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.