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A Walking Meditation

Another National Migratory Bird Count day and we are blessed by a perfect May morning–cool, clear, and ringing with birdsong. This time, though, I resolve to take it easy, to move slowly and quietly, to make this day a walking meditation on the beauties of this most splendid of months. Besides, I am getting older and my usual breakneck pace on foot must be modified so that I don’t collapse at midday.

Consequently, when I am awakened at 5:10 a.m. by the eastern towhee that calls outside my window, I lie there listening and am rewarded by the singing of a wood thrush and the trilling of a chipping sparrow. Lulled by the avian choristers, I fall back to sleep for another hour.

An hour later I spring awake, this time for good, and hear a field sparrow, blue jay, common yellowthroat, brown-headed cowbird, gray catbird, yellow-breasted chat, Baltimore oriole, and American robin in my yard as I dress and head downstairs to make breakfast.

First, though, I stand on the veranda and add song sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, American goldfinch and scarlet tanager to my list. But I need to count numbers as well as species and I note down two goldfinches and a pair of mourning doves.

Even though it is 40 degrees, I throw open the kitchen door to listen for birds as I prepare our cheese omelets and heat up the lemon-raisin coffeecake I made the previous day. Two loud songs, those of a great-crested flycatcher and Carolina wren, fill the air.

After breakfast, I stuff my Peterson Field Guide in one pocket and my notebook, pen, and a bottle of water in the other and I am off. Slowly, I walk around the yard looking for the white-crowned sparrow I saw here the day before, the eastern bluebirds that always come into the yard to feed on insects, and the pair of American kestrels that jousted on the electric line the evening before. There is no sign of any of them. Instead, I find a pair of American redstarts in the blooming lilac shrub beside the house, watch a pair of barn swallows swooping over First Field, track down a singing yellow warbler in the maple tree beside the driveway, and note the pair of eastern phoebes that have a nest in our garage. Off in the distance I hear the call of a common flicker.

By the time I start up Guesthouse Trail at 8:05, it is 48 degrees, and the first eastern wood pewee of the year sings “pee-a-wee.” Then another song catches my attention. Because it doesn’t sound like any song I am familiar with, I spend many minutes tracking the bird down. To my surprise, it is a blue-headed vireo singing an uncharacteristic song–a vireo that hasn’t read the books. The other two I hear during the day have.

Off in the woods the first of many ovenbirds yells “Teacher, teacher, teacher.” Worm-eating warblers buzz from their undergrowth hideaways. A black-throated green warbler sings “trees, trees, murmuring trees,” and so they are as a light breeze sways the new, tender, green leaves. Those leaves are just large enough to make spotting birds a challenge. Luckily, I can use my ears to identify the drumming of a ruffed grouse and the drumming and calling of a pileated woodpecker.

I stop to admire the first pink lady slippers blooming on the trail, and near the top of Laurel Ridge, I hit a small migration. Most are yellow-rumped warblers and red-eyed vireos, but then I am stopped in my tracks by two of my favorite warblers–a singing bay-breasted and blackburnian. Since neither nest here, I don’t recognize their songs. I stand and look and listen for as long as they perform, hoping to memorize their songs while admiring the flaming orange throat and head of the blackburnian and the bay-breasted’s more muted reddish-brown throat, upper breast and back of the head.

Since I am looking skyward, I also spot the first turkey vulture of the day gliding overhead, followed a few minutes later by a red-tailed hawk. In the distance a turkey gobbles. A few minutes later, two shots ring out. Sounds like our turkey hunters have bagged the turkey I just counted!

I continue my slow walk along Laurel Ridge Trail and stop to smell the wild azalea in bloom. Then I see a hairy woodpecker climbing an oak tree trunk and hear the sweet, robin-like warble of a rose-breasted grosbeak. A common raven calls overhead and a red-bellied woodpecker from a nearby tree. The calling and chasing of a pair of downy woodpeckers is a prelude to their mating on a tree branch. “Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’ll switch you,” sings a chestnut-sided warbler.

