I suppose someday, in our steady march toward constructing the Theory of Everything, we will know all there is to know about the lives of Black Swifts, one of the most secretive and mysterious birds in all the world.
Black Swifts are scimitar-shaped flyers who spend most of their lives somewhere in South America – no one knows where. They arrive here in June on their way to nesting sites in the Cascades – exactly where is nearly impossible to say. Fewer than a hundred nests are known anywhere in North America.
In the early mornings of the summer, when storm clouds gather over the foothills to the east, the swifts leave their mountain fasts and wing their way to us down here in the lowlands. They come to hunt insects on the fly, soaring so quickly overhead they can appear out of nowhere and vanish if you blink your eyes. Like magic.
Magic has a bad name these days. We say it is merely illusion, or primitive ignorance, or childish belief in the supernatural. Science has taught us there is no monster under the bed, no voodoo that can make your unpleasant boss feel like she’s being poked with pins. Science has explained to us why the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, day after day, without any incantations from us. Science tells us why and when the rain will come, how disease can kill or be cured. Science invented cell phones and explains how they work, though they still seem magical to me. Science has yet to figure out why my husband’s imitation of Dr. Strangelove is so funny, but it’s only a matter of time until Science has distilled every thought and feeling into chemistry. Bit by bit, science is driving out magic, and I guess that’s a good thing.
But I hope that science never drives out wonder. When a Black Swift floats a few feet above my head, as one did earlier this week, and his button-black eyes stare into mine, and he spreads out his wings and his little forked tail to hover over me like a dark angel, he is wonderful. My heart soars with him, and I am wonder- full.
Immature American Robin
Oh, to be a young robin, out in the world for the very first time, finding your first worm, singing your first song! It is early June, and the young ones are beginning to leave their nests. Everywhere you look, there are youngsters flying around, some with their parents still in tow, others completely alone already.
You can usually tell the young birds apart from the adults because their field marks are different. Immature robins have black spots on their breasts. Young Oregon Juncos are striped instead of plain, although their outer tail feathers are white like an adult’s. Newly fledged swallows are clumsy when they fly over the pond and dip down on the wing to take a drink of water — most of them make a big splash instead of a delicate ripple. Young human kids are especially distinctive: many are wearing mortarboards this month and have stars in their eyes.
Whether human or avian, they all think they are ready to be out on their own. We of the gray hair know better, but we bite our lips, sit on our hands, say nothing about our worries. The young must do this, and we must let them. Wish them well, help them if you can, but quietly. They must learn to fly free.
As for our worries, take heart. Many of the young will be back, to settle into their outgrown nests again and ask us take care of them. At least two of the juvenile Bald Eagles who hatched out a year or two ago are hanging around the Fill now, hoping to be fed by Ma and Pa. My binoculars are not quite powerful enough to read the expression on the parent eagles’ faces, but I get the impression they are rolling their eyes, maybe even muttering under their breath: “Get a job.” It makes me smile.
I’m a great believer in going to the hospital to have babies. None of this have-your-baby-at-home stuff for me. In the hospital, you press buttons and people bring you things. When you’re done with those things, you press more buttons and people come and take them away. You don’t have to cook, you don’t have to clean, you can limit visitors. It’s all very peaceful.
I have especially fond memories of the hospital in which I gave birth to my second child. Labor was short. A nurse showed me my gorgeous new son, then took him away to bathe him and put on his first diaper. My husband and I just glowed. Then somebody wheeled me into my room, and I went blissfully to sleep. When I awoke, I immediately began to look forward to pressing buttons. The first button brought me a nurse, who said they would shortly start bringing the babies to the new moms to be fed. Soon, I could hear the nurses dropping babies off in rooms down the hall. Coos and oohs and ahs filled the hallway. All of a sudden, one of the newborns began to yell. And yell. And yell. The baby was in frenzy and could not be soothed. Its cries were insistent, unrelenting, loud, and annoying. “Wow,” I said to myself, “I’m sure glad that baby isn’t mine.” Just then, a nurse brought that baby into my room and handed him over. Yikes.
Newly hatched Pied-billed Grebe baby on Southwest Pond, Montlake Fill
I was reminded of this story yesterday when I heard peeping yells coming from Southwest Pond. I hurried over to see what was happening and found a newly hatched Pied-billed Grebe baby in a frenzy, yelling at its parents to feed it now now NOW. The parents were frantically diving for fish and stuffing their catch into the baby’s mouth as fast as they could. The baby stopped peeping only long enough to swallow, and then resumed its crying. Its noises were insistent, demanding, unrelenting, loud, and annoying.
I watched the parents sympathetically. How well I remember those days. I smiled. “Wow,” I said, “I’m sure glad that baby isn’t mine.”