A true murmuration — the mysteriously coordinated flight of thousands of starlings or other birds — is a wonder to behold. On the other hand, the sights and sounds of smaller migrating flocks stir the soul equally, inviting us to stop, and marvel.
Despite the winding down of our autumn migration season, birds continue to arrive: white ibis threading through clouds; unseen geese or cranes calling to their kind; a sudden upwelling of grackles; kettles of hawks rising into invisibility.
On the day after Christmas, newly arrived sandhill cranes browsed the prairies, while flocks of red-winged blackbirds mixed in apparent comfort with the snow geese feeding in harvested rice fields.
Snow Geese ~ Anser caerulescens
Elsewhere, the constant rising and falling of anonymous dark birds brought to mind a poem published by John Updike in the October 27, 1962 issue of the New Yorker: a reflection on a remarkable phenomenon titled “The Great Scarf of Birds.”
Playing golf on Cape Ann in October
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.
As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.
“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.
Long had it been since my heart
had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
Comments always are welcome.
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.
Osprey, or Fish Hawk ~ John James Audubon
Three years ago, I added the osprey to my Poets’ Birds series, with an entry by our former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.
In the series, I’ve always turned to other poets to highlight the beauty of the birds and the immense satisfaction that comes with observing them. But when our ospreys returned last week, the thrill of hearing their calls echo across the water as they rode north winds back into their winter home was unusually sharp.
On Thursday, there was one bird. On Friday, there were more than a dozen. By Monday of this week, there were birds perched on masts throughout the marinas, chattering and calling to one another as they sorted out their territories. Today, there is this poem: my own tribute to these magnificent birds, composed in the form of an Etheree.
The Return of the Osprey
their crisp, sweet flight
from autumn’s falling
wings stir warm and limpid air
’til remembered fragrance lifts and
swirls, redolent of familiar
prey: the salt-tanged, unknowing, unlucky.
Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.
If it hadn’t been for the osprey, I might have missed the hawks. Earthbound, irritable after weeks of intense heat and drought, trapped in what seemed an interminable summer, I was raising my eyes less and less often to the unchanging, unbearably blue skies.
Despite my inattention, the world had business to attend to. The seasons continued to turn and the great migrations, the mysterious movements we describe so well but comprehend so poorly, began anew.
As always, the mallards and blackbirds were the early arrivals, but it was the osprey I was longing for. Their first call is an affirmation of autumn, their return an occasion for joy. Wheeling in on the thermals, their liquid arpeggios falling like leaves to the earth, they compel admiration and awe. Yesterday, as their unexpected and welcome call swelled my heart and pulled my eyes upward, I noticed another movement in the sky, higher even the ospreys and certainly more impressive.Flying above the ospreys were hawks – more than dozens, perhaps even hundreds. They might have been redtails or sharp-shinned, but I suspect they were broad winged, “kettling” their way among the building cumulus, spinning upward into the sky, silently stitching winged patterns between the clouds. Continue reading