By Stephen Grace
A few days ago I saw a Townsend’s solitaire on a bluff above Discovery Bay. I had this species in mind because a local birder had reported seeing one at Fort Worden. Though fairly common in the mountains, Townsend’s solitaries are rarely sighted around Port Townsend. The name struck me as apt. When I saw the bird perched alone on a limb, I thought, “That’s a solitaire, the official bird of the pandemic.”
A gray bird with a slender build and long tail, the Townsend’s solitaire isn’t much to look at, but as a member of the thrush family, it has a beautiful voice. The solitaire didn’t sing like I hoped it would—it kept its beauty silent inside its drab breast. But I watched the bird for half an hour because I don’t have anything better to do, having been furloughed from my job as a science educator. Also, I’m procrastinating on finishing the book I’m writing about the past, present and future of life on Earth. Coronavirus may change the final chapter.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time alone at the local golf course. I haven’t hit a golf ball since I was fourteen, when I suffered a resounding defeat to a younger cousin. If you think birding offers a refuge from the competitive impulses that drive a person to whack a little white ball toward a hole to prove he’s better than other people whacking little white balls toward holes, then you haven’t hung out with birders.
I often bird alone because I know that when I’m with a group, what I find compelling about birds—subtleties of plumage and song—will devolve into a tense game of who can spot species the fastest. Awe will give way to a list of birds seen and identified. A pecking order will emerge, and the birders will rank themselves from best to worst. Because birders are not barbarians, the worst among us will be assigned the euphemism “beginning birder.”
Like gruff New Yorkers who stop on the street to give clueless tourists directions, expert birders can be disarmingly generous sharing their hard-won knowledge with beginners. But make no mistake: birders can be brutally competitive. Once, in the company of a serious birder, I called a red-throated loon a “red-necked loon.” In my defense, there is a species named the red-necked grebe, and I simply misspoke. But the rebuke I was given burns to this day.
When I’m birding with my mentor Ken Wilson, one of the best naturalists I know, we trash talk each other like players on a pickup basketball court. Ken can identify birds with a talent that seems almost superhuman. But Ken once confused an osprey with a great blue heron. If you think I’ll ever let him forget that, well, you haven’t been birding with me.
The golf course has good bird habitat: wetlands and forest edges where many species thrive. There are no golfers teeing off or driving carts—the pandemic put a pause on that. I’m wandering the course in solitude, in part because social distancing demands it, and also because I like to experience nature alone, preferably in pristine wilderness, but during a global pandemic, an abandoned golf course will do.
At the edge of an empty fairway I saw a hermit thrush, another bird with a name that seems suited to the current moment. Its voice, however, is timeless. This bird has a song so extraordinary it has inspired classical music compositions. The first time I heard the fluting, ethereal voice of a hermit thrush, I went running up the trail on Mt. Townsend to tell Ken Wilson, who was ahead of me, using his rare talent to find rare birds. I was so moved by the sound of the hermit thrush that I had to share it with someone instead of keeping it to myself. That day on Mt. Townsend I realized that birders gather in groups for reasons other than competition.
While walking the golf course, a purple finch’s song stopped me in my tracks. “Like smoke rising through a narrow chimney,” Monica Fletcher, another birding friend, once described this song. I saw a red-breasted sapsucker in full scarlet regalia, along with the usual suspects: spotted towhees and song sparrows and orange-crowned warblers. Robins worked the clipped grass in astounding numbers. A northern harrier flew low over a putting green. I watched a Cooper’s hawk hunt along a forest edge, where wild trees encroach on a manicured lawn.
When I got home, I emailed my birding friends about what I’d seen and heard on the golf course, hoping they would venture out there, hoping we might cross paths on the vacant greens. Hoping we might share stories of plumage and song in person, from a safe distance, in this time of plague.
While looking across the golf greens toward the blue waters of Discovery Bay and the peaks of the Olympic Mountains painted white with snow, I wonder what the world will be like if a pandemic more potent than Covid-19 devastates humanity in coming years, as many experts fear could happen.
The golf course is emptied of people but busy with birds. While watching these feathered dinosaurs, these beings that sang long before our species learned to speak, I realize that life in all its astonishing variety will go on with us or without us. If scattered bands of humans survive the next pandemic, and I am among them, I will find my tribe: people who are drawn to the natural beauty of this planet and take pleasure in sharing it with others. When the plague passes, when the solitude ends, these are the people I will seek, tracking them down like I found the solitaire in the trees and the hermit thrush at the fairway’s edge.
Cover photo of a Townsend’s solitaire taken by Bob Boekelheide. Used by Permission.
If I make it through the next pandemic (or indeed this one!), I’ll be looking to join the same band of humans that you’re in Steve! Your pal, Rick
I have three hummingbird feeders and I am refilling one or two EVERY day!! Most recently, my obsession is with the Barred Owl!! I use my Bluetooth speaker to blast out the crazy monkey-like calls and we have been able to have them (not sure exactly how many, but more than one at a time) come forward showing themselves and even roosting on the roof above our deck when I moved the speaker right below him. He was clearly staring at us!! I have such amazing fotos since the sun was on him while on the roof. We are now planning on building one or two nest boxes to place on our property. We are presently trying to seek professional assistance from someone who can help advise us on exactly where to place them on our 3 1/2 acre home in the Cape George Highlands. Any referrals that you might send my way would be well-appreciated.
