Ebullient Flying Monk

This morning I was overjoyed to see a long-awaited harbinger of spring which I've come to count on and anticipate with the eagerness of a kid whose birthday is right around the corner...

feeBEE? FEEbee!!

A few years ago, when Rachel and I moved to the Sourlands, I knew very little about the natural world. A few things happened shortly after we moved which really grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and ultimately changed my life.

I had always been a city dweller until we moved out here. There's one thing that a real city rat has in common with a country mouse: we love to walk endlessly and explore. In the city I grew up in, I loved to wander the streets, especially at night when tall buildings loomed in silhouette over the silenced sidewalks.

As soon as we moved out to the woods, I started to ramble around, looking. I didn't know to touch and smell and listen yet, but, it was wintertime...

I picked up one of those little "tree finder" books and tried to figure out the names of some of the trees. Identifying trees by bark was not, I discovered, the common first step. But I tried. I remember reading that a tree called a "Silver Maple" existed, and guessing that a cluster of luminously-barked beauties were silver maples. Only after leaf-out (and the casual remarks of contractor talking to my neighbor) did I find out they were white oaks.

Here's what grabbed me by the neck and hasn't let go since: On January 17th, 2006, a red-tailed hawk flew low over our house and cried out its heart-piercing Kheeerrr!

Two days later, I was wandering in the woods behind our house and was startled by another extraordinary sound. I looked up to see a giant black bird with a red mohawk and white facial stripes clutching the trunk of a tree some 50 feet off the ground. Pileated woodpecker, aerial arborist. Kuk kuk kuk kukukukukukukukuk!

Rachel's parents had presciently given us a pair of binoculars for Christmas, and over the following days we were dragged swiftly into a new world. The week following the riveting calls of the hawk and the pileated, I saw a small raptor land in the bushes near our house, then launch itself after a passing junco, overtaking and bringing down the gentle snowbird within a few hundred feet. Our nascent bird calendar says "peregrine falcon" but I suppose in retrospect that it was probably a sharp-shinned hawk.

Over the next month or two we got to know our winter resident birds. On February 8th I wrote: "A head like a worn pencil eraser helped me identify this brown creeper".

On March 10th I saw a new bird as I stepped out of the door. It was boldly perched on the Japanese maple (which at that point I still hoped was an ironwood), pumping its tail. It was cowled in chocolate grey-brown like a capuchin monk. I wrote:

The morning started beautifully-- warm with a spring feeling. A new bird made a first appearance-- is it an eastern wood-pewee or a flycatcher of some kind? It flicks its tail like a flycatcher, but its call is pee-wee, pee-wee, peearrwee... Shortly after, the day became very windy and there was nary a bird to be found.

I blame David Sibley for the fact that it wasn't until 20 days later that we decided that our "mystery flycatcher" was a Eastern Phoebe. We had the (utterly excellent) Sibley Field Guide to Birds out from the library (renewed for many months until we could afford to buy our own-- do you think we could do all this birdwatching if we weren't horrifically underemployed?) Sibley describes the phoebe's call as "seeriddip and seebrrr", which even now seems sort of silly when the phoebe really says "FeeBEE?! FEEbee! The closest match in the Sibley Guide seemed to be the wood-pewee, but the sidebar on "Identification of Empidonax flycatchers" threw all certainty to the wind.

Whatever its name was, I was absolutely charmed by this acrobat with its roughly ebullient call. That spring, solitary phoebe met solitary phoebe and they chased each other in hour-long lovegames while I stood outside woodworking (maybe I could make some money carving hand-made musical instruments...? How about Shaker-style candle sconces?) They eventually built a nest on top of the exterior light fixture at the eave of our house, and always landed first on the pin oak outside the kitchen window before flying up to the nest with insect delicacies.

When I heard the phoebe this morning, I was happy and a bit relieved. One year, it was as early as March 7th; never later than March 13th. March 19th had me pretty worried.

You're late, feebs, but I'm glad to see you! I called.

FeeBEE? FEEbee! he answered.

Phoebe House, wood-burning/painting by Rachel
(cropped by little scanner)