Walking Into Transitions
Geese for days. Mornings from my bed in the dark I can tell how high the cloud cover is by the cackle of the white geese going. It is the way to awaken. More geese in daylight today, higher up. And soon after—Pelicans. Wind from the south-southwest and driving, the Pelicans waft and waggle, trying to stay in their ordered V’s and W’s. The work of the air forms them into odd three dimensional shapes. If I were Chinese I could watch for specific symbols with meaning, geese forming the exact curly marks that mean ‘patience’ or ‘persistence’. Can you read fortunes in the windblown strandings of geese? You know, if you are Chinese? Those sly easterners probably have a single symbol meaning ‘white-birds-broken-into-tangles-by-south-wind.’ I hope they do.
At the freeway bridges near Bell Slough vultures try and make spirals but any spirals out there today are ripped and shredded. I slow down and turn back toward them to see that they are all Black Vultures. Lumpier and stubbier all around, they fly like birds that always meant to get around to those flight lessons. I think of a creation offer, like something in Greek mythology: you can be a beast of the air, with wings, but you must always feed on death. They are serious looking birds on the ground. And they got the slightly sweeter deal, at least, where they do have to eat death but they don’t have to smell it. Blackies having bad noses, like heavy smokers. They watch for the goings of the true fliers, the Turkey Vultures, who have the noses of bloodhounds or perhaps beyond. And wings that will float on the rumor of lift. I always think of David Attenborough whispering in the jungles of South America toward the camera as he plants a rancid beefsteak in the leaf litter and then sits to watch as a Turkey Vulture works its way slowly but surely to the hiding place from downwind and then feasts quickly. And also this other singular fact: hanglider pilots (do we call them pilots?), I suppose the best of them anyway, watch for birds riding thermals. They are like visible tic marks showing a thermal. And the rule is: you don’t want to go where the Turkey Vultures are. It is always best to choose the thermals where the Black Vultures fly, for that is where the air can more likely lift a chunky human with metal struts for wings.
Warmish, I feel the impending possibility of sweat in this week before Thanksgiving. I feel light and free with just binoculars. I have more cargo in summer. Inside the trees I am looking for small wind-sheltered birds when three giants walk out ahead of me. Wild Turkeys have seen me already and are deciding what to do about it. Generally they run, but these seem leisurely, though their heads are up. I think they are younglings but one steps to profile and I see his long beard and red throat wattle. They pace and turn until one blows his nerve completely and launches straight into the understory and thrashes up to the wind side of the oaks and blasts eastward out of sight. The big male runs until he has a clear path down the creek and then turns on the fleet speed and is also gone. I don’t know what happened to the third one.
The big Bur Oak is humming with wasps on the north side of its trunk. These are social wasps that are gathering to a favorite hollow, a wintering spot I assume. All females, they are not to be toyed with. Though I don’t know if the winter gatherers retain the urge to sting as a gang. Next spring they will disperse to make their paper homes under our barn roofs and window eaves.
Inside the tunneled path of trees the wind is blocked and the birds are feeding. Kinglets chatter and scold. And in the briars I see a warbler. It is taking its time. It is an Orange-crowned Warbler, the olivey one, the very basal warbler, like it was the model to start from, the bird God handed his students (surely he needed some apprentices of some sort) saying, ‘start with this and make something good.’ This was the warbler bird that flew off before the paints were applied. A Hermit Thrush pops up, one of the usual suspects. He is quiet and alert. Bands of chickadees talk. And when I stoop to try and see one, I flush a Timberdoodle. Always a moment for pause. One of my token birds, one of my several spirit birds in the way of thinking of native Americans. I see only about one or two a year anymore and usually in winter. But when I do, I flash back to all the other times I have seen them, including the rare pair I found in the snow several years ago now.
The wind out in the open plays hard with the remaining butterflies. A battered Pearl Crescent crosses in a flapping strain at one point. Every now and then a Question Mark whips around me and one stops to land for a brief time. They look like windblown leaves otherwise. The only clue is that they are going against the wind sometimes. I also find several Goatweed Leafwings along the path as well. They keep popping up and then falling back into the leaves. When you are colored on the outside like a leaf, at this time of year, the whole world is your patchwork camo blanket. I look and look to find one in the litter but they just reemerge like tricks of light and fall back again. I manage to see only one in hiding and it is flat out on its side like a dead thing. Makes me laugh.
