I spend a lot of time obsessing over the bluebirds that nest in a box in our back yard, something you know a bit about if you are a regular here at The Daily Grace. But this Spring I haven’t been around to keep as close an eye on this precious couple (and their offspring) as I’d like.
Then a couple of weeks ago I spotted this cuteness at the new feeder I’ve placed just outside my studio window. It holds a magical cone of seed and dried worms all of birddom now fusses over.
This sweet little munchkin, who I figure is four…maybe five weeks old, is sitting an inch from a full-on mealworm feast. But he refuses to reach his little beak through the bars to grab one. Instead he sits and squawks and demands to be fed.
Mama’s having none of it.
She flies in, eats in front of the youngster, then flies away.
(Which results in an even louder ruckus from the little one.)
Then in comes Papa who does his best to ignore but finally can’t take anymore and pops worm after worm in the mouth of the babe.
It captivated me, this bluebird drama, as I stood back and considered how much the scene resembles my own years-ago baby mothering and that of so many friends in the throes of such today. Parenting is hard. There are so many ways to get it wrong. And there are so few to get it right.
Love well, I’d think, and then I’d pace and worry. Love well, I still think now, andthat will be enough.
And yet the question remains.
Does love fly off?
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MY SOUTH CAROLINA LIFE is centered around the sweet pond on which our house and back yard sit. Through the big kitchen window I have a bird’s eye view of all the goings-on, and to get close to the action I merely need step out the side door or take a quick stair step run down to my studio, which is positioned (thrillingly) in the midst of the action.
All this perfect geography gives me the chance to spend the hours of spring All Up In the activity of the co-inhabitants of the little neighborhood. I could not be happier about this; I never get tired of watching the plants and animals as they quite literally come to life during this birth/rebirth season.
This year has been especially sweet.The pond is full again following a couple of long, sad years during which floods, improper sediment runoff management and Mother Nature’s insistence on returning things to their natural state combined to create rather a mess behind our house. But the cove has been restored and the whole of the animal kingdom–snakes, frogs, turtles, beavers, birds, fish, and ducks among them–the whole of the Bickley’s Pond animal kingdom and I are rejoicing.
MY BELOVED BLUEBIRDS are among them and together we’ve had a rather tumultuous time of it. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I’VE had quite a time–to this day I can’t give you an accurate accounting of their first brood of the season. First there was the precious nest, then that one perfect blue egg, then the egg disappeared! And so the internet told me to build a Sparrow Spooker, which I did, fashioning my own emergency version. I watched and watched and watched until the second egg–which would now be Egg One–was laid. BAM I was out the door attaching said Sparrow Spooker to the box (this was per the internet’s very specific directions). By golly it worked! Or else it wasn’t needed in the first place, but either way that couple and I ended up with four gorgeous eggs the second time around. Mama kept them warm while Papa and I hung close and in no time at all we’d hatched two baby bluebirds with two left to go. It was time for a trip to the mountains, alas, so I left the raising of those two, maybe three, maybe four babies to their devoted and quite capable parents.
We were away just long enough that when we returned an opening of the nest box would have created a great risk of too-early fledging. I was also busy with work and other things and couldn’t keep as close an eye on the family as I’d have liked. Which resulted in some big worries, I have to say. I never saw the parents feed the babies, not even once, in the first three or four days we were home. I’d watch for a while, then go out and stand next to the box hoping at least to hear sweet bluebird baby chirps. I never did. But every time, without fail, those parents would come swooping down out of nowhere, very unhappy with me and my proximity to their nest, which made me very happy as I figured surely they were protecting their offspring.
Still there didn’t appear to be any feeding.
No feeding at all.
THEN I HEADED north again, this time on my own for a writer’s retreat in Kentucky. I left Tim in charge. He’s great about these things since he’s in the yard so much, humors me so much, and cares as much about such happenings as a normal person does. But let’s face it. I never can get him to hover quite as close as I’d like.
