I didn’t look up right away when I heard the familiar squeaky seal barks off to my right. I was busy muddling my compost bin’s contents and knew that I’d see a red-bellied woodpecker when I managed to tear my eyes away from the earthy mess.
Once I finally straightened from my swamp hag stance and tilted my face toward the noise, what I saw was far less ordinary than I’d anticipated.
There, all within spitting distance on the wires above my neighbor’s deck, sat a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker, a yellow-throated warbler, and an eastern bluebird. What a crew! Sadly but unsurprisingly, they dispersed soon after the four of us realized we were all watching each other. A Carolina wren popped up on the vacated cable line, the maraschino cherry topper on the icing of this birdy cake.
I replaced the lid on my compost bin (a mid-summer birthday present to myself, complementing my lifelong fascination with watching things rot and my more recent concern regarding excess methane in landfills) and went inside, marveling at such a gift on the first day of September.
This year has given me a series of birding gifts, most of them unfortunately wrapped in pandemic paper and decorated with a bow tied by abject calamity.
Because I had no choice but to work from home, I got to witness a mid-day hop-scratch dance of a song sparrow foraging among the seed hulls in my stick-on window feeder. A rose-breasted grosbeak graced that same feeder one late afternoon, its unlikely presence up against my house a possible symptom of a much larger ecological problem. Had I walked through my yard from my parking spot as I would have when returning home from the BWD office, I would most certainly have scared it away. Instead, I was allowed to relish long, long looks at one of my favorite songbirds from the comfort of my living room.
Other gifts from the pandemic include the addition of a barn swallow to my yard list, thanks to one looking a little damp on a soggy summer morning. A pileated woodpecker’s waist-high flight path took it from window to window in my kitchen and dining room as I was refilling my coffee mug. Another first for my yard: A yellow-throated warbler (I’d like to believe it was the same one I saw on September 1, but consider it unlikely) greeted me from the lattice on my deck as I was putting away my reel mower after a lunchbreak yard maintenance session.
Because I stayed home, I had the pleasure of being more aware when the first eastern towhees, brown thrashers, wood thrushes, eastern wood-pewees, and gray catbirds arrived in my neighborhood, hearing them long before I spotted any. Late one night in the early days of the pandemic, I was sure I was listening to, for the first time ever, a barred owl calling in the woods behind my house. Since at least last year, the song sparrows in my yard have sung something very similar to a once-popular instrumental tune punctuated by the word Hey!, at one time played often at sports stadiums everywhere. Recently, though, I’ve noticed a new cadence that sounds more like the intros from a few English New Wave songs.
And those times I have been able to stray from my yard this year have given me gifts as well. A Baltimore oriole flew across my path as I approached an urban trail in early May. On that same walk, a wood thrush stood, storybook-like, at the near end of a footbridge, inviting as all-get-out to my spring-crazed eyes. I saw turkey vultures sitting with wings outspread like primordial titans at the tops of tall trees overlooking a steep hill above my small city. Belted kingfishers, eastern kingbirds, and a something with a yellow underside about which I can only mumble “maybe flycatcher or vireo” as an identification are among the Ohio wildlife I’ve spotted while exploring my region’s creek beds as a socially distant diversion.
So I feel very spoiled to have been visited by a juvenile red-bellied woodpecker, a yellow-throated warbler, and an eastern bluebird on the first day of that ninth month when we collectively realize that the year is winding down. For me, they represent a fresh take on a familiar theme, a pleasantly surprising guest back for a second visit, and a longtime harbinger of a very good day, respectively. And in these harder-than-usual times, I’ll take all the goodness I can get, with the hope that I can redistribute it in kind.