At first glance

This month of September is one that will certainly be remembered for many years to come. The weather has been remarkable – fair-weather days that reveal the Fairweather Mountains in all their glory, fiery sunsets, starry, moonlit nights, and much activity of the avian persuasion.

I know I have a tendency to focus on my interactions and observations of my avian neighbors in much of my writing, so I would like to illustrate that my passion for the world around me merely begins with the birds. Retraining my senses to take notice of birds on both a visual and audible level has opened the door to an entire world of discovery and appreciation for all things natural, both great and small.

This afternoon, after a particularly insightful but lengthy day of supervisory training, I plopped my weary self down at my kitchen table and watched a pair of Steller’s Jays stuffing themselves at the feeder I set out a few days earlier. Thus far, a pair of Juncos have tentatively approached the feeder and determined it safe enough to bring junior in for a few visits. Far and away, however, the jays are reaping the benefits of the bounty. The presence of food does not appear sufficient for even the least of the two, which has made several attempts with its beak to procure the mother load behind the plastic exterior.

At first glance, my backyard seems relatively inactive with regard to my non-human neighbors. Despite this cursory observation, I decided to go for a wander and see what might be lurking out of view. I was not disappointed. Upon closer inspection, I found a world of activity I would have missed had I been limited to the views and sounds detectable from my back door.

An element of this world that is ever humbling and wonderful is that of the unknown. No matter how many songs and calls I learn or sounds that become familiar, there remain ever more that are unrecognizable, mysteries to be solved. I generally call myself a birder, but nature detective may be more suitable.

The first sound I heard I wish I could have recorded, but my recorder is still en route to Gustavus (patience, Marieke). I kept hearing what I thought was a bird migrating from high in a tree down to a lower level; however, it was too consistent and regularly recurring to fit this classification. My second thought was to label it as individual leaves from a Black Cottonwood, which of late have grown crisp and begun to tumble toward the ground, making a similar sound as they meet with other crispy leaves and branches. I could not defend this theory, either, due to the absence of cottonwood in that particular corner of my backyard.

Any guesses?

Well, I did what any detective might do in a similar situation. I determined that these sounds were originating from a single spot. When I trained my binoculars on this spot, a Red squirrel was looking directly at me. It had paused its activity to determine the level of threat I represented, along with whether I warranted further attention and/or closer inspection that would detract from its busy schedule of hurling Western hemlock cones down to the moss-covered ground.

I was surrounded by tiny, tinkling sounds, and I noticed a Hermit Thrush (a new yard bird seen for the first time earlier this afternoon) take a tenuous perch on a low-lying branch by what I have come to refer to as the “magic shrub”. I walked back toward the tinkling sounds of the chickadees and clicking of juncos and came upon a glorious find indeed!


Of course, the more scientifically astute and correct terminology would be to refer to this remarkable bounty as “skat”. Though I did kneel down for an olfactory inspection, I feel confident that I can still make the “a rose by any name…” argument. This skat was quite fresh and quite likely originated from a Black Bear due to the shiny, red highbush cranberries which looked as though they had been swallowed whole and were barely altered through the digestive process.

The crowning and most sentimental discovery was one that has brought me full circle in my transition from Washington to Alaska. Earlier this summer, I wrote of a bird whose arrival each spring to the upper Skagit I anxiously anticipate and which I hoped to witness before my departure for Alaska. This past spring, this bird – the Townsend’s Solitaire – revealed itself on the branch of a tree that had been washed onto the shore of the Skagit by my home. I saw it for but a brief moment but felt a calm settle over me as I prepared to make the journey north, knowing the chances of ever seeing one in Southeast Alaska were slim to none.

This past Saturday morning, I looked out my back door and saw a Townsend’s Solitaire perched in the magic shrub and nearly tripped over myself in my zeal to see it through my binoculars and record the sighting by capturing it through the equally magical invention of digital photography – a birder’s best friend if he/she is out in the field alone and happens upon a rare bird. The bird remained for a few minutes before the resident pair of juncos decided they had had enough and chased it away.

My excitement over this sighting was not so easily diminished. The thrush family of birds is my favorite – simple, elegant, and unassuming but with the most hauntingly lyrical of song. How wonderfully unexpected to see this fae, grey, feathered creature, one of the most unlikely of birds, just before leaving Gustavus this fall. It is a fitting farewell and a message of hope for my return and the many surprises that have yet to be revealed in the months ahead.

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