Hot and humid at midafternoon, with a sky that threatened thunderstorms later. I drove out of the Ferry Beach Conference Center campground and headed towards Biddeford and Interstate 95. Slow going through Saco and Biddeford, moderately heavy traffic on the interstate. After I turned on to 495, I could see that the northbound side had very heavy traffic, which came to an almost complete stop at the approaches to 95 north, 93 north, and 3 north; presumably vacationers heading north. It was hazy, hot, and humid, and the thick hot air made distant hills look bluish. I made a quick stop in Stow to eat dinner with Carol and her dad, and then got back on the road. Lots of traffic through Worcester, then a little less through the eastern hills of Connecticut, then more traffic around Hartford, along with heavy rain and lightning. The rain ended leaving a faintly pink sky in the dying light, then light traffic through the steep hills of western Connecticut. A maddening construction delay, then at last I made it to the motel feeling frazzled. This morning I was awakened in my tent by the sound of a Wood Thrush singing.
Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine
Sometime after first light this morning, I came partially awake when a Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) started singing not far from the campground: three or four or five flute-like notes followed by a sort of trill. Birds don’t have larynxes; instead they have syrinxes, which in some species can produce more than one note at a time. Wood Thrushes have an amazingly rich and complex song; the first flute-like notes change in pitch and duration and sometimes seem to include more than one note, and the final trill might incorporate a buzzy sound and flute-like tones and more. The basic structure of the song is always the same, but each iteration of the song is slightly different; I can listen to a Wood Thrush without boredom for a very long time.
I drifted off to sleep, but while sleeping kept listening to the song, which went on and on and on. I had a dream in which I was listening to a Wood Thrush. I kept coming partly awake and marveling at the song, and then telling myself that I had to get some sleep. At last I fell sound asleep, and the alarm awakened me right at 7:00. The Wood Thrush was still singing. I listened as I pulled on my socks and shoes. I kept listening as I walked over to the wash house. I took a quick shower, walked back to my tent, listening to the Wood Thrush, trying to figure out where it was. I thought I might walk over and try to see it. But by the time I got back to my tent, at about 7:15, it stopped singing.
Housework cried out for my attention yesterday morning, and then I drove off to officiate at a wedding in Rhode Island in the afternoon, so I had no time to get outdoors. Fortunately the wedding was at a conference center out in the middle of the woods. It was a two and a half mile drive from the highway along increasingly narrow and winding roads. I kept the car windows down, and listened:
…teakettleteakettleteakettle, that’s a Carolina Wren…
…a little piece of a song, Baltimore Oriole…
…chipchipchipchipchip, Chipping Sparrow….
Then I arrived at the conference center. The wedding was to be outdoors, overlooking a small pond. We did the rehearsal. The wedding got delayed for an hour. It looked like there might be a thundershower at any moment so I didn’t dare go for a walk. I stood on the porch and watched the edge of the pond:
…tiny bird, black with a flash of red: American Restart….
…slightly larger bird on a twig, every few seconds flies out to snag insects: Eastern Kingbird…
…something small and brown, without binoculars there’s no telling….
For those minutes, I was totally focused on birds.
It didn’t rain. At last the wedding started. When you officiate at weddings, you’re presiding over twenty minutes that are very important minutes to at least two people, so I become very focused on the ceremony. And at this wedding, there was another Unitarian Universalist minister in attendance, someone whom I respect and who has very high standards, which increased the intensity of my focus even more. Yet I couldn’t quite turn off my earlier focus on birds. During the prayer I heard a buzzy pee-a-wee pee-a-wee, and I thought: Eastern Wood Peewee. It wasn’t a distraction, I was just doubly focused.
In the middle of the vows, off in the distance, some flute-like notes; was that a Wood Thrush? (the song of a Wood Thrush is one of those few sounds that truly thrill me to my marrow). “Please repeat after me….” It was a Wood Thrush. A little thrill passed down my spine, and the superstitious side of me thought: This must be a good omen; this marriage is going to be blessed. No focus on my part, no professional critique by another minister, no amount of preparation, will ever equal the importance of the glorious song of one small drab brown bird.
at a ministers’ retreat, Wareham, Mass.
After the high winds died down midday, I went out for a walk in the woods around the retreat center. There were birds everywhere: after spending twenty four hours hunkered down in shelter from the gale, they were out busily feeding and defending their nesting territory. They were so busy that they paid little attention to me. I managed to get within eight feet of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, a tiny little bird: it was carrying a feather in its bill, presumably to add to its nest. And then I rounded a bend in a trail, just as a Wood Thrush started singing in a tree nearly over my head: that ethereally beautiful call, those four liquid notes, so close: it provoked a deeply emotional response, a surge in my heart, a lift in my spirits, a feeling of sudden intense joy. It sang twice, and flew away, and the moment was over.
Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine
The afternoon showers drove most everyone off the beach. I walked down to Ferry Beach State Park, and walked under Route 9 through their underpass, and into the woodlands and swamps of the park. There weren’t any cars in the parking lot, but one of the rangers was still there. He saw my binoculars, and we started talking about birds. I asked him if he had heard any Veeries, and he said no, but there were a few Wood Thrushes in the woods.
Wood Thrushes and Veeries can produce more than one note simultaneously — birds have syrinxes, not larynxes like us mammals do, and many birds can produce more than one note at a time — so they can actually sing in harmony with themselves. A Veery sings a song that sounds like it’s descending in a sort of swooping spiral. I’m not good at describing sounds, so I won’t try to describe the sound a Wood Thrush makes, but it’s a series of notes that I find hauntingly beautiful.
A few steps out of the parking lot and into the woods, I heard a Wood Thrush calling. The quality of the sound is such that it can be hard to tell exactly where the sound is coming from. I walked down the path towards the sound of the Wood Thrush, and it seemed as if the bird was slowly moving away from me, flying from tree to tree — but maybe it was two different birds, and one started singing while the other stopped singing as I got close to it.
Eventually, the Wood Thrush stopped singing. It was getting dark. I headed back to the campsite.