The Poets’ Birds: Wood Storks

 

Despite the wide variety of birds I’ve featured in this series, I never thought to include the wood storks (Mycteria americana). Having seen them only once, in August of 2016, I always assumed their visit to the Brazoria Refuge was an aberration. The Cornell birding site supported that conclusion, noting that the species occurs in only a few areas of the United States: particularly in wetlands or preserves along the Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia coastlines.

On the other hand, storks believed to originate in breeding colonies in Mexico and Central America have been reported in the lower Mississippi River Valley, Louisiana, and Texas during the late summer and fall. That could help to explain my second sighting of the birds in early July of this year — in the same area of the Brazoria preserve where I first encountered them.

I assumed that the pair shown above, and a half-dozen others wading among the grasses, soon would be gone, but by July 21 an impressive group of a hundred or more — both juveniles and adults — were roaming the flats, perhaps attracted by the falling water levels in the freshwater ponds and the consequent heavier than usual concentrations of fish.

The bird’s fishing technique is unusual, and fun to watch. Dipping its open bill into the water, the stork waits for a passing fish. Once it senses a fish, the stork snaps its bill shut, and dinner is served. According to National Geographic, the fish don’t have much of a chance; wood storks are capable of snapping their bills shut in as little as 25 milliseconds.

Despite the group as a whole being almost beyond the range of my camera, a few individuals were close enough for me to capture some of the oddly appealing details of their appearance. On both occasions the storks were accompanied by flocks of roseate spoonbills, but those photos can wait for another day. Here, it’s the wood storks’ time to shine, along with William Logan’s memorable poem.

 

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,
cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.
For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.
Then, one evening through the gathered gloom,
as if something uncanny had entered a room,
across algae green as an Alpine meadow,
eight white ghosts floated faintly through the shadows,
pausing, worrying, then slowly moving on,
the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns.
When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,
great shears to cut some invisible thread.
The pale birds stalked like something newly dead.
One lifted a black-edged wing, in search of food,
and somehow that broke your somber mood.
Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,
working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.
You said they looked like ladies’ hats,
white as the color of love, if love has color —
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.
                                                            “On the Wood Storks” ~ William Logan

 

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on poet William Logan, please click here.

The Poets’ Birds: Geese

White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons)

Named for the distinctive white band that surrounds its bill, the white-fronted goose commonly is known as the specklebelly, thanks to dark brown or black patches and bars that mark its breast. Not readily apparent on the ground, the ‘speckled belly’ becomes obvious when the bird takes flight. Given its pinkish bill and orange legs and feet, it’s not a hard bird to identify, but this small flock flying above the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge was the first I’ve seen since coming to Texas.

Specklebellies nest in the high Arctic before following the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways to wintering grounds in California’s central valley, the Mississippi alluvial plain, or the marshes and wetlands of coastal Texas.The birds often mix with snow geese, or fly with assorted species of ducks; in other photos of this group, a few northern shovelers can be seen.

Decades before I experienced great flocks of geese of any sort, I became entranced by Frankie Laine’s “Wild Goose,” a song released in 1950. I drove my mother to distraction by playing their 78 rpm recording of it again and again, thrilled by the thought of flying with the geese.

“Wild Goose” ~ Frankie Laine

I suspect few remember Frankie Laine today, but his metaphorical goose remains a part of our culture, thanks to Mary Oliver. One of her best-known and best-loved poems, “Wild Geese,” celebrates that same harsh and exciting call: perhaps inviting new generations to follow where the wild goose goes.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Cormorants

Double-crested cormorant  (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Given their propensity to perch atop pilings or promontories while drying their outstretched wings, cormorants too often are regarded as little more than featureless silhouettes.

In truth, both their appearance and their behaviors are complex and interesting. Fishermen may despise them for their ability to out-fish humans, and tourists often ridicule them for their apparent ungainliness, but at least one poet found himself inspired by the remarkable bird.

The birds don’t alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
astonishment that collects
in chill air. Be glad.
They enter their due
moment never begging,
and enter ours
without parting day. See
how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We’re the nervous ones.
If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn’t hear
what singing completes us?
                                  “Praise Them” ~ Li-Young Lee

 

Comments always are welcome.
Visit The Poetry Foundation for more information on poet Li-Young Lee.
For more images of this accomodating cormorant found at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, see my latest post on Lagniappe.
 

The Poet’s Birds: The Perchers

Scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) perched along a Galveston West End bayou

While herons and robins, egrets and larks receive multitudes of mentions in poetry — if not complete poems written in their honor — other birds seem to be ignored. Walter de la Mare wrote about the spotted flycatcher, and Nissim Ezekiel memorialized an unfortunate paradise flycatcher, but the scissor-tailed flycatcher, sometimes known as the Texas bird of paradise, has no well-known poem to call its own.

On the other hand, one typical behavior of our flycatcher — the tendency to perch on power lines or barbed wire fences while scanning for prey — has been written about. In what may be her best-known poem, Emily Dickinson takes the perching bird as her controlling metaphor, and expands on it delightfully.

 

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                                                        ~ Emily Dickinson

 

Comments always are welcome. For more information about the scissor-tailed flycatcher (which happens to be the state bird of Oklahoma), please click here.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Robins

Proust had his madeleines. I have my robins.

The murmuring of robins evokes for me a quieter, more gracious world: childhood summers filled with the soft, shallow breathing of curtains at the window; faint scents of spirea and lilac; quiet, melodic wisps of song as parents encourage their nestlings toward sleep.

Baby robins wait for worms in Mena, Arkansas

Robins migrating through Texas will call to one another from the treetops, or create a tell-tale rustling of leaves as they search out insects and fruit in wooded areas, but coastal dwellers rarely hear this thrush’s song.

Last week, after sighting a first robin in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I luxuriated in their calls and songs as I traveled through Missouri and Arkansas. Occasionally, amused but sympathetic, I moved away so that parents could feed their babies.

The babies’ parent with a worm, nicely turned

The nature of robins — their cheerfulness, their industry, their almost self-effacing demeanor — helps to make them delightful icons of midwestern life. The trill of the corn-clinging blackbird might be more obvious; the rush of air past a nighthawk’s wings more dramatic; but the dependable robins are the ones whose song begins and ends the day.

Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio and a resident of Camden, Maine as a teenager, certainly heard the robin’s song throughout her formative years. But she more than heard it; she experienced, internalized, and reshaped the song, returning it to us here in soft, solemn, and perfect words that honor the well-loved bird.

 

It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves––
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness––
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree––
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing––
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfect blue sky–––all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
For more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
                           “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” ~ Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.