Buckeyes seem to be everywhere where the wind lays low. And the Orange Sulphurs are still on the move. Buckeyes flashing as they always do towards anything else that flies. They chase the Sulphurs, they chase leaves in the wind. But grasshoppers throwing themselves into broomsedge is the popup of the day. A hopper comes up and a Buckeye flares towards it. I don’t know, looking for that last November sex? Several Bird-winged Grasshoppers linger and also fly but they are either too fast or too damn big to have Buckeyes chase them. They could eat a Buckeye, I suppose, if it came right down to it. At one point I see a Dainty Sulphur trying itself in the wind. The size of a cornflake, it is a desperate going. I want to put the thing in the lee side of an oak, let it sit down until it is time to die.
This time of year, I am always ever alert for Winter Wrens. They are back. And at the fork of the trail (always a good spot) one chimp, chimps at me. And then comes up for a look. Ah, the bird the size and color of a Swedish meatball. How in the hell do they make it down from Canada on their own? On foot? Those footlets? Get out of here. This bird bobs for me. Gives me the eye. I nod at him.
At the photo blind I see more wasps and I just walk out onto the big plain of browning Sesbania and cocklebur and young cypress trees that are colored like copper and brass Christmas trees. It is a dry world for the most part. Over the levee I find a shallow pool of water and there a tandem pair of Variegated Meadowhawks, the dragonflies, are laying eggs. The female is clasped on the end of the bright red male and she tap-taps her eggs out in the water. One other lone male zips around nearby, fearing he has missed his entire life’s work no doubt. One lowly pool in this whole giant field and she has another suitor. Sigh.
More Black Vultures work above me, woven with the showoff Turkey Vultures and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks that don’t look very worried about the wind. One of the Black Vultures actually does some diving and playful maneuvers, shattering my earlier images and theories.
Back in the woods I chase a skink in the leaves. Wanting to hold one in my fingers just one last time this year. But he keeps getting away. Tiny copper fellow, he is as slippery as they all are. Another Winter Wren cheers me. And I find a break of sparrows near the canal crossing. Several Song Sparrows flash all their breast striping in some brief rush of sunshine. And a few start doing their full call. Song Sparrows will call at any time of year and any temperature as far as I can tell. I hear the sweeter chip of a Swamp Sparrow and hunt him down. We all stand together under sunbreaks that are rolling over us at unnatural speeds. Raked by racing sunbeams with the calling Song Sparrows, I am briefly aware of the speed of things. Which reminds me of the all the planetary turnings and this reminds me of clocks. Many more things remind me of clocks these days. I guess as we get older, more and more things remind us of clocks. Hmm. Maybe it is just me.
In another hillside shelter, I can hear birdsong. And I sit on a log to watch a Titmouse flit down nearby. Always a lovely bird, it is notable for me personally as the first bird I ever identified by myself at age 11. It is a signal recognition of long gone initiations. This one has a significant acorn for such a small gray bird. And he seems intent on doing something with it. I have seen them work hard to wedge such nuts in good spots for pecking them open. Sometimes they just stand on the nut treasures with those two small feet and then bang them open like headache peckerwoods. This one, astoundingly, hides this secret nut in the dirt beneath leaves. I had no idea Titmice were cache birds. Maybe it is just this one industrious individual? I hear a birdsong after this. And I ignore it and then realize it is not a bird noise I should be hearing now. The wind is working the treetops a bit harder and the sound comes and goes. A Black-and-white Warbler? That would be strange. I see a Chickadee and a Creeper. No BW. I cock my head to listen and stare right up into a black mass of cloud that makes me jump. The wind rushes up again and I can feel some cold in it. Wow.
Twenty minutes later I am trying to make it to the truck with the temperature down ten degrees and the wind shifted to the west. Rain spatters my glasses and spats now and then on my forehead. Leaning, I see a Harrier working hard to stay up over the fields. All the birds are quiet, and back at the truck it is a downpour and there is a new darkness like night has rushed up five hours early. Sobered. Not from alcohol or narcotics but from summer reverie—the narcotic of September and October. Did I imagine the song of that hidden warbler? It is a month until winter but its darkling scouts are apparently arriving. The sun is tilting my section of the orb into the cooler angles. Sundials again and clocks in the head.
Sobering indeed. One minute broken with racing sunlight standing next to sparrows in song and the next soggy and safely home. Did I imagine the voice of that hidden warbler? Did I think that already? Could be. Kind of like living, I think, kind of like being alive. Still life with birds and butterflies. Tick tick.