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Monday, October 27, 2014

In All My Years of Birdwatching, I Have Never Seen This Before

Excellent photo of a golden-crowned kinglet by Jacob S. Spendelow. See more of his gorgeous work here
Sunday, October 26, 2014

The weatherman promised clouds and sun but as I drove to Skylands the sun disappeared and the sky up north ahead of me clotted with dark, ropey clouds. In a down vest, with no Gore-Tex on me, I was not prepared for rain. I strategized – I could perhaps filch the custodian's backup, clean plastic bag that he had stored in the bottom of a garbage can.  But then I decided that it wasn't going to rain. The day was just painting itself to match my mood.

I will never go to Skylands, my favorite place on earth, and not think of my sister. Just the other day I was in eighth grade and she was in high school and we went up there and picked two paper bags full of apples under a sky just like this, ominous, mid-Autumn clouds that silvered an entire afternoon into one long evening. We rolled the wild and wormy apples out on a countertop, washed, peeled, and pared them, as Mommy stretched the strudel dough on top of a white tablecloth with red flowers, stretched that strudel dough so thin you could read a newspaper through it. The newspaper could even be in Hungarian, and multilingual grandma could read that. We were awake long into that evening's early darkness, watching, through the glass window in the oven door, the uneven blanket of strudel dough, wrapping apples, its peaks warming to gold.

What was I saying? Where am I? When?

I was hiking up the trail at Skylands trying to figure out how I could rescue my sister. I could phone this doctor, that doctor, talk to the nurse; where is Virginia, my beloved telephone tarot card reader? And I can't. No plan I could devise would rescue my sister.

Some say you don't exist, but you do, don't you? That was you behind Mike's death at 33, and Phil's death at 23, and now this. There you are, God. I've found you. God, you may be omnipotent, but you appear to be deaf. Your omnipotence lies in your implacability and your aim. Can I get you to move? Or at least redirect your lightning bolts? Apparently not. I know this drill all too well. So much for that "ask and ye shall receive" stuff. Was it all just song lyrics? Did it rhyme in the original Aramaic?

I passed another birdwatcher, tall, slim, and gray-haired. He may be someone I've met before, the man who maintains the bluebird houses, but I was too drained to ask. He may have known I am a birdwatcher by the binoculars hanging from my neck. He told me what he was seeing: both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

I would like to see a yellow-bellied sapsucker. The last time I saw one, years ago, it was here at Skylands. He was on an apple tree trunk riddled with precise rows of holes; this punch-card pattern is the signature of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. The holes are the wells he drills and from which he sips sap.

I asked the man what to listen for. He said that the yellow-bellied sapsucker says "kwrr, kwrr." He imitated the call. I said I'd listen for that.

He asked me what I was seeing and I told him that my mind was elsewhere.

I resolved to look for the kinglets.

I saw white-throated sparrows and slate-colored juncos, the quintessential winter ground birds in my neck of the woods.

As I get older I note that I am always surprised by the seasons. You think seasons would no longer surprise me, especially since I am a walker and I am out in everything.

Last winter, 2013-14, was one of the most severe winters I'd ever lived through. I just couldn't believe spring at all. I had a down vest in my backpack – just in case! – well past the equinox. "One swallow does not a summer make." Summer 2014 didn't really convince me till it was almost through.

But now summer is over and I know this because I saw several white-throated sparrows and slate-colored juncos. And I managed to pay fifty cents a pound for fairly good apples at Shop-Rite.

I also saw a lot of hermit thrushes. Enthusiasts of collective nouns will tell you that a group of hermit thrushes is called a "hermitage." Similarly, a group of turkeys is said to be called a "rafter" and a group of crows is said to be called a "murder." An ascension of larks, a gaggle of geese, a parcel of penguins

My question is, WHO calls a group of thrushes a "hermitage"? Not I.

Perhaps fans of collective nouns, but how often do these people actually encounter a group of thrushes?

The hermit thrushes were eating berries, which they do in winter. In warmer seasons, they eat insects. Hermit thrushes are eating berries: seasons have changed. Get it through your head.

The man I had passed promised me ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned kinglets.

I quickly saw a golden crowned kinglet. Then I saw one of the weirdest things I've ever seen as a birdwatcher. I've never seen anything like this before.

The kinglet was flying, and she somehow managed to catch her wing on a branch. Her body was suspended sideways from the branch, one wing hanging loose beneath her and flapping pathetically; the other wing was above her and affixed to the branch somehow. She made high-pitched alarm calls; there was no one to hear or rescue. She struggled and struggled. It was really hard to watch. I've never seen anything like that before and I can't imagine how it happened.

Was she stuck on a thorn? How did she get a thorn through her wing? Kinglets are tiny birds … was she trapped in a spider web?

I determined that I had to rescue her.

I began to walk toward her and she struggled and struggled and before I reached her, she managed to free herself from whatever was holding her.

She flew to a nearby branch and began, with her bill, furiously preening the wing that had been stuck.

This unique sight did feel to me, somehow, related to my sister and my crushed sense that I should be rescuing her, but that I can't. I have no conclusions. I am just reporting.

The persimmon tree is full of fruit, and now is the time of year for them. They are good to eat only after all the leaves have fallen, and after the first frost. They were too high; I could not reach them. As I passed the now barren rhododendrons and azaleas which bloom, at Skylands, in a rich array of the orange-melon-pink spectrum, I remember when Antoinette was a young nurse and we came up here and she was wearing fingernail polish and holding her long, slender fingers up against the blossoms on the azalea, trying to find the blossom that most exactly matched her polish.

I walked down the single-lane road through woods, the road that passes the small pond on the Mount St. Francis property. When Antoinette was a member of the Confraternity of the Children of Mary – they got to wear these lovely blue robes to mass – and I was at home sucking my thumb, she and her classmates had come up to Mount Saint Francis for a school trip. Antoinette was wearing a watch pendant necklace she had received for her birthday and the clasp came lose and the pendant fell into the pond and was lost forever. Though I was not with her on that day, I cannot pass that pond without thinking about that pendant, rusting silently at the bottom of it somewhere, unless it was swallowed by a heron who mistook its shine for the fins of a goldfish, swallowed it down, carried it to some exotic clime, and pooped it out on a sandy beach. I wonder if the clock is still ticking.

The sun was setting and dusk was whispering through the trees and I was assuming the greater caution I assume when the light is abandoning me, a lone female pedestrian. I looked up and saw three very black and quite large figures and it took me several seconds of moving the vocabulary inside my head around – if those are people they are much larger and more monochromatic than most people – to realize that they were bears. I've seen wild bears only twice before, once running away into the woods on the side of the road, and once skulking around Charlene Lovegrove's dumpster in Vernon.

It was a mother and two cubs. The mother stood up on her hind legs and looked at me.

In September Darsh Patel was killed by a bear in nearby West Milford.

The bears looked beautiful: sleek, pure black, glamorous, well fed.

They slipped into the brush and were invisible within seconds.

I just kept walking. 

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