• Writers In The Mountains

Silver Wings

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

By Carrie Bradley Neves |

The birds of North America. The birds of the Northeast Coast of the U.S. The birds of New England. The birds of the Catskills. The birds of Halcott Valley and Vly Mountain. For all the variety of birds on our continent, as we telescope into our own bailiwick, the number of species that live and thrive and contribute and inspire and breed and beautify and visit and entertain in our high-altitude bucolic bubble are relatively few. When winter settles in, even fewer feathered friends flap around here. Some seem just to pop down to Fleischmanns, or perhaps Phoenicia, for a few hundred feet's difference in warmth; some go the extra miles to New Jersey – or North Carolina, or Central or even South America. The concept of migration, as familiar as it is, is so full of mystery. But we feel when it's on, and feel its tug ourselves – while we may not head for the equator, we head inside: to the fire; to the deep freeze; to the chore corners; to the back cabinets of winter coats, boots, hats, gloves, and mufflers; to the pile-up of postponed summer thoughts. Here in the country, like anywhere else but in a special way, even if only subconsciously, we register changes in movement outside our doors. As the landscape turns brown and then to black and white after three long seasons of oscillating green, the last hay is cut and no longer waving in the wind. Chipmunks are working at maximum clip – peripheral flashes of ambulatory caramel we see while we shuffle around putting on snow tires or laying straw on flowerbeds. Rodents who burrow their winter beds are keeping their noses out of roadside business and have dug in. Bears are bunkered in their bear caves. The streams slow while their banks fill in with snow and ice. The black branches of trees mirror the invisible image of slumbering roots below. And as the rainbow of leaves fades, at the end of summer and all through fall, we see in the trees, even when it's quiet and there's not a trace of breeze, a fluttering of life and light, as birds putter in the upper uppers. While so many of the wild lives nearby are secret, hidden, and doing their best to stay silent, birds are rummaging near our feet, streaking the sunset, and hopping around the canopies – collecting seeds, turning over new and old leaves, and animating the branches. Birds fill our dawns and dusks with a mind-boggling multiplicity of music and cheerful, flirty, or admonitory chitchat. They swell their breasts and throats with what looks like perfect joy. They carve our skies with an urgent or whimsical but always heartfelt slicing of wings. They lay eggs, perfect orbs exactly the same color and size. While they may gorge annoyingly on our berries, they also eat insects and grubs and larvae in massive daily rations, protecting our trees and strengthening our gardens. And they pollinate and disseminate, essentially planting flowers in our meadows and reinforcing the crucial understory of our forests. Because: They can fly. Many of the readers here know, I'm a birdbrain. Yup: I'm cuckoo for them. Their musicianship. Their dinosauric adaptability (an oxymoron in a way, but credit where it's due). Their architectural prowess, seen in every nest. Their beaks cleverly designed to match what they eat. Their blink-of-an-eye nimbleness. Their gorgeous plumage, from fifty shades of blue – navy to slate to periwinkle – in the ordinary jay to the handsome tweed suit of the song sparrow to the soft and demure black (or brown) felt jacket and cotton-ball white commerbund of the junko. But to go back to square one: how amazing is it that birds can fly? I have watched all of our local birds so closely for so long, I think I can identify most of them simply by the style of their flying – the way they flap their wings, the paths they pick, whether they solo or travel in flocks, whether or not they include an in-flight soundtrack. It's a very exciting way to recognize the birds we share our world with, whether a black silhouette against a predawn sky or silver wings in the sunset. The chickadee (and its relative the titmouse) is one of my favorites. These small, round-headed birds with black caps and black legs and feet and tiny jet black eyes to match, fly in scallops – short, curvy bursts, up and down from point A to point B, or rising higher and higher, or free-falling for a pinpoint landing. This telltale lilt looks as if they are hanging bunting for a parade, or decorating a cake. Surely they are the ones we've seen draping Snow White's silky ribbons on her skirt. Robins and blue jays have a similar heftyish size and build, and also a similar way of flying: they flatten their profile in flight and pump their way in beelines – like bees, in fact, or a bullet, with a kind of studied steady flapping and judicious use of currents. A difference between them, though, is that blue jays often fly in groups, at least as mated couples and often in small flocks, and will detour