grandson’s crib. Outside the back window
Cardinals jostle at the feeder and

among the poplar blossoms warblers ruffle droplets
from their wings, show off their woodland jewelry,
glean aphids from beech twigs.  In the spotlight
Black-Sided Blue preens in formal dress, then flies.
And does he dream of the feast of insects
at his Costa Rican winter grounds or of the nest
he’ll build at Clingman’s Dome?  Or is it simply
some vast unseen magnetism, cycle of sun and
circling stars that speak to him to reveal
his home?  Point to it, Mom.  Or leave
me to discover it myself – home may yet abide
in what we hope to find.

Tomorrow I will lean into that crib compelled
by stars and magnetism, leave for later the unnameable
complexity of color, shape, song, that unspoken
trail that twists between son and father:
into that soft pink ear, I’ll whisper Redbird.

.     .     .     .     .

[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society.  In four sections, it reflects some fifty years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family.  I posted section 1 on 5/8, section 2 on 5/15, and 3 on 5/22.  This is the fourth and final section.]


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How often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wing . . . The Gospel of St. Luke

Bogue Banks.  Thirty-four miles long from Fort Macon in the west to the old ferry station at the eastern end, and in most places so narrow you can see both the sound and the ocean from your deck.  And you’re never very many feet from tarmac.

But there is at least one spot on the Banks where you can’t hear the SUV’s grinding along Rte. 58.  Where the live oaks and loblollies are so thick with greenbrier you wouldn’t even think of taking a shortcut.  Where egrets roost in the trees, osprey snag mullet from the inlet, and if you’re real still you can hear the tick and crinkle of a million fiddler crabs tapping their tiny claws to attract a million little females.

The Teddy Roosevelt Natural Area is site of one of North Carolina’s four aquaria, but the real attraction for me and mom are the trails that wind away from the visitors center back into the pine knolls.  Away from sun worship to slow black water and tidal ponds.  And while I’m slapping mosquitoes, Mom is seeing the merest flash of color from a high branch and exclaiming, ” A Redstart!”


In the steam of the maritime forest and the glare of the strand, parent birds struggle to protect their young from heat.  In this third section of Leave and Come Home, I wonder if I have protected my son adequately from his struggles or too much.  Does a parent ever finish with worrying whether their child will make it?  Will I ever finish questioning whether I’ve been adequate to the task?

.     .     .     .     .

Leave and Come Home
Theodore Roosevelt Natural Area, Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina

It’s been a long time since anything
surprised me.  By their mere voices I name each bird
that speaks from the rippled heat of jack pine
and yaupon, but I couldn’t tell you a single word
my son would wish to say.  No, that’s wrong.  The problem is
I don’t speak a single word I wish
he’d hear.  Here the birds cover their eggs
not to keep them warm but cool.  They hatch
altricial, blind, but in two weeks they fledge
and fly.  All as it should be.  I feel I have to lay my arm
on Josh’s shoulder not to push him forward
but to hold him up.

This trail crosses black water and climbs a sand knoll
knee deep in mosquitos; I smack
and squirm, but Mom always looks up.  She points
to sunlight coalesced into the shape
of Warbler, Prothonotary, perched at his cleric’s chamber
of commandeered woodpecker hole.
And in your ecclesiastical garments can you accept
confession, the hardest one a father
could admit?  That from reticence, confusion,
or hopes never uncovered like a wing not lifted
from the nestling’s eyes, I haven’t held him up
but held him back.



[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society.  In four sections, it reflects some fifty years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family.  I posted section 1 on 5/8, section 2 on 5/15, and I will post section 4 on 5/29.]

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[for the first post in this series of four, see May 8]

Years ago, before I’d reached my fortieth birthday, I remember talking to a friend who was looking pretty darn glum about his fiftieth. “Oh come on,” I said, “Just think of it as the half-way point.” I couldn’t understand why that didn’t cheer him up. Now my own fiftieth has got dust and flyspecks on the binding, and apparently I still haven’t memorized its aphorisms. If it’s impossible, as must seem obvious to any rational being, to put right all the mistakes I’ve made, why do I keep looking back? Why do all the possible futures unfolding out of my particular Heisenbergian uncertainty seem to have edges of creeping tarnish?

In this second section of my poem Leave and Come Home, I am struggling with uncertainty. Will our future relationship, mine and my son’s, be bright as the Firethroat or remain out of reach? I think of my own Dad, turning 85 this year. So much of our communication in my younger years was subterranean, never quite reaching the surface. How much angst did I cause him with my long hair and Grateful Dead? (Some other day I’ll share about how Linda helped us re-learn how to hug.) So much I didn’t know about my father, and so long before it occurred to me that I didn’t.


Several year’s ago Aunt Ellen (Dad’s sister) was going through boxes of papers from their parents’ home and discovered a letter Dad had written to his Mom from Boy Scout camp. He must have been thirteen. He had just passed the requirements to earn Birdwatching Merit Badge and was describing the birds he’d identified. Wait a minute! Big Momso is the bird watcher! You sneaky Dad, you, looking up into those branches all that time and never telling me what you were seeing. Well, I’m telling.

.  .  .  .  .

Leave and Come Home

Horseshoe Island, Newfound Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota

Last night a pair of Bald Eagles scrawled their wild script
along the silver lake. We lay on high rocks above the water, waited
for the final stars of our adventure to ignite.
Only Hermit Thrush spoke – silence
unaccustomed from our Scouts but habitual
for Josh and me.

This morning I leave him to goad
the younger ones to break our last camp –
when he leaves for college will he goad himself?
I follow the island trails, aim field glasses high
as if the warblers I’ve learned this trip might bestow
some special unction. When I pause they gather
in low branches and cock their heads, a query
I can’t answer. They leave me there.

Almost finished now, this last solitude, this last trail that has tried
to lead back to my son, close enough to hear
the tink of scrubbed pots; high in the spruce
another unnamed voice reedy and ascending
into emptiness. I search, it flees; I scan, it eludes until
on a gray limb in the gray-green canopy with a gray moth
in its needle beak it blazes: Firethroat. Blackburnian Warbler.
And if I rush to camp and pull Josh back in time
will we look up and share the prize
or stare into empty branches?

.  .  .  .  .

[Leave and Come Home won the 2009 Poet Laureate Award of the NC Poetry Society. In four sections, it covers fifty some years of being a son and father to a son. Each section covers a different geography, the sighting of a different warbler, and a new phase in our relationship as a family. I posted section 1 on 5/8; I will post section 3 on 5/22 and section 4 on 5/29.]



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