Summer Visitors

This past summer we hosted an unexpected group of visitors. Sometime in mid-June I was about to take down the spider plant from its hook above our porch for some much-needed watering when I noticed bits of grass and weeds poking out of the top. Closer inspection indicated that a nest had been built around the middle of the dirt in the plastic hanging pot. I decided to leave it alone and spritzed a bit of water around the roots on the side, where some of the plastic had broken off last year (a tumble the plant took when I went out after dark and thought I had hung it up: not).

photo from watching grass grow blog

photo from watching grass grow blog (This is the female; the adult male has a red head.)

As the days went by, we spied Mama and Papa House Finch as they flew from the nest to a nearby wire every time one of us opened the door onto the porch. It was pretty common to see one of them sitting on the wire, complaining at us, as we sat on the porch reading. Eventually the finches became relaxed enough around us to return to the nest even when we were there.

A few weeks after the nest first appeared, my husband (who’s a bit taller than I) noticed the eggs. Days later we heard high-pitched cheeping sounds, and peering out the door screen saw one of the parents sitting on the nest, obviously feeding the demanding baby birds. Eventually, as the chicks grew, we could sometimes see three little heads poking up, mouths open wide.

Then, one day, they were all gone. We were able to actually witness the young’uns’ first flight. All day long, I’d noticed the parent birds sitting on the wire, calling out to the nest. I was out on the porch reading when my husband came home late in the afternoon. As he mounted the stairs to the porch, a little bird flew out of the nest and down to the ground. My husband worried that he had startled the bird into a premature flight and that it wouldn’t be able to defend itself outside of the nest. But I pointed out that the parent birds had been acting differently all day: instead of sitting on the nest and feeding the chicks, they were out on the wire and calling to them. I think the parents had decided they’d had enough and that it was time for the Finches Junior to leave the nest and learn to fly and fend for themselves.

We were surprised when the little birds didn’t come back, and I started to share my husband’s concern. Then I googled “finches nest” (or something like that) and discovered that once the little birds “fledge,” that is, take their first flight, that’s it. No more nest.

I also found something else: a webcam recording of a similar finches’ nest, with up-close shots of the nest interior, that a nature-loving blogger had installed when a finch family decided to build their new nest on top of the wreath on the front door of his house! I didn’t look at the entire set of footage, but what I saw was fascinating. Here’s the link:

photo from watching grass grow blog

photo from watching grass grow blog

We gave it a couple more days in case the parent birds needed to stay there for the night, then took down the long-suffering spider plant, the nest inside still intact and encircled with an almost decorative rim of bird poop.

And how did our poor spider plant survive all this? It looked pretty scraggly when all was done and my husband took the nest off, but now, two months later, it’s green and flourishing, thanks to frequent watering. After reading that finches often raise two groups of chicks in a season, we decided to give poor Spidey a break, and have left it on the porch steps for the reminder of the year. My guess as to how the spider plant survived all those weeks without a proper watering?

It was “watered” by the birds.

Birdsong and the Transcendent

I wasn’t planning to post this week, but walking back from Maundy Thursday service at church this evening, I was struck by  the abundance of birdsong. It was dusk, so that was not surprising, but the birdsong added an extra touch of beauty and contemplation to the day. Birdsong was present during the service, too: during communion I could hear birds twittering in the bushes on the other side of the stained-glass windows, and a flock of wild geese called as the priest recited the Eucharistic liturgy, adding a lovely counterpoint as if all creation were participating in the service.

from tgreyfox's photostream

from tgreyfox’s photostream

I noticed birdsong last Sunday as well, on my way home from church. On both occasions it brought to mind the opening of my new all-time favorite film, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), which begins with a quiet, contemplative scene in a park on the outskirts of Rome. A woman sits on a bench, we hear birdsong, then an a cappella women’s chorus. And then the scene shifts abruptly to a loud nightclub—an intentionally grating contrast.

The film, which I saw (twice) a few months ago, moved me very powerfully, and I suppose one measure of that is how often I think of it during especially contemplative moments. But it also made me more attentive to the occasions for mindful contemplation of the world, of the present, of the moment, of nature and of other people, so that the current, so to speak, flows both ways.

