Saturday, December 15, 2018

Birding paradise

My birding walk yesterday started innocently enough. I was just down to the river path and not 50 yards along when a bird with a red head flew right in front of me. Then another. I don't usually see groups of this bird, which I call a "Red-headed Woodpecker" because it is, it turns out, by sheer luck, called that. But there were at least five of these birds flitting about in the trees, a bit restlessly as far as I could tell, and probably up to something. But I didn't stay to see how it all turned out.

After all, I had to move on to the geese, though I didn't know that's what I was doing at the time. Yes, more than one geese. There were 16 million geese I was moving on to, though I didn't make a careful count of them. And the surprising thing about encountering 16 million geese is that I almost didn't see them at all. In the Winter around here most of the action is in the trees up over the Mississippi River Gorge, or in the sky above me, so I don't spend much time peering down into the dark, half-frozen waters. But something caught my eye, below me. Magically I found myself looking down upon a string of elegant geese, on a flyway journey down the Mississippi.

Bjork put it best:

A train of pearls
Cabin by cabin,
Is shot precisely
Across an ocean.

Actually, she wasn't talking about geese, but I'd really rather not go into that.

And watching those precise and steady and tireless and graceful birds the half frozen bed of the river came into my focus. And there I was stunned to find that it was

Full of birds, bobbing in the water, nearly blotting out the ice. A savanna of birds, like from some epic nature documentary of some place you will never go to and never be at at the right time and that it is all too late now to ever see because the natural world is only a shell of its former self. But lo, there were geese, and geese, and geese, and a million more geese, and I'm pretty sure I saw three or four ducks because it was a party.

No, seriously, it was a party.

And then there was a turkey in my path.

I am acquainted with two flocks of turkeys. The northern flock, by the U, is made of giant, Pleistocene sized turkeys who blot out the sun while merely lumbering around on someone's front lawn. The southern flock is regular sized turkeys but an unusual lot of them. This was a southern turkey who thus felt more approachable. But he didn't want to be petted and ran across the street to gambol about in the snow with 18 other turkey friends of his.

And then something screamed, a hideous cry.

That was a blue jay.

I didn't linger. Oddly, on the whole walk, I just lingered once, but it hasn't happened yet. And it didn't happen when a tan, almost yellow bird, twenty feet across, wingtip to wingtip, both fell and lifted out of the trees ten feet to my left, sending a kind of force wave into my soul. A hawk. The largest hawk I have ever seen, sinking towards the river to acquire speed only to rise heavily into the sky, strength and massivity balanced into something perfectly useful.

And that was it. I appeared to be done with the birds and was nearing where my path turns from the river. I started to think of how I would write about it all. And as I was crossing over the I-94 Freeway I wondered at how strange it was to see all the birds I ever see but not to see an example of one of my regular wonders, the bald eagle.

Which is when, exactly then, a bald eagle rose up from over Highway 94, which was over the river, and this bird just cleared the balustrade of the bridge I was on, and just cleared my head as well, surprising us both, and then flung wildly up into the air.

And I stopped, I finally stopped. And I laughed.


  1. We had a bald eagle land in one of our trees in the front yard. It wasn't very high and it was just sitting there eating a squirrel. It was a top ten family moment that we still talk about.

    1. So that's what squirrels are for!

      Just kidding. I like squirrels.

      It seems like a nice choice for a top ten family moment. Do you have a chart? You should have a chart.


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