Ah, morning rounds! Today I’m grateful for morning rounds. I’ve been so busy with daily gratitude practice that I’ve practically forgotten my life’s work, but the phoebe last night reminded me. Morning rounds. I heard the phoebe’s distinctive whistle early this morning, but not again all day. A few hundred sandhill cranes flew overhead later morning heading north.
It’s that time of year when every day requires an a.m. survey. How different it feels at 34 degrees on the last day of March after a 20 degree morning than it does at 34 degrees after a 20 degree morning in mid-January. For one thing there’s no snow on the ground, which isn’t a great thing, but makes it nicer to wander the garden on morning rounds. And context is everything: knowing it will only get warmer from here, the chill carries a relaxing nostalgia; January cold is in your face all day long. Morning rounds: So many things to check the status on, from pond rushes to lilac buds, from the Bombay Wall to lawn furniture; the serviceberry the buck broke needs to be pruned or I’ll be smacking my face or wrenching my fingers every time I walk that path.
When Fred pruned the fruit trees last week, he looked at the crabapple and snipped a few branches.
“I’m surprised there’s any fruit left on here,” he said. “Yes,” I said. “It’s weird that no one eats it in the fall. And they were too small to even bother picking. But around this time last year the robins came to eat the fermented fruit.”
Then I picked one and bit into it. “Hmmm, not actually fermented,” I said. “It tastes pretty good.”
Next thing I know, the robins have arrived en masse. I counted five at one time this morning fluttering in from the woods to pick up old crabapples from the ground around the tree, drink at the pond, pluck an insect from the dirt, or pick a crabapple from the tree and fly off with it. I’m grateful for the robins in spring.
Of the many things I’m grateful for today, including waking up alive, some nice walks with Stellar and Topaz, and more crocuses opening their little yellow faces to the sun, I am suddenly, at sunset, grateful for the first sight of a phoebe fluttering onto a hanger on the east patio, wagging its tail up and down. My heart! Summer is coming.
I was texting with a friend just now who lives near Boulder. A friend in DC had texted me. We were all feeling sad for the world.
Is there a meditation for that? I wondered.
I woke this morning feeling as flat and grey as the sky, and that was ok: it was neutral. I accepted the internal clouds and gave myself over to a day off. I need one every week or two, the more the better, and it’s been a hard-pushing ten days. Just internally. Not like I’m out breaking rock. I felt sad for the world and everyone in it
(Except for me, suddenly. And for once, I didn’t feel altogether guilty; I felt grateful.)
Stellar rose from his bed.
Get up, I told myself. I turned my attention to what the night outside might hold: the waxing moon overhead, sky deep cerulean, an evening star, a soft shifting cloud palette of blues and greys. Stellar sometimes likes to linger by the door. I want him to walk with me for several reasons. I started around the south end of the house and heard a Great-horned Owl calling to the north. Suddenly energized, I stopped, listened, again, again, the same call, hoo-hoo hoohoooo…
I first think to call the owl to stir Stellar’s jealousy and bring him to my side. He’s been known when I’ve talked with owls before to sidle up whining, throw himself on the ground, and roll. If I’m talking to an owl or a tree or anything else in the garden too intently, he used to do that. No more! Either he doesn’t hear, he doesn’t care, he knows it doesn’t matter, or… Still, I hope to bring him to my side, so I echo the owl’s call. Then I think, There’s no reason I can’t call him in, too.
I’ve always believed in Dr. Doolittle, assumed though that I could never really speak to the animals; but now, as I spend more uninterrupted time alone, I reconsider… I had phoebes practically landing on my shoulder last summer. The owl hoots again, after a pause.
Hoo-hoo hoohooooo… another pause. I call back. A pause. He calls again. A pause, then I call back. Then a long silence.
