“The birds lift eyes to skyscape as if reading ancient scrollwork etched in fine calligraphy across the blue expanse of August sky; blind to us, a billboard to them.”
BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal
Black-coated grackles fly to the ground. They command the yard, stalking with authority, feathers glowing ebony as if spit-shined; yellow eye stark contrast to black head; beams as if lighted from within. Eight of them. They were not here the day prior. Green grass, black-jacketed grackles. It as is a drift of black leaf has come to earth on a gentle August breeze. They are restless, ill at ease. It is time.
It is the time of season when birds seem unsettled, sorting out their numbers to become flocks, wary of something unseen. The birds know the season is changing, sense in shortening days what we can only surmise from blocks and numbers on the calendar page; season change is in the air, is in the breeze, is in the sun as it sets earlier each day. Change comes now, weighted as the evening sky is weighted with a haziness of uncertainty. Change comes; the birds feel it. The birds announce it.
We have no real clue. We blunder our way through the natural world blind to the subtle shift, oblivious to the fractional movements, unaware of patterns etched in sunsets and sunrises that mark the calendar of birds.
The birds know. We do not. The birds feel it and see it, see the landscape blur as if mirage, then reform and crystallize into the new season. The birds lift eyes to skyscape as if reading ancient scrollwork etched in fine calligraphy across the blue expanse of August sky; blind to us, a billboard to them.
We feed birds. Have a couple feeders in the back yard, watch them over the kitchen table; early morning coffee with birds; dinner and late evening, watching the birds in the yard. The bird feeders draw birds as well as gray squirrels and chipmunks. Rabbits hunch in the grass, picking at leftovers and scraps.
We are not bird watchers as much as watchers of birds. There is a difference in that, a bird watcher or a watcher of birds. We watch the birds in the yard, flashes of color and movement, not for counting or the listing of them but for the moment when they sit still, eyes bright, alert, poised between flight and feed, between grass and air. For that moment, that instant is what remains and is what is important.
We are watchers of birds. We watch red cardinal and blurred-wing hummers, long-tailed brown thrashers and smooth-bodied doves; grosbeaks and finches, all manner and form of backyard birds in the aviary of our yard.
Now, at summer’s end, they are restless in a manner that they have not been until this week. Now there is a skittishness to them beyond the caution of their normal ways. Now there is something happening and we do not know the feeling, cannot feel the sensations, cannot feel the way they feel. Only, in our minds, can we recognize it for what it is: Season change. It comes to us on the wings of birds large and small.
The grosbeaks, rose-breasted, were at the feeder, heavy bills looking vaguely mechanical, crushing seed. They’ll leave soon; the tropics call. They shared the feeder with chickadees, the juvenile birds looking vaguely unkempt and shaggy; they’ll stay, no tropics for them; bitter cold and snow their lot.
The hummingbirds come to the feeder, sip, pull back, move in and sip some more. They will be on their way soon. I watch the ants climb the side of the garage and out over the metal hook that holds the hummingbird feeder then down the light gauge chain to the feeder. The promised land! How they sense that there is sugar water there as they stand with little ant feet in the sand on the ground, how they know that and how they know how to get there, that is mystery to me.
But climb they do and down the sides of the feeder to the faux red flowers that the hummers feed from and there the ants, many of them, driven by gluttony or desire (one can only speculate on little ant brains and how they process things) crawl into the channel to the sugar water, drown and float to the surface of the feeder. It is thick with their black bodies layering the surface of the sweetened water like peppercorns.
I stood watching the other night, inches away from a doomed ant and of a sudden there was a whirring sound and the hummingbird was there, twelve, maybe fifteen inches from my face. I did not move a muscle. The bird fed, pulled back and I could feel the breeze from its wings. It came to the feeder, fed again and then was gone into the greenery of lilac and shrub and I stood in awe of it all.
And soon they leave us, the hummingbirds and the grackles, the grosbeaks and brown thrashers. Soon gone and the yard will be empty of their song and their vitality and their life and all that will remain is the memory of them.
I watch the evening skies now as sun lowers to the west. I am waiting for the August flight of nighthawks. It happens every August about now, flocks of nighthawks on their steady migration southward. On those nights there will be a dozen birds, then a dozen more and a score more than that and they will be swooping and drifting in the gathering dusk, moving south as if on a byway in the clouds that they alone can see, a steady flow of them.
I will stand, head tipped back, eyes to the sky and I will watch the birds and I will wonder of the mystery of migration and their travel into the unknown and unknowable. Then night’s curtain will drop and the birds will be lost to blackness and gone into the night and into their pilgrimage south and summer, when the birds are gone, will be gone with them.