Northern flicker by Rilla, 2017
Would you like to hear this post read aloud? Allears has invited me to try their new voice recording studio for bloggers. I’d love to know what you think! (If the embedded audio player isn’t visible below this note, try this link.)
Most mornings I’m still sipping my first cup of caffeine when Huck rolls in for a snuggle in my writing chair. He’s markedly up-tempo at that time of day, and I’m still dragging. One way I manage the discrepancy in our states of alertness is to reach for a book of poems, which he’ll dive into eagerly and read aloud while my brain catches up to his speed. The Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Haiku volume is a favorite and usually sparks some sweet discussion about the trees, the sky, the rain.
Today is a happy day,
Although Mt. Fuji is unseen.
That’s a pretty good one for a January day in Portland. For us it’s Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens, the latter of which we can glimpse in parts of our neighborhood on very clear days. When we catch sight of Mt. Hood, we’re usually in the car. “The mountain is out today!” someone will exclaim. Or: a delighted gasp and a cry of “Super Death Mountain!” which is what Scott and the kids call our local volcanoes. Third winter here and volcanoes are still a novelty for my gang.
Once a week Huck and Rilla attend classes at a co-op near the science center. Rilla has a free hour that we’ve been spending at the museum, a pretty giddy experience for both of us. We want every single thing in the gift shop. We spend long, absorbed minutes trying to solve brainteasers in one of the exhibits. We look out at the gray river in the rain and make plans for walks along its bank in the spring.
After Rilla heads to her classes, I have a chunk of time on my own—still as much of a novelty for me as those glimpses of volcanoes! Often I’ll have a work date at a café with my friend Shannon. On days she can’t make it, I walk to a nearby ramen shop for lunch and then take my laptop to the riverside cafe at the science center. I could eat there, but I really love ramen. I love the unavoidable single-tasking of eating it. You have your chopsticks in one hand for the noodles and the big spoon in the other hand for the broth, and that’s it, that’s all you can do—just eat this meal. No screens, no books even—you’d splash drops of broth all over the page if you tried. I sit where I can look out at the winter streets and watch people hurry or mosey past, and I imagine what David Sedaris would write about them in his diary. What Ross Gay would notice. What Joan Didion would see. Later, if I remember, I write down what I saw.
Not often, though—by the time co-op is over and I’ve driven back home, my mind has rushed on to the next thing, the next thing. This week we stopped at the bird shop for suet cakes. A flock of bush tits, tiny gray-brown things, swoops to our feeder every day for a feast. A female Northern flicker visits daily, and sometimes the male. Or maybe he comes every day too and I just haven’t caught the moment. We get downy woodpeckers and three chickadees and an occasional nuthatch, and of course lots of goldfinches and house finches. A pair of pine siskins. One sweet little Bewick’s wren. And sometimes a hermit thrush or two strides under the bare bushes, flinging leaf litter left and right in search of insects.
where a crow has settled
Another haiku from Basho, who wrote of being “astonished at the voices of mountain streams and wild birds.” Astonishment, yes. Every day, the world astonishes me.
I took this photo a couple of weeks ago; most of those glorious leaves have fallen now and the sky is hung upon the bare arms of the trees. Light glows from behind the clouds. I hadn’t realized how much I missed clouds, all those years under the clear blue Southern California sky. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the sky is painted by Maxfield Parrish, shot through with light. Even when it’s overcast and gray, there’s a glow behind the veil.
I made a list yesterday of things to write about. I’ve tucked so many stories in drafts this past year! But everything on my list feels like work. And I’m trying really hard not to work today.
So I’ll talk about Project Feederwatch instead. 🙂 Are any of you participating this year? We missed it last year. And our San Diego feeder attracted rats, so we abandoned it. But here, the birds are putting on quite a show. Our count days are Monday and Tuesday. Last week we counted 25 goldfinches, a flock of bush tits (we lost count at 25 but I think there were more), a handful of house finches and juncos, a female Northern Flicker who visits the suet feeder every morning, a downy woodpecker, two chickadees, two scrub jays, and some starlings. A highly satisfying count. The best view of the feeders is from my studio window, and it amuses me no end to come in here and find the chairs pulled out for better viewing. Huck and Rilla spend a lot of time in here, watching the show.
If you’re interested in taking part in the project, it’s not to late to join for this season. It takes a few weeks for the packet to arrive, but you can download a data sheet to tide you over. Once you get your registration packet in the mail, you begin entering your bird counts online. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology uses this data to “track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.” I think it’s open to U.S. residents only (and costs $18 to participate), but there’s a Canadian version linked on the site.
I fill our two tube feeders with sunflower seeds. One suet feeder holds a peanutty cake, and the other is a suet-and-insect cake that the woodpeckers seem crazy about. We scatter a bit of millet on the ground for the juncos, and they clean up any sunflower seeds spilled by the squabbling goldfinches. We also have a mesh sock full of nyjer thistle for the finches. But my favorite is when they descend upon the big pot of cosmos and pick out the seeds from the flower centers.
I keep watching for the varied thrushes who began visiting our yard last winter. No luck yet but I’m hopeful!
I would love to hear about the birds that visit your yard, feeders or no!
While we were away, cold rains pounded San Diego, stranding my parents inside with the kids and washing away most of our carrot seedlings. The radishes and lettuces survived the floods and are looking sprightlier than ever. The blueberries dropped a lot of blossoms but I think we’ll get a few berries, at least. The flowers are lusher than ever, fresh-faced now that I’ve picked off the spent, rain-battered blossoms.
We miss our bird feeder. Last summer, it attracted rats, so we emptied it. I’m aching to try again. When we moved from New York to Virginia in the winter of 2002, the very first box I unpacked was the one marked BIRD FEEDERS. True story. In our Long Island backyard, we had downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and titmice at the feeders every day. I can still feel the cold glass of the sliding door that tiny Jane and I use to lean against as we watched our birds. In Virginia, we had cardinals, juncoes, and my favorite, the wee chickadees. A pair of bluebirds nested in a box under our deck, right outside my office window. I wrote Across the Puddingstone Dam between bouts of peeking at those bluebirds from between the blinds.
In this yard, we mostly only see sparrows and finches, and the imperious crows. There’s a lone phoebe, junco-gray and tufted like a cardinal, who perches on the fence, watching warily as I putter in the garden. There are the hummingbirds, of course, flashing low overhead like little green comets, perching on the slender branches of the cape honeysuckle. They adore those trumpety orange flowers, as do the bees. I haven’t seen the scrub jay in a while. All last summer he called outside our bedroom window at a minute past sunrise every morning. The kids named him Peanut, after his favorite food.
I just googled my own blog to see when I’ve posted about the flock of parrots in years past. January and February is when they swirl through our neighborhood, it seems. But I don’t think I’ve heard them this year! Any other San Diegans know the whereabouts of those rowdy green squawkers right now?