This is my second spring as a birder, and everything feels simultaneously new and familiar. It’s like picking up a book I loved the first time and rereading it a year or so later: It’s the same book, but I’m noticing so much more. Last year all robins looked the same. This year, the males and females look obviously different. Practice and study have trained my eye for detail: She looks paler; he has a darker head. I notice their white eye-rings, a field mark I ignored last year. I am learning to look, learning to pay attention.
I live in a suburban apartment complex, rows of townhouses with neatly trimmed ornamental shrubs out front. But all around the periphery, and even in between some of the apartment rows, are areas of trees and scrub that no one ever touches. There are even a couple of adjacent ponds. Birds like it. Just this morning I saw or heard:
a hermit thrush
a red-bellied woodpecker
a northern flicker
some blue jays
a ruby-crowned kinglet
and of course robins.
It looks inviting to me. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about inquisitive humans. But one female robin has chosen this rather sad-looking bush for a nest site instead:
I watched her flying back and forth yesterday with beakfuls of muddy vegetation. After a while I followed her to see where she was getting it from. I found her digging through the rotting leaves next to a bit of stream, picking material up and tossing it aside again. Nope… Nope… Nope…. I wondered what her criteria were. Her face and bill were covered in mud, and she had a huge blob of mud on her breast, but she kept at it, though it was late afternoon, and I was sure she must have been building since breakfast time. I didn’t remember ever seeing a dirty songbird before. I felt respect for this hardworking robin and her high standards in the matter of nesting materials. Is she a young bird, building her very first nest, or a seasoned pro? Did she use this very same bush last spring, or is she going purely on instinct? She’s got a hundred million years of evolution to draw from; I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.
I was careful not to show too much interest in the nest while the builder was around, but the next day there was no sign of her, so I took a peek.
I hope she ends up using it. Last year I didn’t get even a glimpse of an active nest, and this year I’m hoping to do better—though of course you have to be discreet. You don’t want to alarm the parents, or alert possible predators to a nest site.
My second bird spring, my third pandemic spring. Haven’t we been here before? Sometimes it feels like we’ve fallen out of normal time. We were two weeks into Lent when my state first went into lockdown in 2020. I remember holding church staff meeting on Zoom, saying to each other that we hoped we’d all be back in person by Easter (four weeks later). We’re still in the middle of it. In the same place but different—dodging the same virus, but a different variant. It feels exhausting, as unending as grief when you’re right in it. How do we get out of this? Is this just what life is now? Are we just going in circles?
Westerners tend to think of time like a straight line, a timeline, with pictures and dates. I think it’s more like a spiral. The earth turns, brings us back around to another spring. The same trees bud out, the same bird songs fill the morning skies. But we’re in a different place now. I’m in a different place now.