Still I’d hardly gotten my suitcase out of the car when I got this text from my thoughtful husband:
Soon as I got home we opened the box to sure enough find it empty but for one unhatched egg. That meant there were three little bluebird fledglings flying somewhere around Bickley’s Pond. Maybe? Tim had seen two, and we hoped for a third but we just didn’t know.
(SEE THIS IS WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT TO KEEP A CLOSE EYE.)
WE WAITED FOUR or five days, then set about cleaning the box. This time when Tim opened it that last egg was also gone. (For the life of me I don’t understand how small birds accomplish that.) He removed the old nest, tidied up a bit in the box and left a clean house for Round Two, should these sweet parents decide it was a go.
A week later we found this.
There’s no Sparrow Spooker on top as the wind finally brought it to the ground and I’ve hardly had time to construct another. For one thing there is the other bird nest I must monitor. And the baby eagle. And the courting woodpeckers, and the goose families X2. And a big happy surprise right in my raised bed garden!
There is so much more to come on all these wonderful Bickley’s Pond developments.
For now I just go ’round skipping and thinking: Spring, I do adore you!
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Last summer I became enamored with the Cedar Waxwings that make their presence known in the great field behind our North Carolina place. I don’t know how I’d never noticed them in all the years of my bird obsession; for sure the high mountain altitude brings a different crop when compared with our flat South Carolina back yard, but still Waxwings are common and plentiful. And these beauties are difficult to miss. The crest flips up (isn’t that distinctive?), and the eyes are wrapped in the most fantastic, elegant black Zorro mask. It’s upper wings are tipped in a brilliant red, and the tail–it’s so fun–the tail looks as if it was accidentally dipped right down into a can of bright yellow paint.
Then just the other day I was standing at the kitchen window when I looked out to see a mass of birds in the tree on the edge of Bickley’s Pond. From the distance I couldn’t tell their make and model, so I grabbed my camera and stepped outside for a closer look. In one fell swoop all the birds took off for the Cope’s yard, where I got close enough for this.
Could it be?
It was the first time I’d noticed Waxwings in our back yard, and true to form they fascinated and delighted me.
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Several sweet bird couples live with us here on Bickley’s Pond, but none are more devoted than the finches. They are demonstrative little creatures who, when courting time comes around each Spring, are not shy in stating their intentions.
But theirs is also a full time love.
Several times each year one or the other finds its way onto our giant screen porch where it becomes more and more panicked in its (in)ability to find a way out. We humans do our best to assist, propping open the door and attempting to shoooooo the bird in the right direction.
(This never works.)
And so the frightened little bird flits around from one column to another, clinging to this screen and that, not making a single rational decision about what might be the best course of action in making a way out.
And then love wins.
The devoted mate appears.
Inevitably the devoted mate appears, and from the outside in, coaxes and calms in the sweetest bird voice until she steadies, looks around, and finally finds her way back out the door.
Oh, courting is lovely and sweet.
But having a mate who is there for you in the crazy times–when you are irrationally afraid, or ridiculously wound up, or simply overwhelmed by the events of an otherwise ordinary day–that, my friends, is love.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you.
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He was just sitting there. For the longest time, just sitting there.
Not standing. Not flitting around. Not doing anything.
I was a bit mesmerized, I don’t mind telling you.
I’d never seen a bird do that, plop down on the squirrel guard and just hang out there. Not in all the years of looking out the big kitchen window, not in all the thousands–or tens of thousands–of bird sightings there.
Was he okay?
I watched, and waited.
Finally, he turned to me.
Yes, of course.
And so I turned and left him to it.
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I HAVE HAPPY NEWS, a great bit of so wonderful I can hardly wait to share it. But first I want to remind you of Parts 1 and 2 of this saga.
FIRST THERE WAS THE DISCOVERY of a ground nest of juncos, babies so tiny it was a miracle they survived at all, what with snakes and the whir of our (unknowing) weed eater as we cleared an overgrown slope on the side of our new-to-us mountain retreat. (You can read that story here.)
Then that one baby got so far over on the compromised nest he slipped out, and my goodness the others followed, so we reinforced their home and scooped them up, gently, gently placing them back in all safe and sound. But instead of hanging there to be properly fed by Mama and Daddy the one escaped and promptly headed up the hill, hop hop hopping since he was too little to have enough feathers to fly.