He soars in from the north woods, skimming juniper tops, dark and silent, big, wings outstretched he banks up, perches atop the tower roof. He turns his head and looks at me. I face him looking up, dumbstruck. For a full minute or two we observe one another. Listen, I caution myself, don’t speak. I open my chest and breathe, press my feet into the ground, looking up at his silhouette against the darkening blue sky. Breathe. Open.
I know how smart these owls are. Were I willing to feed him I could train him to come. Instead, I merely want to welcome him, assure him I’m a benevolent force in his world, offer him my home, shower him with my attention, awestruck. Only connect. This is my moment with the Divine. I stand silent, hands in pockets, opening my heart and life to him.
Hoo-hoo hoohooooo… In sync with the rhythm of his call he fluffs and twitches his tail upward, posturing, seeking, watching me. A pause.
Hoo-hoo hoohooooo, I reply. He registers my response, then flies off to the south and disappears.
Did I answer right? I don’t know quite what I said to that owl, but I know it had to be nice. I could hear it in his voice as surely he could hear it in mine.
The owl feels our pain, and sings his own loneliness.
I’m grateful for the first sandhill cranes this season ~ the first I’ve noticed anyway, they may have been flying over for days, but not while I was outside. This afternoon walking up the driveway I heard them, searched the sky ~ and found them, circling slowly, high. I’m grateful each migration season to recognize their unmistakeable ancient traveling call as they soar or circle overhead. One forgets. They pass through, fleeting, for a few weeks each spring and fall, then vanish to their breeding range north of here, or their winter refuge south, and one forgets. But then, out of the blue one afternoon, there it is, that sudden certain signal sound, of spring officially sprung. The sandhill cranes are back!
I’m grateful for the first mountain bluebird this year, in the driveway – then another – a pair! I’m grateful for crocuses that won’t quit. I’m grateful that even while the human world went so topsy turvy over the past year, ineluctable spring just keeps coming: nothing will stop her, as though nothing else matters.
I’m grateful for these majestic smart birds, our largest Corvid (not to be confused with Covid). The tracks I thought were turkey last month in the driveway, I’ve been easily persuaded were actually from a raven. Once Andrea suggested they weren’t turkey, I put several observations together. In the preceding weeks I’d seen a raven in the field beyond the fence – at first I thought it was wounded or sick, because it seemed to be struggling in snow about eight inches deep, out in the middle of the field – but then I saw a second raven across the field, and realized they were both foraging beneath the snow. For what? grains or grubs in the horse poop? rodents?
Ravens have been my constant companions since I moved to this near-wild sanctuary. Their intelligence, playfulness, and sheer bravado inspired the name of my beloved Raven dog who died last May. I’ve heard many and varied vocalizations from them through the years, but until recently I’d never heard their love-talk – or, heard perhaps, without knowing what it was. The same day I photographed the track I saw two ravens in the top of a particular juniper down near my gate. I have since seen them there frequently, and watched as they foraged in the field, perched and cawed in treetops, caressed and cooed to one another. I’ll be looking for their nest now, and watching closely for their young in coming weeks. I’m so grateful to live in the same world with ravens.
I’m grateful, as always, for walks with Stellar. He was extra wobbly today, but still game for anything. He passed on the far side of a tree, and I heard a cat bell; but I knew Topaz was inside. I paused, alert, then heard it again distinctly. .. coming from the far side of the tree where I could hear Stellar snoofing around the base of the trunk. He moved along as I crossed over snow to inspect. I knew what I’d see before I got there: finding an old cat collar is like winning a prize.
I’ve only found half a dozen through the years. I’m grateful for that momentary thrill of surprise, and for the insight each gives me into the habits and range of my cats. Other prizes on our walks today, and each day, make each simple stroll an adventure into the unknown when we follow his senses and mine. He is my sixth sense, expanding the universe of my perception with his eyes, nose, and ears.