We recently went to Costa Rica which started my Bird Watching Hobby. My favorite spot is from my downstairs bedroom window where I have set up my feeding station including options for our chipmunks and squirrels (both Gray and Douglas). I have been seeing Black-Headed Grosbeaks, goldfinch and spotted a Western Tanager (just one time this season). We have elders set up in two other places and much of my time is spent refilling the hummingbird feeders. They will even roost on my fingers!!
Thanks for sharing these observations, Marie! My wife and I returned from Costa Rica the last day of February, just before the world fell off the corona cliff. We saw many stunning birds there, but I love our backyard birds here. The western tanager and blackheaded grosbeak and goldfinch you mention are every bit as beautiful, and as much fun to watch, as the birds in a tropical jungle, I think. Cool that hummingbirds roost on your finger! The hummers in my backyard dive bomb me when I go near their feeder. It’s amazing how quickly those little birds can empty a feeder!
A very fun commentary. Thanks for sharing. A comment, personally I have always considered the Townsend’s Solitaire a subtly very beautiful bird. From a distance just a nondescript grey bird, but closer the variations of the grey and with added chestnut wing bar and eye ring make for enjoyable appreciation. Best wishes,
Excellent observations about the Townsend’s solitaire, Ron. It is rewarding to seek out those subtle details with species not generally considered striking. I was just looking at a male evening grosbeak, which is flamboyantly beautiful: bright-yellow stripe over the eyes, bold white patch on the wings, chartreuse beak. That was exciting to see, but there is perhaps a deeper pleasure in seeking beauty in what is often dismissed as mundane–like the subtle chestnut wing bar that you noted. I’ve been as thrilled to observe robins and song sparrows in my backyard the past few weeks as I was to see my first-of-the-year western tanager. I’m trying to get to a point where I see every bird as equally beautiful, whether it’s a tanager or a crow, a tufted puffin or a turkey vulture–maybe that’s the final stage of birding enlightenment that we’re all working toward. Many thanks for reading and commenting, Ron!
Thanks for your generosity in sharing this. We’ve been doing most of our birding closer to home, but we’ll add the golf course to the list. Yesterday on Cappy’s trails, woodpeckers drummed. Robins and Black-headed Grosbeaks sung with desperation. At home, a Western Tanager has been visiting red hot poker. A pair of Quail have moved in. Towhees, Violet-green Swallows, Orange-crowned Warblers, Red-breated Nuthatches, Chickadees, Wrens, Finches, Sparrows — it’s hard to keep up right in our garden. A Cooper’s Hawk makes periodic visits, and recently left a corpse in the birdbath. Crows have been dressing the darndest food items in the birdbath. Yesterday it was pieces of bread and what looked like a chicken bone. Strangest of all: a Ring-neck Pheasant cock that strutted through one day. There’s so much wonder to harvest if we only take the time.
All of this certainly takes the edge off of plague times, and we are grateful.
Many thanks for your thoughtful comments! And thank you for sharing your excellent observations! I know what you mean: hard to keep up now with all the bird activity around us. A good problem to have! The birdlife in our backyards on the Quimper Peninsula is an embarrassment of riches right now. I wrote this story a few weeks ago; the golf course recently opened back up to golfers, so I don’t advise birding there now. But if it shuts down again, do check out the birding at the edges of the greens. Thanks again. I write for free for Rainshadow–comments like yours are my payment, and right now I feel well compensated. Cheers, Steve
Loved these reflections. Thank you, Steve!
Thank you, Ellie! I appreciate you taking the time to read the story and comment on it. So glad you enjoyed it!
Nice one Steve! It reads in a way that anyone anywhere could enjoy, and knowing these local places and people just makes it richer.
Thanks, Erik! And thank you for being such an excellent natural history instructor for me and for so many other members of this community. You are creating a lasting legacy, both in land preservation and in education. I still remember that time you walked into the woods to confirm an orange-crowned warbler that you had identified by ear. I thought, “Wow. I want to be able to do that.”
Beautifully written. I’m not a birder, but I so enjoyed your details and nuances- really brought the area to life for me. Thank you.
Thank you, Roseanna. Knowing that a non-birder enjoyed my story makes my day!
Lovely reflections. I have been instructed by the amazing Ken Wilson as well. see you on the golf course.
Thanks, Kate! Ken Wilson is a birding superstar. And a lunatic–but in the best possible way. We have enormous fun every time we bird together, and I always learn something new from Ken. I wrote this story a few weeks ago; the golf course recently opened back up to golfers, so I don’t advise birding there now. But if it shuts down again, do check out the birding at the edges of the greens. I hope to cross paths with you while birding!
Haven’t fully read the article yet, but that photo made me weep.
Glad you liked the photo, Mark!
Beautiful story, Steve. Your voice is so important, especially during times like these. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and love of the natural world with us. Even though we miss you here on the Oregon Coast what a pleasure it is to come across these gems of yours. When the next pandemic comes we hope to find our way to your tribe!
Thanks so much, Jeanne! It is wonderful to hear from you. I miss the Oregon Coast, but life at the edge of the Salish Sea is pretty good, too. Stay safe, and I hope our birding paths cross after the plague passes.