The dawn chorus and my annual amnesia
It’s happening again, and I’m fully aware of it. I work harder each day to remember the whole year, the mud, the rain, the unease, the borderline despair that I feel during our long, wet Pacific NW winters. Those dark and dreary days, with the paltry 8.5 hours of “daylight” between sunrise and sunset times (we never see the sun, so I take it on faith that it’s out there) marked by sludgy grey clouds that even when they’re not leaking oppress and depress. The lights are on in the house all day long, the dogs come in wet and muddy on most days, and feeding the livestock in the rainy dark after work the chickens look miserable and the sheep look bored and as full of discontent as I feel.
But I knew it would happen. It always does. After 7 months of rainy, dismal weather, and epic amounts of mud we’ve come into our season of splendor. We’re just moving out of jungle season (also magnificent) and now it’s settling into the rhythms of 16 hours of daylight (squeeee!) versus its opposite in December, and all the wonder and abundance of a fecund spring. Never mind that today (it’s the last few hours of summer solstice as I write this) is pretty much the saddest day of the year. Sure, it’s the longest day of the year, but it’s also the turning point where the days start to roll back, getting shorter and we begin losing daylight by increments, heading back to that dismal darkness. But for now we will dance in the sun and revel in the song and forget about that long, stressful winter. Instead, I will spend my days here soaking up all the goodness, settling into my wonderful little hillside on a sunny day like a broody hen settling onto a clutch of eggs, content to just sit and watch and listen to the glory of creation as it unfolds in panoramic vision—the bees being probably the most joyous visual expression of what I feel—and all of it to a exaltation of surround-sound. For it is Songbird Season, and I love songbirds.
Even now, with the windows only opened a crack I hear them. Though today was warm, it’s been chilly for the past couple weeks—a normal, gloomy and damp PNW June—but I keep the windows open just so I can hear the birds. The calls, the chirps, and the songs. Oh, the songs. The thrushes have all the others beat as far as melody and pleasing (to the human ear) song, though the Black-headed grosbeak and Song sparrow aren’t too shabby. I think the Swainson’s thrushes and the robins (also a thrush) just can’t be beat though, for not only are their flute-like songs beautiful, they are positively incessant throughout the day (and they seem to be the most abundant). None of the other birds save the Dark-eyed juncos (a raspy tweee, not too melodious but not unpleasant) do much more than a few songs throughout the day. Or maybe they’re just drowned out by the thrush songs.
The dawn chorus starts at about 3:30 a.m., just as the sky begins to lighten, with the twittering of the swallows, already out flying after several hours grounded. The Swainson’s and robins chime in next, along with the grosbeak, Western tanagers, chickadees, song sparrows, towhees, and dark-eyed juncos. Other birds I hear throughout the day but don’t seem to sing much: the hummingbirds (a sharp chip-chip), Steller’s jays (wik-wik-wik-wik-wik!), crows and ravens (rawk), and the woodpeckers—hairy, downy, pileated, sapsuckers and flickers—plus the occasional raptor – osprey, red tailed hawks, and eagles (the vultures are pretty silent), or duck from the valley.
When I come home from work the birdsong is like a balm, soothing jangled nerves after a long day at work and a gnarly commute. I change clothes quickly and head outside with the dogs, finding myself drawn to the woods, where the high canopy feels like a cathedral, and the songs are more soothing than any choir. It feels similar to the siren song of the old seafaring legends – where you are helpless to resist (though without the dire consequences, thankfully!). I am entranced, mesmerized, rapt, and spellbound, lured ever deeper into the woods to stand beneath the trees by some unseen singer, a bit of bone and blood and feathers, weighing barely more than a couple of medium-sized strawberries. The robins, one of the largest of all the songbird species that habit this patch of woodland, tips the scales at just under 3 ounces, the Swainson’s thrush a whopping 1.5 ounces, yet the woods are filled with their giant song. The robins have a huge repertoire, and there are some similarities to the Swainson’s song, but the Swainson’s, that furtive bit of greenish brown feathers, is the one that I wait for all year, their upward-spiraling flute song stretching an aural web as far as the ear can hear – close and crisp, and distant and haunting, overlapping, echoing and answering, a treasure of acoustic jewels for the lucky listener.
In the long evenings I sit on my deck writing, and reveling at being surrounded by all I love, by place. The sheep are grazing the property, moving around in a cohesive flock; the chickens wander around, scratching and pecking, gobbling up fresh greens and all the insects they can catch; the dogs, dirty but blissfully free of mud, snooze like bearskin rugs around me, stretched out at my feet, farm-dog grubby and content. And all of it to the soundtrack of birdsong. The little male junco, in the tree near the deck, tweeeeing. The dapper Spotted towhee in the thick undergrowth, singing his buzzy trill. The robins with their myriad songs and calls high in the maples, and above it all the little prince, the salmonberry bird, my Swainson’s thrush in his deceptively drab olive-brown feathering, always hidden, and always singing, singing, singing. I am captivated.