We pass this piñon sometimes, with its enticing hole at eye level. It’s a good time to check it before someone starts nesting there in spring, so I poke my camera through and shoot. Nothing new yet, but evidence (below) of previous nesting, including grass and a bit of baling twine. The amber-colored pearls I think are just that, sap beads; that, or someone has hidden stolen gemstones in there. I’ll pop the phone in there now and then over the next few months and see what transpires.
We walk about four times a day, along a variety of loops and up the driveway once or twice, giving us a total of about a mile and a half of exercise. I’m grateful I have the health to walk, the dog to encourage me, the world of wonder at our feet, and a warm home to return to.
Wrapped in melancholy as thick as the smoke that obscures the northern horizon, I sit inside in the cool house, in the recliner, just thinking. A flutter outside the window, and a phoebe lands on the cable where the parents perched for months while nesting, where the babies learned to cling as they were fledging. It gladdens me to see her there, after a long hard summer. It’s mid-August, and soon the phoebes will fly south to their winter range along the US-Mexico border and beyond.
My little phoebe family. It was an emotionally arduous journey, wrapped up in so many other journeys of love and loss, to get them to this point! How funny, to think of them as ‘my’ phoebes, but I do. They’ve been a lifeline for me during this season of profound loss, and there was a week at the end of May when I thought I’d lost the phoebes too.
They began plumping up last year’s nest under the east deck in early April, singing, chirrrrrrupping, and both swooping in from the yard carrying bits of fluff from the weathered patio rug, wool from the garden fence, prayer flag tatters, bits of grass, and other soft scraps. The nest was pretty large for the two-inch deck joist it was resting on, tucked into the corner with the wall and the foundation beam.
On April 20th, I found the nest fallen into the geraniums below. It was upside down, but it was barely disturbed. Without thinking, I got the ladder, a 1×6 board scrap, screws and screw gun, built a wider ledge, and tucked the nest back into the corner. The next day they were back at work. By May 9, she was sitting on eggs.
I watched with delight as Mrs. Phoebe sat on her nest, and her husband bird flew and sang and hunted the yard. I worried when a whole day passed and I didn’t see him, but he’d invariably show up in the evening, perching in the birch tree, before flying down to check on her.
Since the phoebes arrived summer before last, I’ve not had a grasshopper problem. They also eat flies, wasps, and moths, some of which lay eggs of potential garden marauding caterpillars. We have a symbiotic relationship. I do what I can for them. But sometimes it’s not enough.
Every day I’d sit as much as possible at the patio table or under the nest, for morning coffee, lunch, midday break, and happy hour, as the phoebe father flew around me. She would take breaks too, to hunt for herself, then return to the nest. They perched on everything upright in the vicinity, from the shepherd’s crook where the hummingbird feeder hangs to the dead locust sapling, to the back of a chair, to the candlestick beside me, so close I could identify their prey without binoculars.
I was amazed with their dexterity: one flew straight at the tower wall, I was sure it would die from the collision, but it snagged an insect off the wall, banked steeply, and flew off unharmed, well fed. One evening I sat sipping a martini with my bare legs up on the patio table, enjoying Phoebe TV. A fat black fly landed on my thigh. A phoebe swooped down and plucked it; all I felt was a rush of air, not a thing more, in that split second thrill.
On May 25, I noted the chicks chirping; they are silent, or at least below my hearing range, for a few days after hatching, so these were at least a few of days old. On the 27th, I saw three fuzzy, barely-feathered heads popping up above the nest edge! Success!
The next day, I had to take Stellar to the vet in Montrose and since I’d be gone all afternoon, I shut the cats in the house, a precaution to protect the phoebes while I couldn’t keep an eye on them. Just in case. Mostly, the cats feared or at least respected the phoebes, who would swoop down clacking at them when the cats crossed the patio or, phoebe-forbid, lay down under the nest. But since they were still hanging out on the patio, I didn’t want to take a chance that one would snag a phoebe mid-clack in my absence. The poor kitties were also being chased around the yard by magpies, who were raising chicks in a juniper on the other side of the house.