We rescued him again.
And again he ran, leaving me with nothing to do but fret all day keeping an eye out but knowing good and well night was coming and he would be alone and hungry and covered in dark and cold.
Finally, finally it was morning. I searched high and low but I didn’t see him, didn’t hear a peep from either that runaway baby or his parents, focused, as they were, on feeding the three good children at home. (You can read about that–and see photos of the cuties and that little stinker–here.) And it was time for us to go. So we drove away from the mountain raising prayers of protection for the one and hopes of proper fledging–once their wings were fully developed–for the others.
I’VE WORRIED EVER SINCE over that baby and his sensible siblings. I didn’t hold much hope for the renegade, to tell you the truth, who couldn’t fly and was on his own in territory that is already known to be fierce. But the other three? Oh, maybe.
WE’VE BEEN BACK TO THE MOUNTAINS, and the Junco parents have been around. We see them flitting in the trees and bushes behind the house; we hear their familiar click click clicks as they dart here and there. And then I got brave and hung a small bird feeder way high above the ground and not so high above the deck. It was a decision I came to carefully as knowledgable neighbors have warned us the Black Bears, which already like the blueberries in our meadow, will consider this an invitation we’ve extended for dinner. We are extremely somewhat careful to bring in the feeder at night, and–to date–the bears have not come. But the Goldfinches have. Goldfinches are very beautiful and equally picky, something the person paying for the seed and filling the feeder finds surprising, and they knock a good bit out and over the ledge of the feeder.
And then this different little bird showed up and commenced to hopping about on the deck absolutely thrilled to scavenge the leftovers. I didn’t pay him too much mind, truth be told, because he was a rather plain looking fellow.
But then it started to rain, and he got all puffed up and cute, and I decided to take some photos.
When I downloaded them I got more curious.
There was a photo match on Birdnote that said this:
This juvenile Dark-eyed Junco has the beginnings of white outer tail-feathers. But other than that, it doesn’t look much like its parents!
And do you know what happened the very next day?
Three more juveniles showed up.
YOU WON’T BELIEVE ME when I tell you this and I can’t much blame you, nevertheless it is gospel truth. Just about any time you look out that window and see those birds whether in the meadow or at that feeder there will only be three. And when the one shows up?
But don’t feel too sad for the little renegade. He is fully independent and looks to be doing just fine making his own happy way: perching on top of the hummingbird feeder; hanging around on the deck rail, surveying the meadow; peeking in through the window as I sit close by writing, as curious about me as I am about him.
He’s living his life on his own little bird terms, that’s what I think, out there making it happen the way he always has, the only way he knows how: living strong, living courageous, living free.
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I’d like to tell you one more tale about Costa Rica, if you’re open to it. It was an unexpected encounter and one that proved an important reminder to me about prejudice and the ways it can blind us to love in this life.
WE WERE LOUNGING BY THE POOL, Eliza, Tim and I, spending our last vacation afternoon doing not much of anything but sunning, swimming, and hanging together there in the quiet. It was time I revered and deeply appreciated. I have so little with my grown-up daughter these days, and so you can see why I approached the lounging with great intention. We chose a spot away from other pool-ers, one in a more remote corner of the resort that offered a little isolation, one with our own little swim spot and a giant umbrella, just for us.
Thanks to the poolside restaurant (and attentive, roving waiters), there was also a bite of lunch. Which brought on the Grackles, great-tailed and loud, hovering close and joining our quiet festivities in a rather uninvited way. It was something we’d experienced over and over throughout the week. The large crow-like birds are relentless and brash, braving harsh words and broad gestures in hopes of a small fry or leftover scrap of bun.
They stand in great contrast to the Scarlet Macaws, gorgeous birds that fly in every day around 4pm. The colorful parrots dine in almond trees that surround the resort’s pool area raising a cheer from a crowd that runs inevitably for a closer look. We joined them, we Monettis, standing on tiptoes, iPhones and iPads in hand as we click click clicked hoping for the perfect photo.