The point of all this is my realization that, for me at least, birdsong is a gateway to the transcendent, a symbol of the earthly joy that C.S. Lewis speaks of as a pointer to the reality of a transcendent nature and being. Without birdsong and birds—and the trees and plants that support them—the world would be a very poor place indeed. I thank the Creator for the gift of birds!

Happy Spring.



The new commute is a major pain, but it has the occasional compensation.

Like seeing a hawk up close for the second time in my life.

The school’s new digs are located in an office park about an hour’s drive from the city in rush hour traffic. (The gridlock on the expressway is appalling.)

Said office park has plenty of green: grass that doubtless is the doubtful beneficiary of assorted chemicals—a far cry from Whitman’s leaves—and a nice variety of trees, each trimmed to a uniform triangular shape and planted at uniform intervals. Very Stepford, like Magritte men in corporate bowlers dotting the landscape.

But the suits can’t control the sky.

I was on my way to the bus stop going home when I heard a crow calling and looked up. A large winged something hovered not far above me, white wings, and then it descended, giving me the closet view I have ever had of a hawk.

It was medium-hawk-size, I suppose, big but not humongous, maybe the size of a small housecat. Mostly white, especially underneath (I had already glimpsed the wings and belly many times, catching glimpses of it floating above in the afternoon sky as I waited for the bus) with some brown and gray striping, the most noticeable mark a rusty red bar in the middle of its tail.

The hawk settled on a hillock just above the sidewalk where I’d stopped to stare at it, maybe about five feet away, maybe a bit less. My previous close-hawk-encounter had been through the window of our kitchen sink, watching the neighborhood hawk as it perched on the fence bordering our yard. The next-door neighbors there have a nice array of bird feeders which also attract squirrels and other small animals, and I fancy that was the reason for the hawk’s interest.

It was incredibly cool to see this raptor up close, with no intervening window pane. It paid me no mind; the feathers and down scattered around the bird’s feet gave evidence of a recent kill, and Hawk was more interested in poking about the remains for a last juicy morsel than taking heed of anything so commonplace as a human passing by.

What is it about animals of prey that so excites the imagination? The feelings of awe and wonder that any close sighting of a wild creature gives to me intensify. I love seeing and hearing chickadees—my favorite bird—but the pleasure there is more domestic, more of a “How’re you doing, neighbor.” Awe is the province of the hawk, the owl; awe requires the presence of power and danger in the creature observed, not unlike the religious feeling I get when contemplating God as an inestimably larger force of unimaginable power.

red tailed hawk from Glass_House, courtesy of Creative Commons (again, mine had more of a white head)

This is something I ruminate on quite a bit. Nature, red in tooth and claw, majestic, awe-inspiring, but how to reconcile this with my convictions about love and peace? Of course those of us who aren’t vegetarians all live on other things, so any move to condemn the hawk, the predator, would be hypocritical in extreme. Is it because creation is flawed, fallen? But creation would be so much the poorer without its awe-inspiring creatures of prey: the raptors, the owls, wolves and big cats.

Perhaps I should simply accept it as one of those Mysteries with a capital M, and leave it at that.

What inspires awe and wonder in you? (And is there anyone out there who can tell me what kind of hawk? I assumed it was a red tail, but the red tail hawks in Peterson’s all have solid red tails, not a single stripe.)


from tgreyfox’s photostream

In the last few weeks, one of the first sounds I hear when I get up early for work is the sweet soft whistle of chickadee song. Just hearing it makes me happy even when I’m groggy and otherwise unenthusiastic about another work day. (I’m not an early riser by choice!)

Chickadees have more than one call. There’s the repetitive, somewhat nasal song that probably gives them their name, and then the sweet whistle song I’ve been hearing early in the mornings. I found a neat site that has tons of recorded birdcalls. It’s called Click here, then scroll down to “Black Capped Chickadee” to hear the two chickadee songs.

What is your favorite bird? (It can be a bird found only in books. Phoenix, dodo, mockingjay, anyone?)

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