Birding While Rome Burns

I felt vaguely ridiculous, even guilty, getting up to go chase birds last Friday.

Three days earlier, like millions of other Americans, I had watched the election results in anguish and disbelief. Like so many, I was shocked at the course the country had taken, terrified about what might lie ahead, and grief-stricken that my nation seemed to have abandoned its highest ideals and lurched instead toward hatred and oppression. Literally overnight, the world had taken a dark and dangerous turn.

Given all that, the thought of going out to look for pretty birds seemed absurd, almost surreal. What could possibly be more frivolous? Shouldn’t I be out looking for barricades to man, or at least petitions to sign?

But I went anyway. More out of habit than anything else. I was running on the sort of foggy autopilot that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other after a death in the family, and so I did what I normally do on the weekend: got up early, brewed some coffee, grabbed my binoculars and camera, and headed outside. I couldn’t save the republic, so I went looking for birds.

A pretty Savannah Sparrow
A pretty Savannah Sparrow

Besides, I thought it might help me find my feet again. Wandering around in a miserable daze wasn’t doing anyone any good. You’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping other people with theirs, right? For me, the purest oxygen is going out where the wild things are. On top of which, I thought, if you give up the things you love, the bad guys win. Screw that. So off I went.

Into the Marsh

Federal Point at Fort Fisher is a broad peninsula that culminates in a sharp arrowhead of land pointing west into the wide expanse of the Cape Fear River. It’s superb for herons, egrets, and shorebirds, and at the very tip of the arrowhead lies a wedge of reedy salt marsh that is perfect habitat for the trio of coastal marsh sparrows: Seaside, Saltmarsh, and Nelson’s.

Looking toward the tip of Federal Point. Those reeds are higher than my head.
Looking toward the tip of Federal Point. Those reeds are higher than my head.

Of the three, I’d seen only one before: a single Nelson’s Sparrow, a few years ago right here at Federal Point. All three are notoriously reclusive; they stay hidden deep in the reeds. To find them, that’s where you have to go.

I set out along a little ridge of high ground — meaning about six inches high — into the soggy marsh. Very soon, my shoes sank into water up the laces, and reeds taller than my head closed around me. Visibility was terrible, but a flash of movement up ahead caught my eye, and then another. Sparrows?

A Common Yellowthroat flitted into view, doing a split as it straddled the reeds. A scolding chatter erupted, and a Marsh Wren peered out of the foliage.

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat
Marsh Wren
Marsh Wren

And then, a few feet further, on, a hefty potbellied sparrow emerged from the forest of honey-colored stalks. Charcoal-gray, smudgy breast streaks, yellow lores behind a heavy graphite bill: Seaside Sparrow.

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow

The swaying reeds made it impossible to get a clear look, but I snapped what photos I could, and then retreated. The water was too deep, and the way was too dense.

Back on dry ground, I circled the perimeter of the marsh and found a muddy footpath hugging the shoreline. Sparrows began to appear, popping up out of the thick growth and then driving right back in before I could get a decent look. Presently, though, I spotted a small bird clinging to the reeds, a lovely sparrow with a soft gray ear patch set in a butterscotch face, faint dark streaks painting a caramel breast: Nelson’s Sparrow, to my eye one of the prettiest of its kind.

Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow
Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow

On a little rise with a slightly better vantage point, I came upon a bird that at first glance appeared to be another Nelson’s Sparrow. But its bill was bigger, its streaks were crisper and darker, heavy pencil rather than watercolor, and its pale straw-colored bib contrasted with the darker gold of its face: Saltmarsh Sparrow, a life bird, the third and last of the marsh sparrows I’d come to find:

Saltmarsh Sparrow
Back Out of the Marsh

I realized, as I emerged from the marsh, that from the moment I’d entered it, I’d been purely and completely focused on what I was doing. All that other stuff — the election, the state of the nation, the battles ahead — had fallen away. My thoughts, my attention, and my senses were all attuned to where I stood on the planet at that precise moment, and nowhere else. I felt the cold water against my feet, the breeze on my skin. I heard the gulls calling, and the soft clattery rustle of the reeds brushing against each other. I saw the telltale flicker of movement in the grass, the color of a bird’s cheek.

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow

Not to get too crunchy on you, but that sort of focused presence is deeply soul-filling. I have friends who draw their sustenance from yoga, or from running, or from going to church or playing punk rock music. In my case, for whatever mysterious reasons, few things fill me up more than  going out into the woods to look for birds.

It doesn’t last, of course. You have to keep going back to the well. And all the stuff I’d left behind when I walked into the marsh was still there when I walked out. The ugliness and uncertainty in the world certainly hadn’t gone away, and neither had my own sorrow and fear. But I felt ever so slightly revived, ever so slightly better able to stand up straight to meet it.

Nelson's Sparrow
Nelson’s Sparrow

It’s true, I think, that thing about the oxygen mask. You’re not much good to anyone if you can barely move yourself.  You have to give grief its time, and you have to take the opportunities, when they come, to do the things that calm your heart and clear your head, even in hard times. Especially in hard times.

As I headed back to my car, and all the troubles of the day came rushing back to mind like dark water filling a tub, a big part of me wanted to turn around. I wanted to go back into the marsh and just, you know, stay there. But that’s not how it works. I cast a look back at the reeds rustling in the wind and began walking back to the world.

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5 thoughts on “Birding While Rome Burns”

  1. I did same… saturating myeself with nature, especially birds, is the only arrow in my quiver of self-soothing for this level of desolation and spiritual depletion. Many of us had to do what we must because no, we could not save the Republic. I thought about staying in bed so I would not have to cope – not grinding beans, not changing birdbath water… to mourn all day. However that is not how many of us cope. At least not you! Nor moi. 🙂 It as a terrible day. You did wonderful things – a tribute to your love of nature over a day of anger and disbelief.

    Thank you so much for sharing your lovely shots! Great finds. You certainly made good work of a stressful day.

    What camera / lens do you use? I find myself pining for a better tele lens (70/300 =$$$) for our Canon EOS Rebel XTi. I’ll have a chat with Santa. It’s for the birds, right? 🙂

    1. Hi, Susun! Thanks for such a sweet note. We all do what we can. The camera I use is one of those superzoom bridge cameras: a Panasonic Lumix Z70. It does OK in good light, but it has a lot of limitations, obviously. I’ve been talking to myself about upgrading to a full-fledged DSLR for years now and just haven’t yet pulled the trigger. Maybe you’re right and it’s time to have a chat with Santa. Thanks again, and good birding!

  2. This is wonderful Dave. Since the election, I too have been in mourning for the country I fear we’re going to lose to the empowerment of the hate-filled alt-right, as well as the dismantling of the EPA & irreparable damage to the environment that might ensue. As someone who’s paycheck comes from NOAA I also selfishly fear for my own future.

    I’ve found myself spending more time in the field this past week & less time behind the computer where the temptation to read the news is too great. Who can’t stare at a train wreck right? My work in the creeks & marshes allows me to enjoy birding while working, and I’ve been enjoying the influx of loons to the creeks & the numerous bald eagles back for nesting.

    I hope you continue to find solace in nature, and hope you & yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving & Christmas!

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