Tag Archives: migration

Full Nest

American_Robin_Nest_with_Eggs

Listen to the sounds of my Montana marsh

Every spring when the birds come back I feel so grateful, and also, a little bewildered.  Are we really that worthy?  How can they leave Belize or Costa Rica and do quick fly overs in New Mexico and Arizona and want to brave the jagged frozen Rockies and the turbulence and the cold to come back to Montana?  How can they look down over white-out and say, “There.  That’s where I’ll land.  That’s where I’ll make my home and my family and teach them everything—absolutely everything.  And then send them off.  And then empty my nest of even me and leave again…back down to the desert and to the jungle and to the sea.  Only to do it again.”

Just when I’m thinking that I can’t stand it one more day—my life in infinite shades of grey, ice shrapnel defining my every winter step….they come back, casting their votes on this place I call home without migration.  They need this place of echoes and countenance I guess, to do the work of their lives.  As they’re heading north, I’m telling myself I need what they’ve had– color and light and for my body to be winged and nimble…and not braced against the air outside my front door.  I’m tired of my daily buck up—the forced flinging open of my front door every morning to feel Montana’s fresh slap—you’re alive and you can take it.   So that I can be grateful then, for the retreat back to the warm woodstove breath of my house.  Even in spring.  It won’t be a warm outside welcome for months.  Not Belize warm.  A Canada goose stands on the ice of the pond in the meadow.  A mountain bluebird on my hoar-frost encased mailbox.  I look at the chickadees and ravens and magpies and flickers—are we really worthy of all their faith?

I have watched.  For twenty-five years I have watched.  I know them by their faces, their nests and feathers and flocking.  I know their symphony, and sometimes Stravinsky cacophony that is the world outside my door beginning in March.  Oh that cunning allegro, oh that fine mezzo again, oh that tricky staccato followed by that day-is-done decrescendo.  But I have never really learned who is singing what.  I don’t know why.  It’s similar to the way I go through an art museum:  take it in first.  Then step forward to read the plaque.  What’s in a name, if you don’t feel your way to it first?  It was the same way with trees and wildflowers when I moved to Montana.  I needed to feel the wholeness of it all and know it by season.  Know that when the dandelions are out, that the bears are coming to the avalanche chutes.  Know that when the calypso orchids are blooming, it will be time to celebrate my first born’s birthday.

But yesterday, it was time to know the symphony by its players.  It overcame me like a long lived itch that I suddenly needed to relieve.  I don’t know exactly why and maybe it doesn’t matter.  Maybe because I’m finishing a novel I’ve been writing for two years and I already miss its characters.  Maybe it’s because a year from now, my youngest child will be planning his college migration.  For whatever reason, yesterday, I sequestered myself to my bed and cranked open the window as wide as it would go.  And I listened to the marsh below, piece meal.  Song by song.  All day.  Picking out their riffs and going on the internet to birding websites to hear the songs from the singers I suspected.

Who knew that a little thing like a nuthatch made that roadrunner’s meeep meeep?  I’d thought it must be a furry creature all these years, slicing through the forest’s music.  And that upward aria I’ve heard for so long, usually at dusk?  A little thrush I’ve never laid eyes on but who surely lives in my back yard, faithfully and hopefully:  the Swainson’s thrush.  I knew the bossy red-winged blackbirds, of course, because how can you miss them?  And the ubiquitous robin’s song.  You have to be paying no attention at all to miss those.  And the chickadee’s my tree, this time of year.  But the one I really wanted to know, was what I’ve always thought must be our western version of the mockingbird—that schizophrenic song that doesn’t know quite what it wants to say.  And yet it says it over and over.  I scoured the internet and my bird books trying to find what bird was behind this rote sentence in too many genres.  I’ve always wanted to tell it to settle on one.  I like the poetry at the end, personally, not the throat-clearing at the beginning, or the screeching in the middle.  I figured it had to be something rare.  Something elusive.  Maybe even exotic that I’d missed in all my wandering in the woods, looking up, paying attention.