Those Macaws didn’t give a hoot, so to speak, and simply refused to do anything to accommodate as they crunched away, hidden as they were behind a mass of big green leaves.
And still we watched for them, every single day.
BUT I WAS TELLING ABOUT THE GRACKLES, the big black birds for whom none of us–not one soul around that pool, I suspect–felt any love. On this particular afternoon I’d had my eye on one in particular that solicited even more attention, causing a great racket and moving about that pool deck in a rather awkward fashion. I watched her (?) for several minutes and finally decided she must be a babe, early in the days of learning to fend for herself in a big, bad world.
About that time the thing flew up to a second story concrete ledge and misjudged the landing, loosing her footing and (I’m not exaggerating) sliding (in slo-mo fashion) all the way down a 15-foot rock wall. All the while she desperately fought for something to grab onto, anything to stop the descent. And then, kerplunk, she was in the water.
That baby was traumatized but buoyant, popping up to the surface (thank heavens) and floating there even if she couldn’t swim. Try as she might she also couldn’t flap her wings, at least not with enough force to lift from the water. She tried and tried, growing more panicked by the minute, and we watched and hoped as she (finally) made it over to the pool’s edge. There she floated, eyeing the same thing we did. The distance from water to deck was a daunting 12 inches or more. How would she ever get enough air to lift up and over that ledge?
ALL THE NOT-KIND THOUGHTS I’d had about those annoying black birds vanished in that moment. My heart was breaking for this vulnerable little soul, a God’s creature as much as any other, this youngster doing its best to simply make it through the day the best she could, the way her Mama and Daddy were teaching her.
Which, by the way, where were they???
I grabbed the closest thing I could find–my flip flop–and ran to the side of the pool. I leaned over toward the bird and did my best to get the shoe beneath her, hoping to give her enough platform to lift off and fly, or in the very least, to raise her up to the pool’s edge without causing further damage to her brittle legs or wings. It took us both a minute–and a bit of looking-each-other-in-the-eye trust–then finally we made it.
But oh, was she stunned as she stood there on the edge of that pool.
I WALKED AWAY, intent on giving her some space to recover. She waited a long minute then hop hop hopped to a nearby shrub and took refuge in the shade beneath its branches. I wondered if she were injured. We all thought we’d seen a bit of scarlet on her chest, and it didn’t take much of a leap to conclude that rock wall had done some damage. And what of her wings? Were they, too, affected? Or were they merely too wet for flight?
WE WENT BACK TO OUR BOOKS and I, for one, pretended to read, which was impossible given the eye I had to keep on that bush. After a while the baby emerged and one slow hop at a time crossed the pool deck, navigated lounge chairs, and made her way toward us. Eventually she reached the iron table just to Eliza’s left. She stopped, hopped to its base, and waited.
None of us spoke, but we all had our eyes on her.
SHE STAYED THERE a good long while. I worried she was immobilized, so to speak, injured and unable to fly. I wondered what would become of her when we left, if her wounds would heal, if time and nature would offer all she needed. (This sounds eerily familiar as I think of the Little Runaway in North Carolina.) Then I decided she was simply offering her thanks to us for seeing her amid the flock, for getting her out of that pool, for the kindness of caring.
I offered back a quiet you’re welcome little bird.
With that she slowly hopped on past us, stopping once and again to glance back our way.
IT TOOK THE LONGEST TIME, but eventually I looked up from my book to see another bird–surely one of her parents–close by. Whew, I thought, as that baby flapped her wings, trying to get some attention.
But to my chagrin (and hers), that grown-up simply flew off, offering no regard of any kind for the damaged little one.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT became of that baby. She disappeared around the corner of the pool and we packed up our things and returned to our room, sad we’d had our last day in Costa Rica but happy we’d had the colorful experiences it offered. I’m genuinely hopeful that disinterested black bird was a parent who assessed the situation from afar and who–as is so often the case with the animal kingdom if not the human one–determined the baby would be fine, then left her alone to work through the challenges on her own. I’m even secretly hopeful the baby rejoined the flock and in short order was irritating tourists–fries, buns and all–on the other side of that gorgeous, meandering Marriott pool.