When I returned, I released the cats and fell asleep in the recliner. That evening, I sat down in the deck chair outside the window, under the nest. The phoebes flew and perched and chattered nearby. Ojo jumped up on the bench behind me among the geraniums. Hey! get outta there! I scolded, turning to look: he was intently peering at something on the bench, and to my horror I recognized it as the phoebe nest. It was upright and empty. I was crushed.
No sign of a chick anywhere. I assessed the possibilities, and concluded that a cat couldn’t have reached the nest without an extraordinary acrobatic feat involving the ladder, the hanging orchid, and an advanced rock climbing move called mantle. The obvious culprit was a magpie, who could easily have swooped in to grab the chicks, and knocked the nest off the ledge. What to do?!
I gathered ladder and tools again, a curved juniper stick, and some 1×2 scraps, tidied up the nest and replaced it, braced it with the juniper, and screwed in some baffles spaced so that, I thought, the phoebes could get in but not the magpies. The poor phoebes flew around confused for a few days, until I realized the baffles obstructed their entry. A desolate week after I removed the baffles, the persistent phoebes began to tidy and fortify their nest again. Around Juneteenth, she settled onto her second clutch of eggs. Joy returned to me.
Sort of. In the meantime, Raven had died in mid-May, followed closely by Auntie’s stroke; Michael had a stroke in early June and died ten days later; Diane entered hospice, and another friend received a scary diagnosis. Around July 5th, new phoebe babies hatched, providing solace as Auntie continued to decline, while Diane died in mid-July, the same day a next-door neighbor also died.
The phoebe feeding frenzy ramped up, and consumed me. Again, I spent as much time as possible outside watching, or watching through the window in passing.
July 25, the first baby flew over the nest from one deck joist to the next and back a few times. The next day it flew from the nest, following mama onto the wide-open window frame, about a four-foot flight with a one foot drop; then mama flew back to the nest and baby followed. I saw the first flight of the first phoebe baby!
I watched like a hawk from then on, and kept the cats inside if I couldn’t be outside to supervise. I couldn’t bear it if one of them caught one of these dear birds we’ve all worked so hard all summer to bring to maturity. By ‘we all,’ I mean myself and the phoebe mama and mr. husband bird, and of course Stellar. It’s been a lesson in perseverance.
As I sipped coffee, I watched mama fly from the ladder to the nest and back, calling, encouraging them to follow her. At lunch, I spied the eldest chick perched on the garden cart handle, where mama fed it. Mama lured it around the yard from tree to tree with a fat grasshopper in her mouth, while the other chicks perched on the joist, peering at the activity beyond, screeching for food.
The next 24 hours were filled with excitement, as the remaining chicks took their first tentative flights to joists, the window frame, the ladder, and finally, nearby trees.
For a couple of days, they returned to the nest to roost overnight. During the day, I could hear the parents calling in the woods beyond the yard, and occasionally spot one of the five flitting through the trees. A week later, I noticed mama, with a full beak, flying to the ground outside the bathroom window. I ran outside to see what was up, and all three babies flew up and away. I think she took them away from the house that first week, far from the cats, to teach them flying skills, and then returned to the insect-laden yard to teach them to hunt for themselves.
Since then, I’ve spied the three chicks along the driveway fence, hunting in the field; noticed occasionally one or two phoebes returning to the house in the evening; seen them perched and flying around the yard day to day; each siting a delight.
On August 6, Auntie died. I lost myself to grief for the next week. Compounded by the global loss wrought by Coronavirus, a devastating fire season from the Arctic to the Book Cliffs, mind-boggling corruption and democracy-dismantling by the US government, shredded environmental protections and climate chaos denial, I struggle daily to keep my chin, and my spirits, up.
To see a phoebe last night, still coming home to roost, gladdens my sorry heart. I know they’ll leave soon, but the good Lord willin’ and the climate don’t rise too much, I’m confident they’ll be back next spring.