Finally, at the end of the day I thought, What about a sparrow?  A regular old sparrow.  What song do they sing?  And you guessed it.  That one.

My son came in and said, “What are you doing?”

“Learning my bird songs finally.  Did you know that the most simple birds make the most unique songs?  And the smallest make the loudest.  And the biggest birds, sometimes the faintest.”

“I’m going skiing.  It’s the last day the mountain is open.”

“We need to make that list of colleges to look at, you know.  Soon.”

“I know.”

Then my daughter wrote me a text from her college dorm room in California.  “I’m going camping for my birthday.  You know I swam with a blue whale over spring break in Baja.  I don’t think I told you.”

And I wrote her back, “I’m so proud of you.  I hope you know that.”

And I thought…maybe it’s time to learn them all…so I can say a proper good bye.  Because they come back, you know.  They come back.

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

June 7-11 (a few spaces left)

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Spring-blind

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Today is Easter and I am officially on vacation after what has been a wonderful two plus weeks on the road.  Thanks to all of you who came to my readings.  I met some truly phenomenal people.  As I sat here in Florida watching the Atlantic ocean this morning at dawn, flocks of pelicans flew overhead and I remembered this essay I wrote years ago.  I love it and in the spirit of renewal and all that is Easter, I’d like to share it with you here.  I hope you are having a nice day wherever you are.  yrs. Laura

Spring-blind by Laura Munson

I have not noticed spring like this before. Perhaps this owes to the fact that this spring has been a long one—two years, more or less.

It began with the Snow Geese migration last April which I drove five hundred miles round trip in one day to see, over the Rocky Mountains (and back), to a place called Freezeout Lake. I missed the geese by a week, but discovered Avocets and Northern Shovelers instead. I did see one Snow Goose. It was dead in a field. I wanted to spread out its wings and sleep by it like Terry Tempest Williams. But I was scared to touch it. So I touched it. It was soft and warmish. I wanted to pluck a feather. So I did. Three of them. I felt each one down my spine. I had never plucked a feather before.

Then, within days, there were birds in the morning, waking me with their nesting frenzy. Flocks of Robins feeding in the fields, Red-winged Blackbirds assuming their bossy haunt of the marsh. And the rest came: the Bluebirds, Western Tanangers, the Sandhill Cranes. And there was a time when spring was just spring with the promise of summer as I have known it. And there were times when I knelt in the soft earth to smell the sweetness and give thanks, but maybe, too, as a bargain.
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Then, summer, as we have known it, did not come. Smoke came. And spring moved through a summer of forest fires and we did not see one bird for all the smoke. We needed the birds—how else could we believe in summer? And then the terrorist attack came, and we missed the migration for all the smoke and television. And we needed the migration. More than we ever have. We needed to watch them go. And to believe that we were worth returning to.

It was then that I started stealing things. Hoarding them. Cramming them greedily in my pockets and stock-piling them on my desk: heart shaped rocks, bones, pine cones. Hoping mostly for a nest.

Spring moved then, through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, of my mind, slowly groaning under the snow heaves in the meadow and tossing and turning below the frozen ice of the pond, while its time-twin sunned on rocks in Costa Rica, and I was left with tiny questions presented by wet mittens holding empty nests: “Will the birds need this again? Do I have to put it back?”

“Yes. You should put it back,” I told my little girl, in the voice of the god I had been hearing as I pulled things through the snow and shoved them into my pockets. And we did. We put it back where she found it, in the low branches of an alder. I knew well that the bird which made this nest would not use it twice; I made her put it back so I could keep my three feathers. My heart shaped rocks. My shells and horseshoe crab skeletons and bones, all in a jumbled cairn on my desk, hoarded. Proof.

I went to Florida somewhere during this long spring. I did not see a Roseate Spoonbill; I did not know what they were then. But I found a pink feather on the beach on Marco Island and if you ask me how my trip to Florida was, I will tell you this story, and another one that had to do with a starfish I found on the beach and took even though it was still alive, then returned; then took again and kept. The nest in the alder branches is carrying more and more weight the longer this spring goes.

If you are my daughter, I will admit to you that I took a starfish that was still alive.