By 9:45 I reach the end of Laurel Ridge Trail and turn on to the Far Field Road. Already, the frenzied birdsong of early morning has quieted. Now I hear only the birds in residence, which includes the first hooded warbler and one American crow. The latter are nesting now and are unusually quiet.

The flowering dogwood is in full splendor along the roadside and I sit on Coyote Bench to listen and look. Finally, I hear the “fee-bee” of a black-capped chickadee and watch a male towhee chasing a black-and-white warbler. The warbler ignores the towhee and continues feeding a few feet away from me. This handsome warbler is one of the earliest arrivals and moves woodpecker-like up and down tree trunks and branches.

A northern cardinal sings from below the road and so does the first black-throated blue warbler of the season. I move on to the Far Field and scan for the bird I hear singing. There he sits, high in a black locust tree, the first indigo bunting to return.

By 11:00 a.m., I have 51 species and my walk back home merely adds numbers to my list, including the red-bellied woodpecker yelling his head off inside our deer exclosure.

I rest by making homemade soup for lunch and then sit on the veranda and watch a pair of pileated woodpeckers on a yard tree. Just as they fly off, a ruby-throated hummingbird hovers beside the same tree. Having gotten my 52nd species, I pull on my boots again. This time I set off for Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails on the ten-year-old clearcut.

Where are the blue-gray gnatcatchers, I wonder. They have been back for weeks and yet I have not heard one. Along Greenbrier Trail I hear or see four. While I am “pishing” up the gnatcatchers, a towhee and a white-throated sparrow flush from a Japanese barberry bush. Many cardinals sing and forage. This has always been a cardinal haven, even before the trees were cut.

Still moving slowly and quietly, I hear a loud, complex song that I can’t identify. Determined to see the bird I spend more than half an hour trying to track it down. But it keeps moving around and when I glimpse it, the leaves hide its body. Desperately, I count the syllables–six–and read the account of every possible warbler song in Peterson. None seems to fit what I am hearing.

Finally, the bird lands on a naked branch and I can hardly believe it. It’s a hooded warbler. I know the American redstart and black-throated green warbler have a variety of songs and I should have guessed by the timbre of the song, if not its pattern, that it was a hooded warbler.

I move on to the Bench Blind and am rewarded with a lovely view of a singing redstart as well as a parade of dogwood trees. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are also plentiful.

Then I wend my way down to the road via Ten Springs Trail and its extension into the uncut forest. There, I stop to contemplate the many jack-in-the-pulpit leaves without flowers. Last year’s drought is probably affecting this year’s blooming jacks. The other wildflowers have gone crazy in the frequent rains. So has our stream. It roars along, drowning out all but the ringing songs of the Louisiana waterthrushes. Then their alarm calls bring in a male scarlet tanager and I look and look at this favorite bird before it flies off.

My eyes now concentrate on the wildflowers. We have been away for ten days and I am pleased that the cool weather has kept them from blooming until now. Even the purple trillium, that bloomed before we left, still hold on to their blossoms.

Beds of foamflowers and wild geraniums, yellow mandarin and white, smooth yellow, long-spurred, and purple violets cover the stream bank and road bank. A line of mitrewort blooms along the stream and on top of a mound formed by a large tulip tree that went over last fall. The mound also holds white violets, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violet leaves, marginal wood ferns, and cinnamon ferns.

Next I find five colonies of the parasitic squawroot that live on the roots of large oak trees. Once, before the clearcut, there were hundreds of them, but I am happy that at least a few of these strange-looking, cone-like, yellow brown wildflowers have survived.

The three white pom-pom-shaped blossoms of sarsaparilla are in bloom on either side of the road. Fringed polygala provides a splash of pinkish-purple on the road bank. White umbels of Canada mayflower, also called wild lily-of-the-valley, stand above its bright green and shiny heart-shaped leaves. The bed of rue anemone near the forks is still as fresh as when it first opened three weeks ago.

But what about the birds? Counting birds is only an excuse to spend the whole day abroad. This day is about appreciating the natural world, about having a reverence for life, about being grateful that I am alive and well and able to once again experience that greatest show on earth–an Appalachian spring.

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