The Old Made New

Male American Goldfinch

This past Saturday, I guided two Texas birders around my favorite place on Earth. They were here for a short visit and wanted to bird one of the most famous spots on the West Coast.

It’s always fun to show newbies the Fill because you get to see the place anew through their eyes. (Young children perform this same invaluable service for us jaded adults, a big reason why we keep having them, no doubt.)

Not that I need anyone to reopen my eyes to the glories of the Fill, mind you. I see such wonders every single day. But I guess I’ve been at it long enough now so that I do sometimes overlook the gold right at my feet. For example, my best bird of the day on Saturday was a Solitary Sandpiper foraging on Shoveler’s Pond. The Solitary was down from its breeding grounds in the muskeg bogs of the Far North, on its way to its home in the tropics. It had stopped awhile in our neighborhood to catch its breath and fatten up a bit. The Fill had provided a bounteous table of mud laden with delicious insects and small crustaceans. Normally, Shoveler’s Pond is as dry as a bone by this time each year. But thanks to our cold, wet spring and non-summer, the pond still has water and gooey mud, and the bird was eating everything in sight.

I don’t get to see a Solitary Sandpiper every year, so this was a happy surprise. I was about to turn to my guests for a high-five, when I noticed they were looking at an entirely different bird. It was an American Goldfinch that had landed in the mud near the Solitary. American Goldfinches are so common at the Fill that I have ceased to look at them beyond noting their mere presence. As in, “Oh, yeah, there’s another goldfinch. Ho-hum.”

But the Texans were riveted. “Of course, we get goldfinches in Texas in the winter,” they said, modestly declining to note that they get nearly every North American bird at some season in Texas. “But we never see them in their bright golden plumage.”

Many of the goldfinches here are already beginning to molt into their drab winter dress, a kind of muddy, mustard brown-yellow with paler wingbars. But goldfinches follow their bliss when it comes to molting, and some of the males have declined to begin just yet. This particular male exhibited golden feathers that gleamed in the gray light of our Seattle summer like a small sun about to go nova.

“Ohhh,” said the Texas birders, “how beautiful.” Yes, he truly was. And thanks to Dick and Shirley, I could see the wonder of his beauty, too. Like the first goldfinch I ever saw. Like new.