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The Shipwreck Rose: See the Tanager

Wed, 02/03/2021 - 18:12

I’m that person who cannot see the rare bird on the branch, no matter how hard someone points.

There was a snowy owl once in the scrubby woods by Cranberry Hole Road, in Promised Land, when I was about 8, and I remember exactly where that owl was supposed to be — the explaining was patient and the pointing, through the windshield of my father’s truck stopped in the street near the intersection of Bendigo, was emphatic — but I never did glimpse the snowy owl. “Where? Where?”

Instead of seeing the exciting bird I’m meant to see, I have a humiliating habit of seeing common birds and imagining them to be rare and exciting ones.

In my defense, my eyesight is poor. If I think I’ve spotted a rare and very special bird in the blue sky overhead, it’s almost certainly a seagull. This is a good running joke in my household: I persist in identifying falcons who turn out to be turkey vultures wearing disguises (like Wile E. Coyote in costume as a roadrunner), and every time I gesture upward and start shouting “Hawk! Hawk!” my children prepare to turn their faces skyward and inform me it’s a seagull. It’s always a seagull.

What identity your brain assigns to the bird silhouetted darkly against the sun is a handy-dandy pop-psychology personality test: Do you see a common little red finch or do you see a scarlet tanager? I’m always seeing the scarlet tanager. Life is more fun if you have this attitude.

By the way, I realize it’s gauche among certain circles of birders if you call it a seagull. Birders snicker at you. Piffle! Smirk! Birders use the word “gull” and then they specify which sort. Big gulls, small gulls, gulls with black beaks, gulls with yellow beaks, gulls with feet like swim fins, gulls in yellow boots. I insist on “seagull.” Any further ado, coming from my mouth, would be pretentious. (One of the first disputes my Canadian ex-husband and I ever had was when I informed him that the black duck common in our bays — and to be eaten only by the brave — was called a coot. My ex is a birder. He wanted to call it a black scoter. It was a coot.)

Human beings like to see birds as symbols, as portents. I’m thinking of the movie “Kundun,” in which the presence of crows atop the house of an anonymous peasant family in some far, wild reach of Tibet was an indication that the Dalai Lama had been reincarnated within. I’m thinking of my daughter’s first Christmas, when we were surrounded by a flock of bluebirds in Northwest Woods. She was asleep in a baby backpack. It was the first and only time I’ve ever seen bluebirds.

I was raised to be interested in birds, but, to be frank, until recently I’ve never been that bothered. I do recognize this as a personal failing. I’ve long been aware that people with a more, shall we say, evolved humanity — and now I’m thinking of Leo Tolstoy — feel more tenderness for birds and wildlife than I do. (My interest has always been more in the wilderness habits of human beings. Gossip. Plumage. The mating rituals of one-percenters who circle one another in jodhpurs and riding boots at the Sagg Store.) My father tried to draw my attention to birds, to little avail. In the dunes in front of our Amagansett house, he put up a pole and a platform as an invitation for ospreys to build a nest, but no osprey ever came. This was at the end of the 1970s, “Silent Spring” days, before the osprey’s phoenix-like resurrection. Now they are almost as common as cardinals.

Possibly my new curiosity about winged creation has to do with the onward roll of species extinction: Let’s see all the pretty birds before we kill them off! Possibly it’s just something that happens to you when you cross the bar of 50: Let’s make a special trip to Wild Bird Crossing to buy suet cakes, and then let’s have a cup of herbal tea and watch from the window. Whee!

Among the various sorts of entertaining woodpeckers who come to my bird feeder — whee! — a large one who wears a bright-red cap is my favorite. He’s my new best pandemic friend. The bigger and more brightly colored the bird, the better I like it. They’re very aggressive and noisy, these woodpeckers. They’re blockheads. One woke me up from a dead sleep this summer, hammering away at the corner of the house. (Someone should make a cartoon about woodpeckers. Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!)

I never saw that snowy owl near Bendigo Road, but I did once see a great big brown owl. This was when I lived in Nova Scotia. The owl was perched on an industrial light pole in the parking lot behind the ice-skating arena, on a desolate autumn evening. I went back there behind the arena to look at it with Edgar, the fire chief, who ran the Zamboni. Edgar and I stood out there a long time under the streetlight and didn’t say a word. The owl didn’t say anything either, but glanced at us with unconcern, his eyes on something in the dark horizon.

I’ve also seen an eagle. On Election Day, actually. I saw an eagle carve a figure in the air over the East Hampton Star office and then head in slow procession up Main Street. I did. It was an eagle. It was an eagle, I’m telling you!

And then on Inauguration night I was walking my dog by Buell Lane around 9:45 p.m. Town was deserted. I heard a strange bird cry, a sort of screeching call, and looked up. But it wasn’t the actual eagle, it was the golden eagle on the top of the flagpole on the Village Green. The golden eagle at the top of the flagpole — the eagle that holds in its talons the golden ball that sits upon a golden arrow that sits upon a weathervane. The golden eagle was sounding a scree-scree as the wind shifted and his face turned to the west.

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