The Poets’ Birds: Migration

Snow geese above a Texas rice field

Empty as the space surrounding it, the hummingbird feeder hangs: bereft of jewel-like flashes and the whir of tiny wings. The wire above the bayou no longer supports the flycatcher; the swallows, too, have flown.

In their absence, other birds return: the osprey to its mast, white pelicans to bayside pilings, teal and coots to the ponds. The cry of early sandhill cranes echoes from the sky; geese swirl over already-harvested fields of milo and rice.

Above autumn’s colored leaves and seeding grassses, the sky is filled with movement: thrilling in its inevitability, and heart-rending in its beauty. Poet Anne Porter has captured something of the risks, the rewards, and the natural rhythm of migration in her poem, “The Birds of Passage.”

 

THE BIRDS OF PASSAGE
You are the one who made us.
You silver all the minnows in all rivers;
You wait in the deep woods
To find the newborn fox cubs
And unseal their eyes.
You shower the sky with stars.
You walk alone
In the wild royal darkness
Of the heavens above the heavens
Where no one else can go.
When the fragile swallows assemble
For their pilgrimages,
When the hummingbirds
Who are scarcely more
Than a glittering breath
Set out for the rain forest
To drink from the scarlet flowers
On the other side of the world
With only now and then
The mast of a passing ship
For a resting place and an inn,
When the Canada geese
Are coming down from the north,
When the storks of Europe
Stretch out their necks toward Egypt
From their nests on the chimney tops,
When shaking their big wings open
And trailing their long legs after them
They rise up heavily
To begin their autumn flight,
You who speak without words
To your creatures who live without words
Are hiding under their feathers
To give them a delicate certainty
On the long dangerous night journey.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click here for more information about poet Anne Porter.

102 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds: Migration

  1. You found an excellent way to fill a frame and an excellent poem to accompany that filling. Your link reveals that Anne Porter saw her first book published when she was 83 and that she lived to age 99 or 100. Elsewhere I found it would have taken her 27 days more to reach a century.

    1. When I read about Porter’s first publication coming at age 83, I confess I smiled. She’s a fine poet, and not as well known as she deserves. I was happy with the photo of the geese. I didn’t do so well when I tried to capture the whole of the flock, but I thought this ‘abstraction’ did the trick, at least for my purposes.

  2. I love your description of the changeover of bird populations – it creates vivid images in my mind. And the geese feel as if they’re in some sort of abstract pattern that fascinates the eye…

    1. Now that I look at the photo again, it brings to mind the work of M.C. Escher: especially his birds. Migration is such an amazing phenomenon, and it becomes doubly so when I stop to think about all the plants that are developing seed and fruit just in time to feed our new arrivals.

  3. The image of geese in flight is outstanding. Rarely have I seen a flock photograph so beautiful! As I read your prose, and Porter’s lovely poetry, I felt it all deeply. We hear the sandhill cranes more now, and a few Canadian geese, and note the quiet in the woodlands, with only the year-around dwellers remaining. I remembered two “fragile swallows” whose bodies I buried this week, who did not make it through the ice storm two weeks ago. Indeed, it is a “long dangerous night journey”.

    1. We’d grown remarkably silent here, too, although a few days ago the chickadees, wrens, and cardinals began making their presence known with calls and chirps. I was thrilled to hear the sandhills last week. They were so high it was impossible to see them, but there’s no mistaking that call.

      What surprises me most is the reappearance of specific birds in specific locations. There’s a hawk who’s returned to his wire above a utility easement down the road from me, and ‘my’ kingfisher is back on power lines above a ditch in Brazoria County. As wonderful as it is to see them return each year, it’s equally worrisome when they’re suddenly absent — but those absences, too, are part of the plan.

    1. More and more of our winter birds are arriving. Yesterday, I came across a large flock of white pelicans at a local refuge: perhaps two hundred or more. I was surprised to find the largest flock of roseate spoonbills I’ve ever seen, too. They were a little far away for my camera to capture them well, but I think I have at least a few photos that will be sharable.