In any event I’m thankful for the lesson she brought me. We are all worthy of love, even those–and perhaps especially those–who somehow seem to least deserve it.
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And still we worried as darkness fell and temperatures dropped. That nest and those babies were now fully exposed to all manner of night-time terrors, so much so that when we went to bed, we left the blinds open to ensure we were awakened the moment the sun rose. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see–one, two, three, four babies! All was well!
Until a little bit later, that is, when Tim passed by the window and laughingly commented:
One of those babies is up so high on the edge of the nest he looks like he’ll fall right out!
And fall he did, not five minutes later.
The landing was soft, with the nest already on the ground. But he was out, and those other three–his brothers and sisters–were in.
And this made me mighty nervous. Even more so when we realized the other three were clamoring for him and hanging on to the very same edge. (There was a great deal of guilt, if I’m telling the truth, as our weed eater had wiped away the side of their nest.) Within the hour, the three were out, as well.
LEST YOU JUDGE ME HARSHLY for this next part of the story, for which I certainly could not blame you, do let me remind you this was all taking place high in the Blue Ridge mountains–a wild country filled with all manner of wild animals, and bears. How that nest had made it undisturbed to this point was a mystery to me. And now those babies were totally exposed and helpless, their tiny wings not yet developed enough to take flight. And so I gathered my nerve and timidly approached my sweet, understanding husband.
Do you think we should try to put them back? I ventured.
No, he said.
IT’S FUNNY the way worry works, making every little thing seem so exaggerated and frantic. Try as I might I couldn’t get a thing done for passing by that window to see who had moved where, how far they had gotten from the nest, how far they were from each other. Were their parents freaking out? Would they try to get them back to the nest? Was thateven possible?
The internet gave me some guidelines for ground nester intervention and I deduced from what I read that we would be wise to take a little action. And with some coaxing, Tim finally agreed. We’ll reinforce the nest, he said, then gingerly, oh so gently, lift those babies and put them back where they belong.
ALL WAS WELL for about two seconds, until the last little guy in–who had no doubt been the first little guy out–made a run for it. As I said, he couldn’t fly. But that didn’t hinder his getaway one bit as he jumped from that nest and hopped hopped hopped up that hill like he was being chased by General Sherman.
We gathered him one more time.
One more time, he ran.
Oh Good Lord, is all I could think.
I OBSESSED OVER THAT RUNAWAY all afternoon, following him as he made his way up the slope, across the front walkway, onto the driveway (!!!), then over to the shade of a railroad timber lining its edge. Tucked in and tuckered out, he took his rest and I made my way back to the kitchen, intent on leaving nature be.
But then I happened by a window on the other side of the house and caught a glimpse of the little guy up on that timber, looking all around like he was seeing the world for the very first time.
I grabbed my camera and headed back out, fully expecting him to be so terrorized he’d never let me get close enough for a decent photograph.
Oh, did he surprise me.
THE LITTLE GUY MOVED AROUND a bit, ultimately crossing the driveway to find another tucked-in spot at the base of a crumbling stone wall. To my chagrin he never showed any interest in rejoining his brothers and sisters as his parents followed him from place to place, dutifully providing all the worms and creepy crawlies he could eat. (What an afternoon it was for the two of them, chasing this guy and feeding the remaining three.)
Several times I considered scooping him up and taking him back down the hill, back to his family, to safety. But in the end, I didn’t. Darkness came and I walked away, knowing his fate was not in my hands.
I DIDN’T SEE HIM AGAIN. The following morning the sun rose and the three babies were right where they belonged, safe in the nest, fed at regular intervals by doting, loving parents.
I walked all around in hopes of hearing the telling click click click of the hungry prodigal son, praying I’d hear the Mama or Daddy click click click in return, arriving with a squirming serving of breakfast. But it never happened.
And it was time for us to come home.
We loaded our car and wished the Juncos well. Then we said a prayer for the little one, hoping against hope he was out there in the wilds living strong, living courageous, living free.
