Birding at Dusk

Sunset at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Two hours before sunset the sky is filled with day. The colors of the Earth are vibrant beneath the blue sky and it is quiet. There is still time before the night comes.

At the first hint of change, from day to night, the forests and the fields and even the lakes will become alive again–a frenzy of feeding before the light runs out. Fish reveal themselves on the surface of the water and birds make their hurried calls to eat before dark.

You’re apt to hear the chittering of a Kingfisher making its rounds above the water–diving in and reemerging with a small fish. If you pay attention, you may see the bird land on its chosen branch, perhaps a downed tree sticking out from the shore. Keep watching because you just might observe the Kingfisher bashing its prey on the branch, incapacitating the fish before it is swallowed.

One hour before sunset the sky is gold and the lighting becomes divine with the hint of heaven reaching down through the leaves. Most birds will use this time quietly. Their locations will only be revealed to you in the rustling of the leaves and the motions among the trees.

Thirty-minutes before sunset the sky is becoming red and pink and purple and blue and . . .

The colors of the Earth are no longer vivid, but the sky bleeds an artist’s palette. Visual observation is still possible here, but behavior is what we’re looking for. How does nature behave before bed?

There is a calming that occurs in the final seconds of daylight, a peace available to those who are there to experience it.   

It is in these moments that the world becomes beautiful again–and indeed it is necessary for us to be reminded of this. No matter the difficulties of your day and the challenges of the night, these moments will be there for you.

If only you have a mind and a heart to observe.

The Restlessness Within Us All–Zugunruhe

Tundra Swans
Tundra Swans migrate from the far reaches of Northern Canada and the Arctic Tundra to winter near the fresh water lakes of coastal North Carolina.

Restlessness will beset us all–a need to move, to get out, to run away, or to walk toward. These times of unease can redefine us or reground us in what we already know to be true.

We may find ourselves moving away from home and the only things that are familiar. We may trudge through the wilderness of our lives in hopes of finding something new or reassuring. We may find ourselves far away and in need of making the long journey home, forever changed with the layers of life that cling to our skin.

In these moments, there is a deep sense of longing for something mysteriously on the fringes of our lives. Those who move, whether it be backward or forward, home or away, should find relief in their willingness to explore the surroundings of their being. For this willingness is one giant part of what makes you, You.

Birds too have these moments of restlessness; and a bird’s restlessness is called zugunruhe. Like a tree’s leaves, a bird’s sense of belonging changes with the seasons. When the time comes each Spring and Fall, migratory birds head North and South, respectively.

Zugunruhe refers specifically to migratory restlessness. It is a mysterious quality that reveals itself only during migratory periods. During these times, migratory birds are known to be particularly restive–ready for the right wind or weather to make their long flight to their seasonal homes.

For a long time, humans have marveled at the mysteries of migration. But diligent research is starting to answer most of our questions. For example:

Migratory birds are able to orient themselves in many different ways. Research has shown that birds have an incredible skill set for navigation.

Birds can read the magnetic fields of the Earth to navigate the globe.

Birds can orient themselves using the sun. Diurnal songbirds, such as warblers, prefer to navigate at night and can use the stars to navigate.

Birds who have traveled the path before can use landmarks, such as mountains or the coastline, to find their way either North or South.

Even first-year migratory birds display signs of zugunruhe. A first-year bird that is caged will leave its perch and flutter in the exact direction that it needs to fly toward. This suggests that zugunruhe is something innate within each individual bird–a deep knowledge of the need to go and the exact direction it needs to follow.

Migratory birds display zugunruhe for the duration it would take to actually fly to their intended destination. If it takes two weeks for a specific specie to get to its winter home, a caged bird of the same specie will show signs of zugunruhe for two weeks. It’s as if the birds know the exact time they’re supposed to start and end their long journeys.

Reflecting on zugunruhe I cannot help but relate the idea to the human experience. Is the restlessness within us all some sort of innate impulse? Is it driving us toward something or somewhere specific? How come it pushes some further away from home than others?

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the mysteries of migration. Something very human. Something that expounds on an individual’s need to move and adapt. Something only the birds really know.