      I recently heard goldfinches. We rarely see them in their bright colors, but it’s fun to have them around.

    1. There’s something about a flock of geese that seems to appeal to everyone. When I was a child in Iowa in the 1950s, I’d sing along with this song. Most friends of my age remember the song, and it still stirs that ‘something’ inside us.

  4. You called it well, I was looking at the hummingbird feeders just before I read this and thinking it’s time to bring all but one in. And the cardinals and the chickadees are acting a bit feisty.

    1. You want feisty? You should see my squirrels. As for the ones that are coming, I found hundreds of white pelicans and perhaps a hundred roseate spoonbills at Brazoria yesterday. They were too far away for my camera, but they were fun to see. I might have a few photos worth posting — I’ll have to look through them tonight.

  5. Linda, this is a stunning photo, and you’ve found a lovely poem to accompany it! You know, there’s something mighty comforting about the rhythms of nature — migrating birds, hibernating animals, trees that drop their leaves. Even the “snowbirds” who migrate South for the winter months! I suppose nature is trying to remind us that we, too, have seasons of blooming and reposing … and that our furious flurry of activity to “get things done” comes at a price.

    1. I absolutely agree about the comfort offered by the natural rhythms that surround us. When I lived in Liberia, the length of days and nights hardly varied, and instead of four seasons, there was rain time and dry time. It wasn’t bad, but it was different. And when I lived in California, I learned an odd lesson: even perfect weather can be boring if it goes on and on and on.

      I’ve read some interesting articles about what the coming of electricity meant to society. Of course it’s wonderful, and I wouldn’t for a second want to give it up. But it’s also led to people extending their days unnaturally — our nationwide sleep deficit attests to that! The natural world’s smart enough to rest from time to time.

    1. Thanks, Arti! I thought of you yesterday when I found a big group of white pelicans at one of our refuges. I’d seen a scattered few, but yesterday there could have been two hundred birds. They were too far away for any sort of photo, but I’m hoping to find them closer in the future.

  6. yep, the kites are also gone. I brought my hummingbird feeders in, washed and put away. put the bird feeder out with the deluxe blend but no takers. where are the birds? no sparrows even. plenty of white wing doves though.

    1. My experience is that from late October into December, there’s a lot of silence and a lot of absent birds. I haven’t seen a bluejay for weeks, and someone finally explained that, once the pecans and acorns ripen, they prefer those to peanuts. I’m sure that other species are feeding on the natural seeds that are available now. I’m seeing doves at the feeders, and the occasional chickadee, but that’s about it. My sparrows are gone, too. I have started seeing my wrens again, so I’m going to get some fresh mealworms for them.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Dawn. I always tend toward certain poets, like Mary Oliver, but it’s rewarding to keep exploring, and find poets who are less familiar.

    1. When I started following bloggers from truly northern climes — like you! — I stopped fussing so much about the conditions our birds face in winter. If your birds can survive the bitterly cold weather and reduced food sources, our ducks certainly can cope with a freeze!

  7. Dear Linda,
    thanks for sharing this poem. We had flocks with several thousand wild geese here arriving from the Arctic. We love it when these pinkfoot and brent geese flying above our house every late evening with their magic call.
    Do you know the semi-holy Persian poem of the Sufis by Farid ud-Din Attar “Conference of the Birds”?
    Keep well
    The Fab Four of Cley
    :-) :-) :-) :-)

    1. I saw some photos of Brent geese just last week. I wasn’t familiar with them; they certainly are beautiful. Large flocks of any species are impressive, but I have a special love for the geese.

      I didn’t know a thing about “Conference of the Birds.” I found this fine article on a Harvard site. After reading it, I was both intrigued and entranced, and have it on my list for wintertime reading. I was especially taken with this line from the article: “In the body of the work, Attar mounts his critique of a politically and morally bankrupt society through the guise of a community of feckless birds who seek a leader to bring some order to their lives.” That certainly resonates. Thank you!

