It is one of the many cruel ironies of the current catastrophe that humans in New England are having to retreat from the world just as the birds are starting to stream back into it. The annual spring migration is about to be upon us in force, and if you’re looking to do something on your daily six-feet-from-everyone walk around the neighborhood or the woods, dig out the binoculars, order a pocket Sibley guide, and go birding.
Have you ever looked at a bird? I mean really looked? They’re amazing — tiny dinosaurs, proof that alien life exists on Earth. And despite the fact that we’re increasingly skilled at destroying their numbers, they’re still everywhere. I went for a stroll around my local suburban lake yesterday and saw: A squadron of Common Mergansers (cousins of ducks with swapped-out bills) popping in and out of deep-water dives; a Belted Kingfisher chittering overhead; grackles calling like rusty door-hinges in every tree; a lone Red-winged Blackbird disconsolately conk-a-REEing; a pair of cardinals for each block, the bright-red male singing his song of bloody turf war; clouds of House Sparrows erupting from bushes; a Downy Woodpecker; a Red-bellied Woodpecker; Blue Jays tootling from treetops; sighing Mourning Doves; piping titmice; pooping Canada Geese; juncos with their fanned-playing-card tails; chickadees and pigeons and starlings and robins; and my local Song Sparrow working his pipes one-two-three-splutterblxtflk. Then a Red-tailed Hawk soared overhead and everyone just clammed up.
That’s 19 species in a 10-minute walk, and the main troops haven’t even started arriving from the south. These two little guys called kinglets — Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned — show up in early April, taunting you from bare tree branches. Swallows and swifts turn up a week or two later, and suddenly the air is filled with dive bombers. And then — oh, man — the warblers kick in during late April and just keep coming and coming, brilliant daubs of paint from all over the palette, evolved to fit into different levels of trees like avian apartment dwellers. Blackburnian, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, Wilson’s, Worm-eating, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green — like Pokemons, you gotta collect ‘em all.
The vireos, which sound like broken robot robins, are in place by early May. So are the Baltimore Orioles, which turn the trees along the Charles into groves of orange-flashing song. My two favorites appear last, like the headliners they are: The Scarlet Tanager and the Indigo Bunting — one big and the other little, one an insane red that seems to vibrate right off the spectrum and the other a dark electric blue not remotely imaginable in nature. But there it is. And there you are — away from contagion, out in the world, and looking at the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen.