Let me just say this – I see a lot of bird butts. I would like to see more, of the bird, that is, but I am an amateur, and by the time I get my binoculars on an active participant, it has flitted high overhead or behind a branch. There are birding “apps” that help with identification, showing the bird from all angles, including from underneath, but by the time I get the phone out, the app open, and my glasses on, the bird has decided on another agenda, and another tree.
Needless to say, I don’t do any of this well. And birding is not something you can hurry.
With the majority of trails and preserves shutting down, I gave up taking my binoculars on my walks recently, thinking the best viewing spots would be unavailable. A few days ago, walking the Foundry Cove, I was on the little path that parallels the railroad tracks.I love the marsh there, and watched the wind play over the water as the incoming tide edged into the cove. It was a gray day, and cool, and so I watched, idly, for a goose perhaps or a red-winged blackbird, but expected nothing out of the ordinary.
I heard the loud chittering whistles to my right; it took my brain a few seconds to process the sounds – high, familiar, and loud: Eagles. And there they were, right overhead, an adult pair, talking to one another, touching beaks, and then turning to survey the few passersby below. I walked by, slowly, and then climbed up the stairs to the Kemble Overlook, sitting down on the bench about 50 yards away, so as not to disturb them. They saw me, of course, but then returned their attention to each other, and as they called, I heard a response from over the water – and a large juvenile flew up, and joined them on the branches, all three whistling, feeding, and preening.
Never have I regretted more not having my binoculars, the eagles remaining in one place, so close, for so long. But I had time, and this was the gift; time to sit and be, time to watch them watch the water. As I came down the steps, I saw another smaller bird flitting around right at eye level: a ruby-crowned kinglet, a migratory visitor in late April to early May. He was right on time, and so was I.
I have always been in a hurry. When I was young, my Nana taught me bird songs. She could whistle like a cardinal, and told me to listen for the birdy-birdy-birdy of their call. I couldn’t wait to master it, even though I had no front teeth at the time. She also taught me mnemonics to remember their songs: The chicka-dee-dee-dee of the black-capped chickadee. The cheery up, cheery me of the robin.
When I started birding, I immediately got the three CD set of Peterson’s “Birding by Ear,” hoping to learn all 96 calls and songs on the CD before my first birding festival, in two weeks. I figured if I couldn’t see them, at least I would know who’s in the neighborhood. But it’s easy to be fooled: the blue jay imitates the scream of a red tailed hawk. The mockingbird imitates everything. Learning takes time.
Spring has been slow to arrive this year. And because of the need to stay sheltered in place, I have had time, each day, to learn in a new way. I have learned that I don’t need to “know” so much as to observe. I have learned, over this slow time, to watch the goldfinch’s feathers morph from olive green to bright yellow. I’ve had time to see each day how my one remaining tulip opens and closes to the sun and wind. I have had time to see the tree branches grow feathery in the first tinges of yellow green. I’ve had time to listen to the rusty gate squeak of a boat-tailed grackle, and watch a robin with her beak full of grass fly to a nest unseen.
I am learning that I can’t hurry anything. As busy as this time has been, in this Eastertide I feel that I have been given a chance to really see. All that is terrible and harsh and sorrowful and wrong in our country, and all that is beautiful and true and loving right in front of me.
As I read the resurrection stories, I learn that it is only when we turn to look in recognition that we see. It was a slow unfolding then, as it is now. We with our short attention spans must learn to take the long view. At the end of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s essay, “Trust in the Slow Work of God,” he writes,
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
So, even if now all I can see is a bird butt, I hope that I, in the long term, can embody the words to the old hymn, and “join with all nature in manifold witness” to the goodness and beauty of God’s unfolding, and timely, grace.
Leslie Mott, M. Div., RYT, CFP, is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the
Presbyterian Church (USA). She serves as Coordinator for Spirituality and
Practice in Bedford, NY, and was the Coordinator of the Pastoral Sabbath at
Holmes Camp and Stony Point Center from 2015-2019. As a consultant and
retreat leader, she has presented to and guided groups at The Garrison
Institute, Holy Cross Monastery, Johnsonburg Camp, Mariondale, the NEXT
Church Conference, and Maryknoll, among others. She is now serving as
Interim Minister in North United Church of Christ in Middletown, NY, having
previously served as a solo pastor in Cold Spring, NY for 13 years.
Leslie is a yoga teacher, Spiritual Director, and Certified Focusing
Professional. She received her Master of Divinity from Princeton
Theological Seminary; her Spiritual Direction certification through the
Linwood Spiritual Center in Rhinecliff, NY, and is a member of Spiritual
Directors International. She is also a member of the International Focusing
Institute. With a regular practice of meditation, focusing, yoga and
Centering Prayer, Leslie considers herself a student first and a teacher
second, joining with others to discern and live out lives of contemplation,
mindfulness and action.