Saturday, June 21, 2008

Discovering Place

A friend gave us the “Best House Award” not really knowing what’s best about the house, because the best becomes apparent only while living here. It’s discovered; it’s the process of discovery. For example, the birds.

Robin gave me a great pair of binoculars and a whimsical book (first edition, she would have you know) by a local writer from the 1960s, Margaret Millar, who wrote about birding in Santa Barbara. It’s full of birding adventures, local color, prominently featuring the Natural History Museum, and perhaps too much whimsy for me; but I enjoyed it immensely because it inspired my bird watching. A new world has opened to me (or reopened).

This week’s hot weather, fortuitous because it arrived just when I’ve a got a break from teaching, has me sitting in the yard in the afternoon writing. For me, the writing process involves a lot of brooding with a pen and paper, which then gets cleaned up as I sit at the computer. I’ve been at the computer in the morning, but it’s too hot by afternoon, so I sit in the Adirondack chair in the yard under the oak tree and alternately write furiously and stare off into the sky. In short, I’ve given myself an excellent opportunity to watch birds. So I keep the binoculars close by and learn about what goes on around me in between Great Thoughts about Great Things.

Among the many birds I’ve learned to identify with the help of and Google images (I’m still waiting for the bird identification book Kate’s getting me for my birthday) is the lesser goldfinch. I saw him one afternoon earlier this week, quite dapper in his breeding plumage—bright yellow coat and distinctive black cap. He impressed me with the way he hangs horizontally to the thinnest green branch or flower stem, bending it toward the flower or seed he wants. He especially liked the cosmos I planted, but also the grass gone to seed under the lemon tree.

The goldfinch came by again the next afternoon with a couple of paler companions, probably his mate and an offspring. They spent a few minutes flitting around the cosmos, then settled on the giant sunflower, which is still growing, not yet any flowers or seeds, and they proceeded to eat the leaves, peck away and eat them. Green stuff disappearing into their beaks. Big holes in the sunflower leaves. Birds eat greens? Who knew?

That evening sitting on the porch in one of the big Adirondack chairs, I identified the sound of the dark-eyed junco, a sparrow that wears a pronounced executioner’s hood, the only kind of sparrow I can distinguish, a feat of birding I accomplished the day before. So the little guy was foraging in the oak tree and would jump up to answer a call coming from across the canyon, his close call matching the distant one off to my left. The sound is like a circus whistle that starts out slow and vigorous, then gets faster and higher as it fades. Or maybe it’s like a high-speed high-pitched baby’s wail—waaaa-aaa-aa-aa-aa-a-a-a-a-a. Now I hear it all the time, distinct from all the other sounds. How cool. Do birders know all the sounds they hear in the back yard? How cool is that?

I’ve also identified a kestrel, a red-shouldered hawk, house finches galore, scrub jays, towhees California and spotted, a huge flock of cedar wax wings, and much more beyond the crows and pigeons. But rather than go too far down the nature boy path all at once, I’ll just reiterate that birding is part of the deeper pleasure of getting to know the place and its inhabitants. What’s better than discovering a great place, my great place, and its inhabitants?

As I said to Jenna yesterday, “It must be a great place if the worst thing about it is that the dishwasher leaves spots on the glasses.”

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