An absurd little bird

In the midst of the stress of being unvaccinated during a global pandemic and organizing an international move for three cats, a dog, myself, and my husband, I experience a respite every time I take a walk around the farm fields by my home. I would say it is like a literal breath of fresh air except that most of the time when I take in a deep cleansing yogic breath through my nose I smell cow excrement.

Tant pis, as they say in French.

It still feels glorious to have the freedom to move about, even if we are still limited to no more than 10 kilometers from our home. With Belgium less than 3 kilometers away, we can still cross a country border, which feels like a small miracle these days.

And I don’t mind the smell so much, especially when it comes from such a charming, sweet creature. The cows are curious and walk right up to us when we stop to say hello. Our big white husky is mad for bovine and is learning (slowly) to gently offer canine to bovine greetings.

As the weather has grown milder in the past week, I have taken to bringing my binoculars on our daily outings. It is not solely the milder weather, though it is less pleasant carrying them in high winds and rain, but also spring bird migration that has been turning back to the house any time I forget to take them with me.

Any time I leave the house there is a chance to see birds. During the winter months I tend to see the same species, but they are still beautiful. With the changing of the season in spring and fall, however, there is the possibility of seeing migrating birds. There are those arriving to find territory and a mate and proceed with carrying on their particular species, and there those just passing through. Being in a new (for me) place, there is the additional excitement of seeing a “life bird.” In birder code, this means a species I have never seen before.

The energy of the spring not only makes me want to dust and clean and get rid of all of the stuff that has been building up over the winter months. It also brings with it new energy in the avian world. In our corner of the globe, this means northern lapwing dancing in aerial mating displays and calling out in their strange language that reminds me of sounds from a video game. A friend who lives in the area told me that the lapwing were once quite common but development of the fields from wetland to farm and hunting has caused their population to decline to very low numbers. It is not a new story for a birder to hear, but it still makes my heart heavy and makes me even more grateful to see them flying and calling with such vibrancy and life.

Spring means the return of species I have grown familiar with as well. After walking around the Forêt des Soignes by our home in Brussels, I start looking for the chiff chaff, the first harbinger of spring, followed by the black cap in close succession. The black cap literally looks like it is wearing a yarmulke (black for the male and brown for the female).

I went walking with a friend by the small town of Strazeele the other day, and on our way back I heard a sound that was familiar only from movies.

Coo coo. Coo coo. Coo coo.

The first was high and the second low, just like in the movies when a little bird comes flying out from a grandfather clock to sing in the arrival of a new hour.

Suffice it to say that I was very excited by this sound. I picked up my binoculars and began scanning the area. The only bird I saw was perched on a telephone line. The shape was reminiscent of the silhouette of a barn swallow (hirondelle in French), which have also arrived in recent weeks. But it was larger than a swallow. In the late afternoon light, it was backlit. In birder speak, this means that it appeared colorless because it was in shadow.

Had I been alone or with my husband, I would have gone tromping through the field to get a closer look. Since I was with a friend, I contented myself with the knowledge she shared that these were common birds in the area and the hope that I might have the chance to see one before boarding a plane bound for Los Angeles in just under two months.

Birds are capricious, of course. There is no promise of a repeat sighting. Any one sighting might be the only chance to see a particular species. I know from experience. Just the other day I saw a flock of finches that looked quite like Redpoll, which I have seen in the winter in Washington state and Alaska but never in Europe. I got relatively good looks at several of the birds and thought, Redpoll, only to find upon verifying the identification in my bird guide back at home that there were two other similar species with slightly different plumage coloring and break shape.

The Linnet beak was too thick and coloring different enough that I narrowed it down to Repoll or Twite. There had been a touch of red on the head, so I am fairly certain Redpoll were in the mix. But there had also been vertical white coloring on the tail, which seemed akin to the Twite.

I walk by the same field at different times of day on our multiple walks, but I have never seen the flock again.

Such is life, of course, and missing a second sighting for species identification confirmation is very good non-attachment practice. I am also yogi, and I need every bit of “letting go” practice I can get.

Prior to meeting my friend in the afternoon, I had seen a small bird I thought might be a Common Whitethoard on my morning walk. My husband had spotted it in a deciduous tree we pass on our daily walks. It was darting out from the branches close to the trunk to a smaller branch that extended further out and then back again. This behavior is called “fly catching” and is often attributed to the family “flycatchers,” which are especially known for it.

So of course my first thought was, flycatcher! In these moments, I try to note as many details about the bird as I can and then hope I have noticed the ones that will differentiate it from other birds that look similar.

I opened the birding app on my phone and went straight for the flycatchers, but there were none that looked even close to this bird.

Maybe it is a warbler? my husband suggested.

But it is fly catching!

We continued to watch it as it progressed to different sides and levels of the tree. I finally managed to find the Common Whitethroat, which seemed like it could be a match. Of course, by that time the bird was lost to our piddly human eyes.

Not being from this area or having spent even a year walking the fields around our home, I have not had ample time to get to know the migratory species that also frequent these parts in spring, summer, and fall nor those that migrate through en route to more northern climes. So I had no idea if this was a bird that I might see again. The word “common” in the name gave some insight, along with the color purple on the map, indicating that it was a resident.

Sometimes, the stars align and the birding gods grant you a boon.

While walking with my friend that afternoon, prior to the Cuckoo sounding and potential sighting, I saw a second bird that was just like the first and even closer and easier to view. Common Whitethroat it was. Eureka!

With all of these black caps and whitethroats bounding about, I have started imagining a bird-themed West Side Story with little dancing bird gangs defending their territories to catchy tunes.

This past week, my husband and I have heard cuckoos calling all around the farm fields. We have heard them in the evening, morning, and afternoon but haven’t managed to find one.

Just before walking past the hop field on our walk toward the Belgian border, we heard a cuckoo. Each time this happens, I stop in my tracks in a stance of readiness, legs and arms wide out to the side.

On this occasion, I said, Stop. Not seeing the bird around us, we began walking again and I added musical soundtrack to our footsteps by singing the requisite Vanilla Ice song.

Stop, collaborate, and listen…

We heard the bird again just after the hop field, and I turned to walk into the field. We walked toward the far tree line and then speculated as to whether the bird was perhaps in the next tree line over on the far side of the neighboring property. Sound can be tricky, and birds often do not stay still. This was the main reason, a friend of mine from years ago when I was living in the North Cascades of Washington state explained to me, that she preferred learning about plants. Because they stay still long enough for you to figure out what they are.

Maybe I like a good challenge.

Maybe, I am a bit cuckoo myself.

This morning, the birding gods smiled on us again.

As we were walking toward the road, I said to my husband,

I wish the bird would just land on the line. I would love something to be simple.

My husband laughed. Then he turned around and pronounced that there was a bird perched on the line at the opposite end of the field. Maybe it was the cuckoo?

I trained my binoculars on it, and the shape and size were right. Plus, it was singing!

We walked toward it, angling to the left so the bird would no longer be in shadow.

Closer and closer we walked, pausing and taking turns looking at the bird through our binoculars.

We tried to get close without moving so close as to frighten it off. Even from a distance, it was thrilling to see it, to share this space and moment, us three (and the dog, who was blissfully unaware that anything out of the ordinary was taking place).

Eventually, the bird flew away, its flight pattern slow and steady, making it seem as though flight was burdensome.

We sighed happily and headed back to the road a second time, the words from The Sound of Music echoing in my mind:

There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall

And the bells in the steeple, too

And up in the nursery an absurd little bird

Is popping out to say, cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo

Regretfully they tell us

But firmly they compel us

To say goodbye

To you

Photo credit Richard S. Lewis

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