Bird portal

Gabriele Munter, Breakfast of the Birds, 1934

One year into the pandemic, when I had pretty much reached my lowest ebb—

exhausted by the virus, by 4 years of ugliness in Washington, by QAnon, by racist violence, by anti-immigrant rhetoric, by rising antisemitism, by unchecked climate change, by assaults on indigenous water rights, by the relentless polarization and politicization of everything—

sad because the beautiful community meal I run for homeless and food-insecure neighbors had been a bag-lunch-to-go service since the start of COVID, and it just wasn’t the same as sitting down together—

weary and jaded and finding little to hope for in any direction—

just like that, I started looking at birds.

I really had always meant to pay more attention to them. But except when something dazzling would happen to get my attention, I never seemed to think about them. Chance encounters would root me to the spot: the mournful cry of a curlew at dusk on a Scottish hill, a silent-winged owl sweeping over my head on a California ridge, an oystercatcher with bright orange bill at a beach in Massachusetts. Moments of pure wonder, followed by forgetting.

That was how my journey with God started too. Funny.

Gerard Hobson, “In The Park” (linocut)

March of 2021 was my bird awakening.

I honestly can’t remember what happened that made me suddenly up and buy a pair of binoculars.

Most birders have what’s called their “spark bird”—the bird they saw that suddenly made them fall in love with birding. If you’re a birder you probably have one; or if you ask a birder you know, they’ll tell you the story. But I don’t remember any spark bird. I’m not actually sure what set all this in motion. Just like other times in my life when something new has begun to stir, it seemed to happen slowly, and then all at once. I probably wondered, as I waited for the binoculars to be delivered, if this was going to be one of those dumb impulse buys that would eventually end up in a corner as clutter.

When they arrived, I got my first inkling that birding is a serious learning curve. Binoculars are tricky at first. You have to get used to the weight of them, learn to aim, focus, and track. Everything wobbles, like learning to ride a bike. Getting a bird into view at all took patience and practice.

Artist unknown

But after a while I did begin to see things. And as I looked, something very strange happened to me.

I was flooded with joy and peace. Bathed in lightness.

But why? Where did this feeling come from? I can’t tell you. Discovering birds is like discovering God—it’s just a thing that happens in the heart, impossible to describe. Like gratitude, like compassion, like falling in love, like those moments when hope suddenly stirs and you feel yourself coming back to life, this kind of joy is a gift of pure grace. It just happens.

All I knew was that birds were wild and they were beautiful and I loved them.

I ordered bird books. I downloaded the Merlin app. I began learning their names. I knew nothing, but it didn’t matter. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Birds, where have you been all my life? Right here. Everywhere, all around me, all the time.

Life is always offering itself us to us, always opening, always, inviting, no questions asked. But sometimes we’re too preoccupied, or too lost in grief or worry or pain to be able to perceive it.

Kongo Bairei, illustration from “Bairei Hyakucho Gafu,” 1881

Birds became my portal back into loving the world again, at a moment in my life where I felt nothing but bleakness. It was like those fairy tales where the little bird shows up as a messenger or guide, pointing the heroine to the journey she must take toward new life.

In the year since, I’ve looked and learned, read and studied, wondered and asked questions. I’ve had good bird days and no-bird days, walks in the woods seeing absolutely nothing and moments of sheer bliss raising my binoculars to something new and utterly amazing. My first Steller’s jay on a trip home to California. My first glossy ibises in Connecticut. My first common yellowthroat last spring. Each one a little explosion in the heart, like seeing your beloved come into view after a long absence.

Common Yellowthroat

I am in awe at the aliveness of birds. And so grateful.

Office park nature

Look at them all.

A long stretch of chilly days, typical New England early spring. I’ve been spending way too much time on the couch lately, so this afternoon I finally made myself take a walk, even though there just hasn’t been much to see out there, bird-wise. I’m restless for migration season to start. But I put on my coat, grabbed my binoculars, stepped out the door—and heard a red-tailed hawk scream. Yes, there it was, circling the roofs of our apartment complex. A male announcing his territory to any and all competitors, wheeling and gliding on the wind.

But that was just the prelude. Walking through the nearby office park a few minutes later, I raised my binoculars to a bird on a branch, expecting a house sparrow or a jay, and found myself gazing directly at a cedar waxwing. And another! And—I turned and saw a whole flock of them in the trees over my head. A good 20 at least, glowing yellow and peach in the late afternoon light. I knew they liked to flock, but I’d never come across more than one or two at a time before. It was like seeing a vision.

A little further along, guys in hardhats getting off work for the day, pausing to chat for a moment at their cars. Awash in bird endorphins, I wanted to take them by the hand and say, “Come with me, I have something to show you! Something glorious, a bona-fide office park miracle; come and look!” But we can’t say things like that to each other, we can’t just bare our hearts to strangers (why can’t we, though?), and besides I doubt it would have meant much to them. (You never know, though: Bird people are everywhere.)

So instead I just entered my waxwings into ebird, along with the hawk, and continued on. The air rumbled with the sound of earth-movers in the near distance, remaking bits of the landscape for new human purposes. HVAC systems whirred in the office buildings, cars passed. On foot, uninsulated, I may have been the one soul lucky enough to have glimpsed mystery in the trees at the side of the drive, dozens of pastel-colored birds calmly rising and rearranging and alighting.

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

—A.R. Ammons

Also in the neighborhood today, the usual assortment of locals—

tufted titmice
red-winged blackbirds
Canada geese
house sparrows
herring gulls
blue jays

oh, and a northern mockingbird, singing so beautifully.