September 7, 2010
Home from Malheur. 6 hour drive from Portland into the wilds of eastern Oregon. Labor Day weekend— where were all the people? No one there! I drove out with two longtime friends—Freda and Joan—for a birding workshop at the Malheur Field Station.
I stroke the netted shrike (the executioner bird). The Great Horned Owl regards me with round yellow eyes, visible across the length of Benson’s Grove where we stand in respectful silence under the giant cottonwoods. Duncan sets up the telescope, helps me focus my eyes on what is distant, what is near and waiting. Look for the owl and you’ll find the owl is looking right at you. The presence of the winged ones around us. Remember to look up! Across the marsh, a sleek coyote stalks sandhill cranes. Muskrat glides through the reeds, slipslop dives under. The namesake for “skinny as a rail” fits its narrow bird body through the cattails.
Yellow-headed blackbird in the net, struggling. Suddenly calm in Duncan’s hands. He ruffles fingers through feathers, revealing bird ears, the structure of leg ligaments. Duncan, our guide/teacher, is the naturalist/shaman who speaks to animals, reads from their behavior and appearance their anxieties and intentions. He can tell that Western tanager on the branch of the Russian olive is here on its first migration. Should it approach the water source or not? Are there predators nearby? On a first migration, who would know? Duncan can think like a bird.
Quails rushing nervously to and fro across the road. Layla-- Duncan’s wife who is also a naturalist-- has noticed different strategies of quail parenting. Some quail parents muster their chicks in straight lines (a la Madeleine). Others are more like hippie parents. Their chicks merrily commingle with other quail families. Layla has seen the father quail issue a “talking to,” a peck to the delinquent chick. Quail discipline.
I must write more about this, but must ready for work tomorrow. My mind wants to live in that ocean of sage, that starry sky with the whoosh of Milky Way, the swoop of swallows in the dusk and the song of the meadowlark “at break of day arising.”