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I’VE BEEN THINKING A LOT LATELY about miracles, the sort wherein you pray for something highly improbable, all the while doing your best to hang on to the belief that anythingis possible.
More than once I’ve said it out loud–to a friend, to my family, to myself. Miracles. Do. Happen.
WE WERE EXPECTING our dear friends, the Coles, for an impromptu It’s-Nearly-Summer-Let’s-Eat-On-The-Porch Saturday night when I heard such a raucous on Bickley’s pond I stepped to said porch to investigate. Clearly it was the Canada Geese, an odd collection this Spring that includes a core family with four babies and various and sundry other couples and loners that come and go in welcome–and unwelcome–fashion. There have been loud, physical fights on a regular basis, but this one seemed to be getting out of hand. A grove of trees stood between me and the fuss and so I grabbed my camera and headed to the back yard for a closer look.
Things had quieted down by the time I got to the water’s edge and it only took a glance to my right to understand why. The sweet family was there, intact, but their attention was turned toward an adjacent sandbar. On it lay another big goose, its long neck stretching against the sand, the body unmoving. Three or four other geese lolled about in the water while the still one’s wild, panicked mate screamed and flapped her wings, hitting with such force it raised the goose’s head, only to have it fall back to the earth flat, lifeless, dead. Then she took her beak and grabbed at its neck and lifted, squealing, begging. Over and over and over.
It was to no avail.
I RAN TO THE HOUSE for my phone and quickly dialed my friend (and expected dinner guest) Jay, executive director of Carolina Wildlife Center. “Get here fast,” I said, relaying the story. “The goose is probably dead, but maybe there’s something we can do.” And then I ran again for the water.
What I saw there I could hardly take in. The pond was silent, and the sandbar was empty.
I looked all around. The sweet goose family and the miscellaneous others floated quietly away from me and the crime scene. There was no body there, no evidence anything had happened at all.
Could an eagle have gotten him?
Could he have been merely stunned?
Is it even possible he is one of those out there now, carelessly floating away?
OURS IS A GOD who can do anything, this we know, and as is so often the case when something has been on my mind, it was our Sunday School lesson the very next morning. Along with the work in our study book, Dr. Bragan reminded us how important it is to think of God as “in here,” yes. But He is also the God of “out there,” a God so great and distant from our mortal understanding as to require great faith, and awe.
I CAME HOME FROM CHURCH still thinking about that goose and about the other significant things in my world requiring prayer and hope. Tim pulled the car in and something caught my eye as I looked toward the back yard, toward that pond. “I’ve got something to investigate,” I told him as I exited the garage and walked to the back yard.
There it was.
A giant feather–a giant white feather–in the grass of our upper yard, far from the water but near the side porch, just where I could see it. A reminder to me that God’s love is pure, and that miracles do happen.
Every single day.
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So much so, in fact, I’ve hardly mentioned the front porch nest identified by my cousin, Meg, who knows about such things. She’s a Phoebe, Meg said, when I complained that it was probably a sparrow who would do nothing more than make a mess and attract snakes.
(Still, we’d kept the porch light off and have tried to respect her privacy.)
Until this afternoon, that is, when I made my bird rounds.
First I visited the Chickadee who was hunched down on the nest and didn’t flinch when I opened the viewing hatch.
The bluebird eggs looked fine, but Mama Blue was no where around. This concerns me, I have to say, as she’s abandoned the early nest so many times. (She knows best, I realize. But still.)
And then I cajoled my husband into bringing the big ladder to the front porch where I might get my first good peek at the other nest.
You could of knocked me over with a feather, so to speak.
A whole pack of precious baby birds right there at my front door.
There they were, tucked in behind one of the lanterns that flanks our front door. I can hardly imagine how she built that nest, much less successfully incubated them!
There’s lots of Phoebe feeding to come. And lots of growing to be done by a whole peck of babies in a tiny, tiny space. There’s also a great risk of nest attack, this I know.
So I will keep my fingers crossed, this time for them all–Phoebes, Bluebirds and Chickadees alike.
Oh, Spring. Oh, my. Spring!
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