“You should not have taken that starfish,” my daughter said.
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I returned to Freezeout Lake this second April in spring to see the Snow Geese. Earlier this time. I crossed the Rocky Mountains, and drove through the bleak everlasting white that drove the pioneer women white-blind and is what was left to the Blackfoot Indians if you don’t count liquor stores and casinos. I drove past an historical marker, blowing horizontal in the wind. I stopped my car on the side of the road and waited for the wind to lay down its tale for a minute. When it did, I blushed. This is where Meriweather Lewis was shot by Blackfoot Indians who were insane with pride and fear and this is where Lewis and Clark turned around and traveled another thousand or so miles south until they found their mountain crossing and even then they were not at the Pacific Ocean and it would be months and months before they ever found what they were looking for and you just drove it in a few hours, you silly stealer-of-starfish birdwatching non-goose—or something to that tune; I wasn’t sure—the wind swooped it up again before I could read it all. Still I eyed the pass I had just negotiated in my SUV not forty miles behind me, and blushed.

I saw the Tundra Swans first, their white-silver necks pumping them forward like my daughter’s skinny legs on her swing. There are Mourning Doves in their song. Then all 300,000 Snow Geese came up at once and it roared; I felt it in my spine. A professor from the University of Montana told me they were going to the barley fields to feed on the spent grain for their nightly meal. The Northern Pintail Ducks followed them, so secondary in their brownness. I looked down and there was a dead Snow Goose with its breast sliced open, its feathers bloody, a ruby organ lying next to it in the sand. I looked up at the professor. “We gave it an autopsy this morning,” he said. “We checked the liver for Airborne Cholera. It didn’t have it. Sometimes they just die.”

All I could think to say was a tiny wet-mittened, “Do they fall out of the sky when they die?” which was code for, I took three feathers.

He smiled, sadly. “Sometimes.”

I went to the grain fields and they were white and roaring and there were farmer’s children with their noses pressed against picture windows with whirligigs and bird feeders on their front lawns. Then I drove back over the Rocky Mountains in time for a late dinner.
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I have a bowl made out of a dried, halved and hulled-out, grapefruit. It sits on my desk with the pink feather in it, the three white feathers, and the starfish, atop the cairn of shells, heart-shaped rocks, bones. I look at it and think about Airborne Cholera and non-brown birds falling from the sky after thousand mile migrations and mountain crossings and white-blindness. And I think about how starfish grow their points back if one breaks off. I need this bowl, at least until spring can turn to summer.

We put a bird feeder up in January even though the man at the store told us the winter birds would not trust us this late in the season; we’d have to wait until spring.

“Oh the birds will come,” said my daughter. “They’re hungry.”

But I did not trust. I missed the migration, after all.

She was right. In the first hour after we hung it from the eaves on the back porch, we had Mountain Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees. And we learned that there is a difference in the world of Chickadees and it is this: a stripe through the eye. Then we had a Red-polled Finch with a broken foot. At first we thought it had a bloody head but then we saw that it was just its marking. It kept falling asleep under the feeder and tipping to one side when the snowy wind blew. We kept trying to catch it while it was sleeping; I’m not sure that we knew what were going to do with it. We just wanted to touch it. Save it somehow. Love it for trusting us and believing in spring in January. After three or four times, it flew away and stayed away; it didn’t trust us anymore. Would you?

Then we had Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Lincoln’s Sparrows and then the snow melted and we had Red-winged Blackbirds who are utterly obnoxious but I love them in the cattails so much that I cry when they come back. There has been a lot of crying this spring. Frogs make us cry, especially.
One morning, we saw two Evening Grosbeaks. They looked like parrots– accidentals. We have had Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers, Starlings and Juncos, Camp Robbers and Flickers, and once a Mourning Dove. And even when we stand at the window, not three feet away from the feeder, and stare through binoculars, we still can’t really see the yellow stripe in the Pine Sisken’s wing and tail. We only know it is there, like we only know it has been spring all along.
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When the Mountain Blue-bird came back to his house in the meadow, we said, “Hello, Friend.” That is his name, according to my daughter. Then we went to the pond and there was still ice in the middle, but we saw a male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye and a male and female Hooded Merganser and we couldn’t believe we could have such birds in our measly little pond that dries to cracked mud by August even without smoke. And there was a couple of Mallards and we could believe them, because there is always a couple of Mallards. The male Goldeneye was making quite a show with its purple head and its alabaster markings and its ability to dive down and then bob up like some kind of machine bird. The female seemed brown and unimpressed. It occurred to me that she might like to see my pink feather or maybe my long white Snow Goose feathers, or even my starfish. She looked at me and said,

