It was a big day here. I’m so exhausted you’d think I were fledging. I came downstairs shortly after sunrise to let Stellar out after hearing his nails click on the floor. I was horrified to see a Phoebe fall from the nest – but wait, it hadn’t fallen, it had flown. I couldn’t miss this, so I didn’t even go back upstairs for the camera phone. I grabbed the big camera and went outside.
There were three phoebes already out of the nest, squatting all over the patio.
They could barely fly, with their brand new wings and their stubby little tails, yet they kept fluttering from one surface to another.
Once they discovered the cat ladder, the real fun began. Back and forth, back and forth. Topaz, however, had by now been locked inside for the first hour of the day, given up, and gone back upstairs to bed. Not a peep from her the rest of the day. More hours went by, well-spent as far as I was concerned. I’d been waiting for this day since May 19, when the chicks first hatched. In the previous week, the speed of their growth astonished me.
From the ladder, back and forth to the old cable wire that I leave hanging just for this reason, to the old insulation hole in the adobe double-wall, to the ladder, to eventually, hours later, the honeysuckle and the rose bush beyond the patio. Mama and Papa continued to take turns feeding the babies, but how could they tell who was who? I noticed that sometimes they’d feed the same chick three or four times in a row, until it just wouldn’t open its mouth again, then they’d take their bug to another. Their instincts came through though: when any of them approached another, well, they just kept opening their mouths to receive food, even if it was just another chick coming in for a landing. Sometimes they got lucky.
Even after being fed they squawk.
Everything went really well. Four chicks out of the nest, each getting its turn getting fed, but the fifth chick just would not leave the nest. Even as the others explored sensations of flight, tested their quickly growing limits, I swear even their tail feathers seemed to grow before my eyes, stretched their wings, the fifth chick simply wouldn’t leave.
Mama continued to feed it, teasing with the insect and making the chick reach for it again and again before relinquishing it, and once actually got on top of the chick, I think urging it to leave the nest. I began to despair of it leaving ever, as the first four chicks flew from the ladder one by one, out into the trees east or north of the house.
The last chick flexed its wings a few times, but remained alone in the nest for more than an hour, before finally joining a few remaining nest mates on the ladder. But they, too, flew off, leaving the last little bird alone on the ladder for a long time. I couldn’t leave. I pretended to read, time marched relentlessly on, it was getting close to noon, I could hear the rest of the family chirping from around the north side of the house, and still the last little bird lingered on the ladder.
Some other things happened.
I was grateful that I had no firm commitments on my calendar until evening, when I had a group to lead online. I could bide my time outside. I had started the morning rapt with joy, completely immersed in the huge little drama unfolding with the Phoebe family. By eleven, as I sat anxiously watching the last little fledgeling sleeping on a rung of the ladder, anxiety assailed me: what if they left it there? what if no one came back for it? what would I do? how would I save it? I observed these thoughts arise, only mildly disturbed by them. Even as my mind raised anxieties, a more detached awareness simply watched it all unfold, waiting patiently, reassuring the rest of me that it would all be okay no matter how it went down, and more specifically, calmly insisting that they would never have invested that much energy into bring the chick to this point in its life only to abandon it. Finally, I saw a parent approach it with food, trying to entice it off the rung. It took another hour, but eventually, the last chick flew to the rosebush, then to the maple, then on around beyond the house. I went inside. By then it was hot, and I was exhausted from my irresistible seven-hour vigil. I went inside to meditate and nap.
Come evening, cooled down, I went outside again to water the vegetable beds; stepping around the north end of the house to turn on the hose, I saw them all stacked up along a shelf support in the tool area. Before dark, they had dispersed to several other perches. I kept thinking they’d return to the nest overnight, as last year’s clutch did for a few days after hatching, but didn’t see that before I went in at dusk. I’m grateful for an absolutely perfect day watching the greatest show on earth, a participant observer in the thrilling action of a special day in the life of a single bird family. May they all live through the night, and the summer, and the next few years.