If any of you out here in the blogosphere would like to come hear me read from my new book, Second Nature: Tales from the Montlake Fill, I’ll be appearing at the next WOS meeting (Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st St., Seattle 98105) on Monday, April 2 at 7 p.m.
I’ll also be at Skagit Audubon’s next meeting (Padilla Bay Interpretative Center, 10441 Bayview-Edison Rd., Mt. Vernon 98273) April 10 at 7 p.m.
I’ll also be giving a reading at The Mountaineers (7700 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle 98115) on April 12, 7 p.m.
The Song Sparrows are tuning up their arias now that spring is here. It’s fun to listen to them rehearse. We have three especially notable soloists at the Fill this year. One practices on the edge of Boy Scout Pond. He pops up whenever I walk by, and gives me a sample of his progress. I always compliment him on his performance, but really, he is pedestrian compared to the virtuoso over at Kern’s Restoration Pond. This guy is good. He starts out with three introductory notes, followed by a series of sharp staccatos, ending with a trill of the sweetest music you will ever hear. I’ve heard him three times now. Whenever he appears on stage (a rose bush branch near the edge of the Loop Trail), he gives it his all, throwing back his head and opening his throat to pour forth his music. When he hits the staccato part, his whole head ratchets rapidly up and down, like a yodeler trying to reach across to the next mountain range.
After listening to his concert one morning this week, I hoped for an encore, but he was done for the day. Disconsolate, I wandered back to Wahkiakum Lane, still trying to hum a snatch of song (as Verde opera attendees were said to do back in the 1800s), only to encounter my third soloist of the day. I arrived in the balcony just in time to see him come onto stage. He fluffed up his feathers, shuffled his feet a little to gain a better stance, threw back his head, and let fly. Whhroowwkk! He sounded exactly like a Whoopie cushion. “That can’t be right,” I said to myself, and shook my head back and forth to get rid of any cottonwool that might have lodged in my ears. The maestro took another breath and, “Whhoooophpht!”
How he expects to get a girl when he’s competing right next door to Plácido Domingo beats me.
Female American Kestrel at the Fill.
She came blasting through the flock of American Goldfinches like a bullet shot through a pillow, birds and feathers scattering in her slipstream. “That’s a kestrel,” I cried, before I stopped to think.
American Kestrels are our smallest raptor: robin-sized bundles of fierceness who hunt for prey as varied as crickets, voles, and small birds. We used to see these tiny falcons at the Fill regularly in August, when our local grasshoppers got big and juicy. But something happened to the grasshoppers years ago. Their numbers plummeted, and the few survivors remaining tended to be small and hard to find. The kestrels stopped coming. I haven’t seen one for years.
Then two years ago, a male showed up. He stayed for only a few days, hunting over Kern’s Restoration Pond, then left, never to return. I guess we’re still not offering a very rich table. So it was a great surprise to see another kestrel this spring.
After that initial view, I have seen this female twice more. Once she perched on top of the Triple Tree (the three-trunked cottonwood in the middle of Hunn Meadow East), flicking her tail and surveying her domain. Yesterday, she floated through the Fill, hovering as kestrels sometimes do when they are looking for prey. This, despite the fact that the wind was whipping Lake Washington into a froth of whitecaps, and nearly every other bird and human had hunkered down wherever we could find cover. Not she, though. She, the little empress of the air, mistress of the wind, wild and free. Oh, what beauty has come to grace our Fill.
The weather was cold and blustery on the day the Violet-green Swallows came back. It was early March. A south wind without an erg of warmth whipped Lake Washington into infinite fractals of pewter-gray waves topped by icy whitecaps. It blew right through all three layers of my clothes — jacket, sweatshirt, and high-tech thermal underwear — like neutrons whizzing unhindered through solid rock. To keep my floppy blue hat from flying away, I had pulled the drawstrings so tightly around my head I was getting a migraine. I knew my forehead would be embossed for hours after I got home and took off my hat.
Enduring the worst of the wind, I trudged along the Loop Trail where it paralleled the lake, wondering why the heck I had bothered to be out here at all when every bird in the known universe had the sense to hunker down. Then a dark shape whirled by, too fast for the eye to follow. I looked up. There against the roiling gray clouds were three Violet-green Swallows, dancing in the wind, dominating the waves, catching insects almost casually.
Spring is here. The swallows have come home.
I laughed in the storm.
When my youngest son was 11, he took me aside one day and said he didn’t want to go on family camping trips anymore. He said he didn’t like getting cold, wet, and dirty in the great outdoors, and he disliked sleeping on the ground. He told me he preferred staying home on weekends, hanging out with his friends. “I guess I’m just a city kind of guy,” he said.
I had to excuse myself to go fix the rib I had cracked trying not to howl with laughter that a kid so young thought of himself as any kind of a guy. I still smile when I think of it.
I suppose that’s why I have become so very fond of the male Barrow’s Goldeneye who has ensconced himself in University Slough for the past several weeks.
Our Barrow's Goldeneye swimming in University Slough.
Normally, Barrow’s Goldeneyes are wild ducks of the mountains and sea. They nest in tree holes and cliff niches in the untamed regions of the north. In Washington, they spend the breeding season in the Cascades or the Okanogan and Methow Valleys. They spend the winter mostly on saltwater. They dislike to be looked at by people and swim or fly away if people get too close.
But not this guy. This Barrow’s Goldeneye has chosen to live in the busiest slough in all of Washington. Every day, hundreds of people walk past him on their way to work at the university. The UW’s cross-country and crew teams run beside him as they train for their next meet. Construction workers who are building the UW’s new track drive up and down the road that parallels the slough, mere feet from the duck. A pile driver has been driving dozens of 60-foot metal pilings into the field a few meters away. In the afternoons, the baseball team works out at the south end of the slough, practicing to the rhythms of rap music played so loudly it can make a grown woman’s eardrums throb a quarter mile away.
Meanwhile, the goldeneye paddles serenely up and down in the oily water, diving for mussels and watching us birders as we watch him. I guess he’s just a city kind of guy.