Did you hear that?
The last two days I've been given an amazing gift. It's been there all along, but this gift has turned my attention toward the sky.
Two days ago, while walking from my house to the garage, which is also my husband's shop and where he spends much of his time, I heard a faint but distinct bird call. I knew instantly what it was and looked high into the sky to find the caller. My eyes followed and locked on to the source of the calls: a broad-winged hawk. Then yesterday it was two broad-winged hawks calling to each other. It's a little late for the semi-annual hawk migration that occurs every spring, and it's more common for us to hear and see Cooper's hawks or red-tailed hawks in our neighborhood, than broad-wings. What a treat to be rewarded for my many hours of listening to bird song recordings! The sound-siting gave me an inner feeling of accomplishment and thankfulness that still makes me feel good just to remember it.
Almost every day I walk to stay healthy. It keeps my heart and muscles strong, keeps me feeling positive and gives me energy for my day. I often walk outside in our neighborhood near Minnehaha Creek or around Lake Nokomis. While outside I never listen to music with ear buds in my ears; that would block out all the sounds of nature I enjoy. My intention is always to push myself to walk as fast as I can, but so often I get side-tracked by seeing or hearing a bird. If it's pouring rain outside I walk on the treadmill in my basement, and only then do I have ear buds in my ears--listening to recorded bird songs and calls! I am a musician; I love music, but when I hear it I stop whatever I'm doing and listen or dance to it. If I can't walk to the beat of the music it drives me crazy, so exercising to music is out for me unless I find the perfect song to play with the exercise I'm doing. I discovered that bird songs and calls are beautiful to hear while exercising, without the temptation to follow a beat. I can focus on my body, its movements, how I'm feeling, listening to what my body needs that day. The side benefit of this is learning to recognize bird calls.
As all birders know, many small song birds are elusive, hiding in the forest understory and hunting for insects under the dead leaves, or camouflaged high up in the leafy branches of a mature hardwood tree. Even using binoculars they can be difficult to spot. If I pay attention to my ears the sounds of the forest or lakeside will reveal the presence of birds that are concealed there. In my book, The Lakes In My Head, I write about how exciting it was to first hear, then eventually see my first varied thrush four years ago in Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula:
"We saw the peak of Mt. Denali (formerly McKinley) in the dazzling sun from the Alaska Railroad train car. We breathed the fresh, clean air of the Alaskan coniferous forests. I identified over thirty bird species I had never seen before, by sound and by sight, including varied thrushes, a highlight of the trip for me--and a source of amusement for my husband and friend, who teased me about my birding excitement. We saw moose, magpies, and ravens wherever we went, even in the city, and black bear, grizzly bear, porcupines and Arctic ground squirrels in the forested areas."
One night while staying in a tiny cabin at Denali, falling asleep while it was still quite light outside due to the Alaskan summer I was rudely startled by the very loud sound of a wood thrush (or possibly a Swainson's thrush, I don't recall) echoing through the crisp air and bouncing off the hillsides right outside the cabin door. My husband, Ken, was soundly asleep, but there was no way I was going to get to sleep with that "noise" outside the cabin. My curiosity overwhelmed me. I got up, put some pants on, and went outside to quietly stalk the bird. Again, the call told me it would be on the ground among the bushes beneath the pines and I followed the sound to where it was. I was rewarded with a really good siting of the bird standing on the ground singing away with all his might. No binoculars necessary. He kept on singing while I tiptoed back into bed. It took me a bit to fall asleep again. The bird, however, clearly was not going to be sleeping any time soon!
Do you listen? I mean REALLY listen? Do you pay attention to all the sounds around you? Try it some time. The next time your child runs to you demanding your attention, give her or him ALL of your attention. Listen to what she's saying between the lines. The next time you're outside listen to all the sounds you hear. Do you hear the wind rustling the leaves, the family across the street talking to one another, the two men on the corner having a lively discussion, the sound of the mud squishing beneath your feet after a rain? It's such a privilege to be able to hear the details.