Thursday, April 16, 2009


When a blanket of gray envelops Sewanee on certain Spring days, I refer to this mountaintop idyll as “Grayburg.” Yesterday was one of those days but it was brightened by talk about, and the appearance of, several birds, one small fat one which I had never seen before and which hovered at my front door on the welcome mat. When I went to Monteagle for my usual overdue haircut yesterday morning, my hairdresser revealed to me that she’s a bird lover and that on her days off, she goes fishing and takes along a bird identification book. Recently, she sighted two bald eagles near St. Mary’s Convent where she lives and reported that hawks abound in the area. When she had finished cutting my hair, she accompanied me out on the porch of the “Mane Attraction” and showed me a mother cardinal sitting on her nest in the bushes near the doorway. I was as enthralled with the overwhelming interest Lydia showed in bird care (she has been feeding the mother) as I was with the sight of the cardinal placidly sitting there, unperturbed by customers walking in and out of the shop.

At noon, I went to the French doors overlooking the woods in the front yard and found a fat nuthatch perched on the doormat. She was unmoved by my peering at her intently for ten minutes or so before she finally lifted off and left me scurrying to find a bird identification book. I think it was a red-breasted nuthatch which is a bird that winters in southern climes. I surmise that she has been nesting in an old woodpecker hole in an oak of the front yard, a place where a pileated woodpecker has been drilling. This bird imitates a pygmy owl hooting and if I knew how to make the sound, I could call her back for a visit as I understand the nuthatch often cozies up to human watchers. She certainly didn’t seem disturbed when I observed her, and I would have provided her a peanut butter dish if she had tarried as this is something nuthatches enjoy eating.

So many birds migrate this way, and the thought of their migrations provoked another search for explanations of where birds go during the winter months. I discovered some information by Rosemary Drisdelle who offered folklore tales about bird migrations. In the Middle Ages, people thought bar-headed geese, crossing the Himalayas, went to the moon for the winter. Others believed that Piping Plovers simply changed into another kind of bird when the icy winds of winter began to blow. Ancient Egyptians thought that small birds were carried away on the backs of larger birds when winter approached, and Corn Crakes were thought to bury themselves in mud when cold weather threatened their survival.

In any case, I’m glad birds migrate South during winter and provide color on overcast days here in “Grayburg.” Here’s a snippet about birds written during a visit to the desert of west Texas near Big Bend entitled “Santiago Peak, Terlingua,” from my chapbook, COUNTERPOINT:

Unwavering desert,
sotol, cacti, and creosote
root in yellow pebbled sand,
yuccas strike at the post vigil of vultures,
remind us of life’s struggle with aridity;
narrow trails lead upward
to buttes, mesas,
all with tender blue crowns,
ribbed altars,
where hawks pause…
to raise the Host.
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