    1. Thinking about that need for change, it occurred to me that there’s one difference between us and the geese. However they do it, they know where they’re going, and they don’t forget where they’ve come from, so they can return. Far too often, we humans ‘fly off’ without a clue. Maybe now there can be a little less “flying off the handle” that my mom always warned about!

  8. Your beautiful photo, evocative prose and this beautiful poem are a perfect combination. We still have hummingbirds here and are treasuring them. We saw an eagle the other day on Mount Tamalpais. Too far away to photograph but good to know he was there.

    1. Are your eagles coming or going? Or are they year-round residents? It really doesn’t matter; any thought of any eagles on Mt. Tam is wonderful. If you were out and about along with the eagles, that suggests you finally have some decent air quality, too. I hope so. Migrations always look better against blue skies.

  9. For me, bird migration is Nature inhaling and exhaling. Drawing birds from nesting grounds and spewing them upon food-rich beaches, prairies and jungles. The heartbeat of our existence.

    And now you have gone and introduced me to yet another wonderful poet which must be explored during my copious spare time. Thank goodness I have plenty of coffee handy.

    1. That’s a wonderful metaphor. I’ve never heard anyone use inhaling/exhaling for migration, but it feels exactly right. Just yesterday I found one of our refuges populated by perhaps two hundred white pelicans and more roseate spoonbills than I’ve ever seen in one group. My long lens wasn’t quite long enough for a decent photo, but I almost literally stumbled over a Wilson’s snipe as a consolation prize.

  10. A perfect poem, Linda. We noticed the migration more when we lived on the coast, but do miss the hummers for sure. Here in the city, there are no other arrivals to look forward to taking their place,

    1. It is different in the city, but I’ll bet there still are plenty of migrating species around. You might keep an eye on the crape myrtles in your neighborhood. Ours fill up with goldfinches when they arrive. They seem to really like that tree’s seeds. On the other hand, if there aren’t as many birds, you certainly have plenty of deer.

  11. The Canada geese have made it to my neck of the flatlands. I appear to be (again) in the final approach to a playa lake. They honk over on their way in and out of the park where the lake is.

    1. How long do they hang around in your area? Through the winter? Or do they just stop on their way farther south? I heard sandhill cranes this weekend. I don’t think there were many, but their calls are unmistakable; I think I remember that they come through your area, too. I miss the days when the prairie west of Katy would fill up with geese by the hundreds of thousands. It was quite a sight — and quite a sound.

    1. Isn’t it fun to think about how we’re connected by something so ephemeral as migrating birds? I used to welcome birds that appeared here without giving much thought to where they’d come from. Now, I think of them ‘there’ as well as ‘here.’

  12. Another sign of the timeless rhythms and expected actions of nature. It is comforting and heartening! Lovely shot, Linda. I miss the hummers too.

    1. What’s surprised me is the number of butterflies I’ve seen in the past week. I’m not sure whether they’re monarchs or some other species — it’s hard to identify an orange butterfly on the wing from a car or a boat deck — but it’s even more proof of nature getting on with things. It is comforting, and a reminder that we’re only a part of the grand scheme of things.

  13. I know that technically my county is within the area of the Pacific Flyway, but I don’t know the meaning of the changing of the mostly songbird population in my back yard. I wonder if that Great Horned Owl is just returning to my neighborhood from the north?

    I have longed to visit the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, where it is certain that at this time of year one would get a thrilling view of migrating birds. I should look into that today!

    Your photo is really great!

    1. The Sacramento River Delta’s apparently one of the birding ‘hotspots’ in the country. I hope you do visit, and share your experiences with us. I’ve read that millions of snow geese can show up there.

      I don’t know how it is in your area, but the apparent disappearance of some of your birds may not be due to migration. In the fall, in October and November (depending on the weather), many of my birds stop coming to feeders, and generally aren’t visible. Part of the reason is ripening seed; given a choice, they prefer natural food to even the best tidbits from the stores. That makes their reappearance even more delightful.