and cavort like a bunch of kids on a playground or a rugby team. Whereas, while they will flock together for worm hopping, robins often fly alone, maintaining an air of earnestness, focus, and destination. Also, roaming blue-jay packs famously shoot their mouths off with their many calls (looking for trouble – it's all about them!), while robins save their breath for a little talking to themselves just at lift-off … later they may settle in for a full recital on a high perch at sunset. I call these the "Robin Hours." Now, nuthatches and woodpeckers may elude the observer's eye for distinctive flight a bit, because the way they climb is so distinctive, and a hallmark for each. Nuthatches almost always walk upside down, craning their elastic necks to look for danger or opportunity as they go; woodpeckers hop straight up (mostly, although sometimes down) the trunk, using their Spidey sense and ruddering with their short tails. Both types of bird like to commentate on their own progress with steady chirps: the woodpecker yips like a very young puppy and the nuthatch sounds like that same puppy's chew toy. Before the snow piles up, we see the last forays of the summer flockers – big, convivial (and, it has to be said, greedy) groups of goldfinches and starlings, extra-small and extra-large entries on the avian arc. These flocks fly as if magnetically attached and prefer the airspace above the treetops, creating the crowd noise you'd expect from just such crowds. Occasionally we'll get flocks of cedar waxwings, as well, rummaging boldly in late-season blueberries bushes, and I've seen them gathered near flat, wide stretches of Vly Creek, indulging, as Peterson says, in fly-catching. That's a loop-de-loop airshow indeed. Then there are the hoppers. Juncoes and our many local sparrows (song, white-throated, chipping, and others) are grounded sorts, preferring to forage in fallen leaves and under shrubs and trees. And there is no lockstep or chicken-walking here; they hop with both feet at once, like wind-up toys, peeking into bushes, inspecting every blade of grass – and they can move fast, without lifting a feather. (The song sparrow in particular, however, I've noticed, will leave a piece of well-trod ground, fly to the highest tip of the tallest tree they can find, and sing a serenade to celebrate.) Somewhere in between are the cardinal and the warblers, able but somewhat reluctant flyers that will forage and seek high perches but who prefer short trips between thickets. (Once, while working on my porch, I watched a common yellowthroat warbler chase and feast upon aphids within the lower boughs of a nearby pine tree for an hour, with all the skills and grace of a swashbuckler – aptly dressed in his Zorro mask.) And the robin shares this category too; these versatile (and I think underappreciated, in spite of their iconic fame) birds love both high- and low-hanging fruit and seek it out over large territories with their muscular flight but breakfast on worms, running headlong like roadrunners and then halting as if in a game of freeze tag when their magic powers tell them where the worm has turned – to mix a few metaphors. And now it is suddenly spring again, with return migrations and the luxury of clear views of flocks, gaggles, or lone wolves of stripe and color, from underbrush to tree tops. (I love the sight of a flock of goldfinches soaring together overhead to their stop down the road, twittering as they go, while beneath them robins are scattered all over the lawn, but each completely minding its own business. Perhaps because in the mountains we live at the feet of a massive metaphor in itself, the mind continually seizes on metaphors, like this: The chickadees are hope, flying confidently but with small dips, like a heartbeat, as the world and circumstances turn, but ever hopefully steady.

Blue jays are faith, flying strong and arrow-straight but always able to take a curve ball, cheering themselves on and landing with a flourish of their colorful wings. Finches and starlings and doves (the latter lining our phone wires like an arcade game) are community.

Juncoes and cardinals and warblers are jesters, keeping our sense of humor intact and reminding us to stay grounded, as well as to keep our ears tuned and our eyes ready for astonishing, heartening flashes of color.

Nuthatches and woodpeckers are a lesson in perspective. When's the last time you stood on your head, or took things in from a nose-length distance? It's a whole different way of seeing things.

Sparrows scratching under the bushes are like the simmering and tinkering of our thoughts. And robins – problem solvers, diligent, with an ear to the earth and a song for every sunrise – are compassion. There are so many other birds in the Catskills, each one a unique character. But I can't finish without mentioning the eagles that float slowly through our valley, miraculously aloft with just a few strokes of their six-foot wings. Eagles, of course, are dreams.

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