Research Links:

Science Direct

Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms of Homing and Migration in Birds

The Sixth Sense of Direction, or, Navigation Secrets of Migratory Birds

Peace and the Birds You Will Find

Hummingbird perched on a branch. Photo by Tripti Suwal.

When you find yourself in a wood, alone; and you spot a bird of interest within plain sight, your thoughts will cease and your focus will be attuned to the image of the bird. Not only the image, but the movements and the sounds and its surroundings will be regarded with great sensitivity. Your breathing will become slow and calming, disrupting little of the natural world that surrounds you. Your dependence on your senses heightens–seeing, hearing, and the feeling of air moving between the trees. It is a moment that belongs solely to you, the bird, and these woods. A shared moment unto yourself and the natural world, a bit of peace hidden in the stillness.  

Then the bird will fly off to some unknown spot, just beyond the reach of your eyes. Its song will be the only identifiable mark that lets you know it is still there with you. So you glance in that direction, careful to spot any movements amid the foliage. You listen, intently, considering a move forward toward the bird observed, or perhaps moving on. You will hear the bird make its calls and you will hear other things between the leaves of the trees. Again, a bit of peace hidden in the melody.

After a time, the bird’s song will cease and you will be left alone in a wood, feet firmly planted on soil trod from time to time by passersby in day and foxes at night. The air will move by you too as it slaloms between the trees. If it is dusk in the summertime you will surely hear the croaking frogs. If it is winter, the stillness will be louder than the falling snow. Take heed to find yourself in this moment and acknowledge the chance meeting you had with the bird observed.


Collective Awe, and the Eclipse

Solar Eclipse
Photo by Stormie Billings

There are moments of transcendent awe which inspire us and instruct us on the mysteries of being human. After such a moment we often hope to turn and share the experience with another. If, by chance, there is a welcomed friend nearby, our words tend to fail us. We are often unable to explain the moment in a way that recreates the feeling. Most of the time, these moments pass before we can even articulate to ourselves the significance of what just occurred. These moments must be experienced because, in most cases, it is too difficult for us to communicate.

This is why the Great American Eclipse of 2017 was so special. People from across the nation looked up into the heavens and witnessed the awe-inspiring event as one. The feelings that welled up in one person, welled up in another. There was a collective awe that spread across the continent as the moon blocked out the image of the sun and we looked skyward, eyes wide and mouths open. We were wonderstruck.

I missed the eclipse, but I could feel the wake of the sublime as those who witnessed the event struggled to find the words:

“I feel different. I can’t describe how. But I do feel different.” (The Washington Post)

“I’ve seen people get on their knees and pray . . . I’ve seen scientists cry. All of a sudden, you realize, ‘Man, I’m part of this and I have instincts that I never, ever feel. I’m part of nature.’” (The Guardian)

“Some people cry. Some people scream.” (The New York Times)

What these voices are trying to find words for is the transcendent. This feeling of peace and uncertainty, this feeling of smallness and greatness all at once. It is a feeling that brings life back into our lungs and perspective into our minds. All at once, the moment is clear and simple, then immediately complex and out of reach. In the case of a solar eclipse, science can explain the math and the astronomy that creates the event, but even then our minds struggle to fathom the idea that the sun, our sun, has been blocked from view–blocked by a moon that is just the right size and just the right distance to perfectly cover the bright, glowing star we call our own.

Perhaps, this eclipse created a few eclipse chasers out there, but the feeling the eclipse invokes is not something that cannot be found elsewhere. Nature provides.

Not only does nature provide for our physical bodies (food, water, shelter, companionship, etc.), Nature also provides enrichment for our souls. If only we take the time to look, we may find “eclipse” moments in other aspects of the natural world. The magnitude of these moments may not be as grand as a solar eclipse, or as easily shared, but they exist and persist nonetheless.

Look for them in the quiet mornings or in certain sunsets. These moments exist in the colors that spread across the sky and in the vista of a stormfront moving across the plains. They exist in those instances when you see lightning in the dead of night, or the beating wings of a hummingbird, or in the loneliness of a forest, or the expanses your eyes set sight on while on the edge of a mountain.

Nature is a provider of all our physical needs, but if we take the time to look and listen and observe, the natural world will provide nourishment for our souls too.