  14. Thankyou for the beautiful photograph and poem – portrayals of avian life patterns. We often look to the skies to exercise imagination but bird migrations offer us mesmerizing views of the realities of life. You have once again captured the astounding order of nature.

    1. That’s right. I spent a good bit of my childhood on my back in the grass, seeking images in the clouds. Now, I enjoy watching the clouds of birds moving overhead: one of the most amazing realities in the world. The Psalmist may have lifted up his eyes to the hills, but there are more than hills to see if we just look up.

    1. Thank you for saying so. I’ve often thought that poetic prose can be as lovely — or even more lovely — than writing meant as a poem. It takes a certain kind of attention, though — at least for me. Clearing out the mental clutter helps a good bit.

    1. Many thanks, Derrick. It wasn’t until after I posted the photo that I recognized its Escher-like qualities. Perhaps Escher himself was quite taken with views like this.

  15. Constant change and changing constantly.
    My mother is a bird lover. Bluebirds that have her trained to throwing meal worms out if they perch on the porch roof by her bedroom window. Hummingbirds that no longer migrate, opting to stay year round, never mind freezes and snow, for her to thaw their feeders through the winter for best choices of nesting spots in the spring.

    1. I smiled at your story of your mother and her affection for her birds. I admire her sense of responsibility, too. Once we tempt natural migrants to stay, they become dependent, and not everyone is willing to nurture them through the hard seasons. I keep a stash of dried meal worms for my wrens and mockingbirds. The mockingbirds seem to favor them for their babies, and I’m happy to keep them supplied.

      1. I worry what will happen the winter she is unable to tend their feeders. Perhaps she will wean off the feeders slowly for a few years before it’s too late.

        1. I do make a practice of not filling my feeders every now and then. Even if I’ve been gone for three or four days, it takes about ten minutes for everyone to be back at the table when the seed reappears. They’re resilient little critters, and will find what they need elsewhere. They just prefer an easy meal — like me!

  16. I’ve been noticing quite a few Vs passing by overhead in recent weeks. The geese really get my attention with their raucous honking.

    1. Now you’ve reminded me of a line I came up with for a post about the pre-Christmas shopping chaos. I described the cars in the shopping center parking lot as sounding like “the honking of a thousand demented geese.” I still like that. I might have to pull it out again this year. None of the actual geese around here seem at all demented, thank goodness. They’re just going about their business, and doing it very well.

  17. Your photo is so serene in its suspended motion and simple colors. I really love it! I’ve been watching and enjoying geese more than usual this fall. I generally just tolerate them because of their mess, but this year I seem to have spent more time noticing their up-in-the-air activity. I’d like to think I’m becoming more patient and positive, but I’m not totally convinced … it might be a fluke!

    1. It might be a fluke, or it might be a perfectly lovely way to escape some of the on-the-ground chaos of this very strange year. Most of us don’t migrate on a seasonal basis (except for all those RVs with South Dakota and Nebraska plates heading to the coast), but we have our routines, and they’ve been significantly disrupted. If the geese can serve as a reminder of predictability and purposefulness, then I say bring on the geese — and all of their migratory friends.

  18. I like the idea of the migratory coding as instilled in the creatures with “delicate certainty.”
    When the weather is still fine, I just admire the V’s of geese headed south, but when we get into the cold gray weather, I always think “Hey hang on a minute, I’ll go with you!”

    1. Those last two lines of the poem really caught me, too. Expanding just a little, the last five lines suggest that whatever ‘extra baggage’ the migrants are carrying, it’s not much of a burden.

      When it turns cold and gray here, there’s nowhere else to go. I sometimes get a sense that the herons and ducks and geese are looking at one another and saying, “Hey! Wait a minute. That travel agent didn’t say anything about this!”

    1. I love watching the migrations, no matter which birds are involved. I thought the poem captured both the mystery and beauty of the phenomenon, which is just as stirring as the sight of a murmuration.

    1. You’re welcome! It’s one of those poems that deserves second and third readings; there’s as much hidden under the surface as is hidden beneath the birds’ feathers!

