Jack opens the door for Brenda. She’s come to take us on our first birding excursion.
“You have amazing birds over here!” she exclaims as she walks into the house. “The first thing I heard when I got out of my car was a ruby-crowned kinglet. They have the most beautiful song.”
Jack and Jane show Brenda the bird pictures Jack brought home from Cub Scouts on Wednesday—a happy serendipity. She points to one of the birds and asks if they know what it is.
“Steller’s Jay!” says Jack.
“We have Steller’s jays here in Seattle, but this picture is of a blue jay. You have to go east to find those.” She points to another bird.
“Bald eagle!” says Jane.
“Oh, Mama,” Jack says, “remember the time we saw the two eagles over at Sunset Park?”
I smile and nod. “When Jack told me there were two eagles,” I tell Brenda, “I didn’t believe him. I told him they were probably seagulls. Then I looked up, and there they were, a pair of bald eagles flying over the water toward Discovery Park.”
“Two?” she says. “Wow. A nesting pair. How cool.” She points to another bird.
“Robin!” Jane says.
Brenda nods, moves her finger to the right.
“Sparrow!” Jack says.
Brenda nods. “Well done.” She smiles at them both and pulls a small, red, dogeared book out of her backpack. “When I started birding, this was my favorite bird book.” She flips through the pages. Gorgeous color photos of birds wink up from each page.
“A lot of bird books have too much information for beginners. This one has just the right amount, a bit about where they live, what they look like, what birds they’re related to, and—my favorite—a bit of trivia or an interesting fact about the bird.”
As I reach for a pencil and piece of paper to write down the title, Brenda reaches into her backpack again and pulls out a small red book, just like the other, only brand new. She hands it to Jane. “This is for you and your brother.”
Jane, Jack, and I grin big at one another. Jane turns pages and we stare at the beautiful close-up photos of birds.
“I think we should start in your backyard,” Brenda says, “and see if we can find that kinglet I heard. Then we can walk around the neighborhood a bit, and if we have time, maybe go to the Arboretum.”
Before we all crowd out the back door, we look out the back windows. There on the ground beside Jack’s enormous excavation project (he’s trying to dig a tunnel to California, he says) are two jays. They’re pecking up bits of grass and small sticks. A flicker flutters to the ground and joins them.
“Well this is certainly an auspicious beginning,” Brenda says. “We haven’t even gone outside yet.” She holds Ben up to the window to see. He bangs on it.
The flicker and one of the jays fly off—the flicker around the north side of the house, the jay into the Plum Queen, our backyard beauty of a red plum tree. The other jay follows.
We head outside.
Brenda is right. It is an auspicious beginning to a fabulous day of birding. As we walk around the neighborhood, we see (and hear!) more flickers, house sparrows, chickadees, crows (of course), and pretty pinkish house finches.
(I’m so busy looking at the birds that I only get a few blurry-when-cropped photos—oh, for a telephoto lens! I’d use it in place of binoculars).
After we wander around the neighborhood a bit, we eat a snack and head over to the Arboretum. We get there just at bird-napping time. Brenda explains that in early afternoon, most birds take a nap. How civilized.
But several ducks are out, paddling on the water. Mallards, I know of course. But I learn to recognize buffleheads, the males anyway—they’re the white ducks with black faces and backs—and gadwalls, which look like female mallards, only smaller.
The kids play at the water’s edge for awhile. Jack finds a heron feather and a bright yellow willow branch that he brandishes like a whip. Luke and Ben find sticks to throw into the water. Jane, who’s wearing galoshes, fetches them and brings them back to the boys.
Brenda and I sit in the sun and listen for birds. I recognize the chirp of a chickadee. She hears a goldfinch, too, and a song sparrow. We search the trees on the other side of the water and finally spot the sparrow, fluttering from branch to branch of a tree.
When the kids are ready, we continue along the trail. As we turn a corner into a tree-studded glade, we hit the birdie jackpot. They’re everywhere: sparrows, chickadees, robins. Brenda even spots a hawk circling high overhead. Jack and I see it, too, before it dips below the trees in the distance.
We turn our attention back to the smaller birds and find a pair of bushtits in a nearby tree and watch them build a nest of moss in the branches of a tall, leafless shrub. I fall in love: the bushtits are adorable, tiny little things, all soft gray fluff and feathers.
The kids are ready to move on before I am, but the babies are starting to fuss, and I know I have to keep the stroller moving if I want them to be quiet. We head down the trail to Lake Washington.
En route, we see a ruby-crowned kinglet. Jane doesn’t see it, but Brenda tells her to listen, and we all hear its beautiful song. A few steps later, Brenda spots a goldfinch. I manage to train my binoculars on it—yellow and black and singing—for a few seconds before it flies away.
There are a few buffleheads on the lake. We eat our snack on the trail’s end, overlooking the water.
I ponder all we’ve seen and heard and realize that, without Brenda, I would have missed seeing and hearing almost all of it. The birdsong would have just been background noise, if I even heard it at all. And I’d never have found the kinglet or the sparrow or the goldfinch, let alone the beautiful bushtits.
Brenda found them because she’s learned how to listen: she hears their songs and recognizes them. She found them because she’s learned how to look: she sees the different birds and knows that one is a sparrow, but this one is a bushtit.
Looking and listening take practice. Hearing and seeing take even more practice. But I look at Brenda and I want to be like her. I want to look, listen, see, hear. And know.
And all of that starts with this: attention. I have to pay attention.
Suddenly Brenda says, “Do you hear that?” We listen. A sound like a soft machine gun—eh-eh-eh-eh-eh—carries across the marsh grasses. “That’s a marsh wren. You hardly ever see them.”
And then we do. The wren alights on the top of a stalk of marsh grass and sings its little machine gun song. We watch it till it drops down among the reeds and out of sight.
“Wow.” Brenda grins. “This has been quite the day!”
I grin back.
“Grace,” she says. “A day like this, all these birds—it’s sheer grace.”