Monthly Archives: May 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

I ran into a birder the other day who was standing near Kern’s Restoration Pond, looking frustrated. “What’s up?” I asked, prepared to hear a dog-off-its-leash story, or something similar.

“I can hear a Common Yellowthroat in there singing, but darned if I can find him,” complained the birder.

I know the feeling. Common Yellowthroat males are among the most beautiful of all our summer warblers. They have sun-bright yellow fronts and a dramatic black mask across their eyes. Imagine a combination of Liberace and Zorro, only downsized to something not much bigger than a golf ball, and you’ll get the picture.

You would think a Common Yellowthroat would be easy to see in this get-up, but the opposite is true. A male can sing literally inches away and yet remain completely hidden. When he finally does move, you realize you’ve been staring in the correct vicinity but have somehow missed the bird.

“Well,” I said, trying to console the birder, “we’re not dolphins, you know. We can’t echo-locate,” and I gave a little ping.

The birder gave me “the Look” and then harrumphed off. Reflecting on the fact that I had always previously thought only women were capable of executing the Look, I sat down on my camp stool and prepared to wait for the Yellowthroat to sing again. Shortly, he did but remained hidden. I scanned the habitat. The bird appeared to be in a patch of leafy bushes that measured only a hundred cubic feet or so, but it was simply impossible to find him.

Then I remembered owls. Owls can’t echo-locate like dophins either. In other words, they can’t bounce a ping off a body the way sonar does and then listen for the return echo. Nevertheless, they can locate prey by sound. They can do it because their ears are asymmetrically positioned on their heads. One ear is higher than another, enabling owls to tell where a sound source such as a scuttling mouse is, based on differences in intensity of sound reaching each ear.

How hard can that be? I wondered. I cupped one hand behind my left ear and tilted my head to the right, maximizing the sound differential. The warbler warbled, and I strained to tell apart the intensities of sound coming to my enhanced ear versus my unadorned ear. “Eh?” I said, just as a jogger ran past.

“I didn’t say anything,” she said, giving me a different kind of Look. Then she saw that I had been talking to the bushes, and  she backed away slowly, keeping me in view. When she judged she had gotten far enough away from the crazy lady who apparently thinks plants have brains, she turned and  passed from my life.

Meanwhile, a flash of yellow informed me the Common Yellowthroat had also passed from my life. “Thanks a lot,” I told his departing form, and so to home. Once again, the Bird Lady had added to her reputation.

Silver Lining

One good thing about the cold, rainy weather we’ve endured this spring is the bonanza of bugs hatching out of the swampy landscape that in normal years would be dry land. They’re everywhere. What a cornucopia.

Not that I’m particularly fond of insects. On the contrary, I dislike them—intensely.

In this I differ from my 97-year-old aunt. Her idea about bugs is: There is no ugly or bad animal.

“Not even mosquitoes?” I asked her, thinking to trip her up when she told me this philosophy. I mean, who could love a mosquito?

“Well,” she answered, “I don’t like it when they bite me, but if you took the time and trouble to study them, you would see that even mosquitoes are beautiful.”

Since mosquitoes seem to think of me as the chuck wagon on a cattle drive, I have had plenty of time to study them, both in three dimensions and in two (after I squash them). I freely admit I have yet to find their outer—or inner—beauty. So I guess I have a lot further to go on the path toward enlightenment.

On the other hand, mosquitoes are food for swallows, which is great. And yesterday, the swallows were taking full advantage of the smorgasbord laid out by the bugs at the alder grove.  There must have been a couple hundred Barn, Violet-green, Tree, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows zooming around and around the grove, mostly at ground level. I set up my camp stool in their midst, and thus I became a fixture on their endlessly circling carousel.

Tree Swallow about to crack the sound barrier.

It was a wondrous experience to watch these masters of flight swoop by, scooping up insects, never slowing, never colliding, never minding me. Some came so close, I could have reached out a hand and snatched one out of the air. Many gave me a look and a squeak as they passed. I swear one Tree Swallow flew right under my camp stool, but that could have been my imagination. He was on my right for one instant, and on my left the next, and I never saw him pass by. Perhaps he warped space itself. I would not be surprised.

Lives Up Close

Yesler Swamp is not a place of grand vistas or wide, sweeping views of nature. It is a place of twisty trails, hemmed in by plants who seem bent on regaining the ground they have lost to vigorous weeding by volunteers. You have to watch your step in here. Tree roots the size of speed bumps zigzag across the path. Cut logs installed as stepping stones are slippery when wet, and they are always wet. It’s dark, too, where the willows weave their spidery branches together overhead. They clack, you know, when the wind blows.

And yet I know of no place in all of Seattle more filled with the intimate beauty of nature. Here, you and the wild are close — nose to nose, as it were. I discovered this yesterday as I was edging my way along the oozy trail. Spring has come late this year, the coldest in Seattle’s recorded history. Birds that would normally have migrated long ago held up somewhere south as long as they could. Now, in mid-May, they are coming in a rush, stacked up at the Fill like airplanes waiting to land at Sea-Tac.

I figured Yesler Swamp would be an irresistible draw for the insectivores: the warblers, vireos, and flycatchers that are my favorites in all the bird kingdom. I set down my camp stool where the north loop emerges into a rare open space, and waited. Within a minute or two, I heard the unmistakable song of a Wilson’s Warbler, singing almost in my ear. Wilson’s Warblers are tiny bundles of sunshine: bright yellow underneath, shaded yellow on the back, topped by a black yarmulke on the head. Who knew there were Orthodox warblers? They’re gorgeous birds, but I have to admit, they don’t have much of a song. It’s more a hurried series of chirps strung together without much variation in note. If you can imagine a klezmer singer doing rap — that’s a Wilson’s Warbler.

Nearby, another bird not noted for operatics was hunting for flies: a Pacific-slope Flycatcher hard at work. Pacific-slope Flycatchers are birds of the shady forest. So nondescript are they as to almost defy identification: brown on the back, grayish in front, a couple of whitish wingbars, a white eye-ring. That’s about it. Their “song” is equally plain: a high-pitched peep/pause/peep-peep/pause/PEEP. This is music?

Maybe not, but it is surely magic. For both these birds have flown all the way from Central America to come to this one spot, in the heart of a big city. Here, they find the seclusion they seek to make new warblers and flycatchers, to continue the cycle of life to the next generation. It is here that they sing their little all, and it is here that they share their lives with those of us willing to stop a moment and listen to the symphony of life all around us.