“You should put it all back, if you want summer.”

I answered her, “Maybe I do not want summer.”

That is when my daughter said, “I once saw two ants shaking hands. Come on. I’ll show you.” And we went to her anthill that I had mistaken for a stump all this time, and we peered down into it and held our breath over its roaring vertical migration. I watched two ants carry a twig to the top, politely going around the other ants who were on their way back down over the millions of fir and larch needles. And when they got to the top, they gently laid down the twig, then mounted it like a balance beam, came into each other, met at the middle, stopped…and then they shook hands. “See,” said my daughter.

“Yes. I do see,” I said.

So we went to the alder tree in the marsh where we had replaced the nest in January. To visit it. To see if it was still a tightly woven vessel. To see if a bird had claimed it. (I was not so sure about the ways of birds now.) And we saw instead, that it was gone. Now there was nothing to hold the weight of my bowl. And I knew that our long spring would be over soon. And we turned back for home.

And we came across a pile of fur leftover from a kill.

“Oh that’s sad,” said my daughter.

I looked to see what the animal had been. Something softer and smaller than a deer. Larger than a coyote. Something that was very white in places and very brown in other places. Something capable of carrying much weight.

“I’ll bet that fur will help the birds with their nests,” said my daughter.
Then we heard the three part pierce of the Varied Thrush but again, did not see it—we never see it. But we knew it was there, like we have known it is spring.
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Then later, by moonlight, I walked out to the marsh where the alder trees are, holding my brimming grapefruit bowl. I woke the frogs and they all warned each other of me with beautiful music. I stood with my bowl in my hands, and I lifted it up until the moon poured itself over my feathers and my starfish, casting them in its blue glow. Then I leaned over and put my bowl in the branches of the alder and went home to receive summer.
***
It came in April when I took my daughter to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese on her birthday. I took her, not because she needed to believe, but because I needed to. At dawn, we stood out on a peninsula and watched them lift, rising to feed—300,000 fold.

No terrorists, no war, no loss or fear of hope can take away belief such as that. Each April, the Snow Geese become our permission.

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Chosen

There is a small pond, a marsh really, that sits in the middle of our meadow. Each year a pair of Golden Eyes, a pair of Buffleheads, and a pair of Mallards come to breed. The swallows divebomb them. The muscrats seem to swim on their own hours. The dogs have learned not to chase them. It’s a happy little eco-system, with nearby lilacs that homesteaders planted many years ago. Their barn and cabin long gone; a few old rusted out farming implements left in tangles in the high grass. An old bucket on an old spring. We leave it all alone. We don’t need to prove anything. Land is something that is borrowed. And we are just stewards. We watch the forest floor produce magenta Calypso orchards each spring, and then arnica, Oregon grape, on and on through aster and kinick kinick berries before it’s time to sleep in snow. It all seems to tolerate us.

But after eleven years on this land, I have never felt quite what I did today. Because there, on the edge of the meadow, stood four Canada geese. I figured they were just passing through, on their way to more secluded or prominent ponds or lakes or rivers. I stopped and looked and there inbetween them, were six goslings. And I stood there and watched as they moved into the water. And as much as I know that it had nothing to do with us, except for the fact that we haven’t mown down the meadow and turned it into condominiums– I felt chosen, whatever that means. We have really just let it alone to become what it will become. And I thought of the Wendell Berry quote:

“When despair for the world grows in me, and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be — I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought or grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

With thanks then, to the winged.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all
–Emily Dickinson

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