  19. Love the photograph, it has a very “eastern” feel to it, calling to mind an Japanese-like ink wash painting I have. The balance is there in the midst of a kind of chaotic rush. As for Canada geese, et alia, I recall them passing through when I grew up on the farm in Alberta. Here, in Ontario, they stick around and being a ways from fields we don’t see those other migrating types, but I have warm memories of that grain dust smell accompanying the sight of wings at work.

    1. Our senses certainly are intertwined. A whiff of one kind of smoke in autumn recalls burning midwestern leaf piles. Another smoke, borne on an east wind from Louisiana, takes me back to burning fields in Liberia. When it comes to sight, there’s nothing like the flocks of geese. Earlier this week, I noticed a flock of at least two hundred snow geese wheeling above me while at work. There are some things that truly do stop us in our tracks, and that sight was one.

    1. I’ve never had much luck photographing flocks of birds, but I was pleased with this. It’s cropped a bit from a larger photo, which allowed me to highlight the birds that were more in focus. And I agree about the poem. I haven’t read much from Anne Porter, but this was not only a fine poem to pair with the photo, it served as an invitation to find more of her work.

    1. I think I might have seen a snippet from the film, or perhaps the trailer. What I saw just now is beautifully done. I’m a sucker for films of murmurations, too. We see small ones here from time to time, but nothing like the ones that have been filmed in England.

      This is one of those photos that evokes the time and place that I made it. I could take you to the exact field right now — although it wouldn’t be a rainy day, as this one was.

      1. The movie is very well done and at times you are flying within the flock, above, or below. Somewhere there is a film about the making. If you cannot find it at a local library I own it and would be happy to send it out for you to watch…or you could pay YouTube.

        Have you been getting enough rain or was this one welcome? We have had a few good events but are still quite below where we should be and I’ve never seen Atkins Reservoir as low as it was the other day. I am really shocked that Amherst did not put water use restriction in place at all so far this year.

        1. There’s not been nearly enough rain here. Burn bans are creeping closer to us, and several areas I enjoy are in severe drought. As for that rainy day that kept the geese grounded enough for a photo? It was taken in November — of 2014. Sometimes the perfect spot for a photo doesn’t show up right away.

    1. It is one of ‘those’ poems, isn’t it? Sometimes I come across a poem that seems like a room where we’ve been invited to enter. It can take a little while to feel at home, but when that feeling comes, it’s wonderful.

  20. Thanks so much, Linda, for sharing this tranquil poem from Anne Porter. She captures the magic of migration very well. I also enjoyed your poetic words about the migration, and appreciated the link to her bio. Amazing that she published her first collection at age 83. Inspiring.

    1. It’s wonderful to find a bit of evidence that new creative endeavors can begin later in life. I think it’s been more common with painters, but Porter’s writing certainly can hold its own with anyone’s.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the photo, and the poem. Loving birds as you do, you know the magic of migration — and I envy your time in the Pacific flyway! We do have large flocks of white pelicans and roseate spoonbills arriving now. I’m hoping to get some better photos of the spoonbills this weekend — if they haven’t moved on.

    1. In the past few days, I’ve seen the first of our goldfinches arrive. It’s another sure sign that winter’s coming, even though our temperatures still seem like September or early October. They’re a reminder that in your world, winter’s well on its way, and the birds are smart enough to skedaddle!

      I’m glad you like the poem. Her work wasn’t familiar to me, but I’ve enjoyed exploring it.

  21. That is a beautiful image of the snow geese you captured, and I enjoyed the poem by Anne Porter. I am unfamiliar with her, and appreciate the introduction to her work. I have bookmarked your link.

  22. I’m glad you enjoyed the poem. I certainly did. Anne Porter doesn’t seem to be as well known as she deserves; I’m glad I found her. Her words certainly seemed to fit with the photo of the geese, and besides: most of the certainties of life are delicate to one degree or another, so we can take her words as our own, as well.

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