There’s no big mystery about this bird’s identity. We’re in southern France, it’s getting to be late May, and melodious warblers like this one are are busy and noisy on the edges of marshes and woodlands everywhere.
But play along here for a moment. When I’m out and about and smugly identify one of those challenging little brown birds, or yellow birds, or green birds, I like to step back and ask myself what usually turns into a truly disturbing question:
What if I were to run into this bird someplace where the species is utterly unexpected? Would I think of a hippolais warbler at all, or would I try to squeeze it into the procrustean mental image I hold of an entirely different bird? And just how many genuine rarities do I overlook as something familiar but just a tiny bit “off”?
“Bird every bird,” they say. Little yellow warblers help me try to remember to do just that.
The common swifts are screaming all around as I look forward to meeting the group for this year’s Tuscany tour. Objectively, I suppose, it’s not a pleasant sound, like the screech of a thousand tiny tires on pavement, but it calls to mind so many wonderful spring and summer days from the past that I smile every time I hear it.
Their black plumage, otherworldly keening, and intimidatingly powerful flight aroused dire suspicions in our ancestors, who gave the birds such names as “skeer devil,” “jack squealer,” and “devil screw.” The species was known for its fearsome vengefulness:
A farmer, the owner of seventeen cows, is said to have shot seventeen Swifts in one day, and to have had every one of his cows die within seven weeks.
More sophisticated exegetes, however, found in the swift a range of moral exempla, positive and negative.
With their tiny feet, swifts are limited to either flying or perching, with no capacity for walking or hopping in between. Thus they can be understood to represent
anyone who spurns holy moderation and prefers instead to do either everything or nothing, and so is always running to one extreme or the other.
Such people are wont to rush to the goods of the world and the flesh, but to lie languid when it is time to praise God.
Another behavior of swifts leads us in a different direction, though.
Swifts nest in jagged crevices among rocks…. In the same way, too, as Jerome tells us, the Virgin Mary delivered her child in a cave in the rocks. And so also the soul given over to divine contemplation builds its own nest in caves in the rock and in chinks in the wall — that is to say, in the sacred wounds of Christ as he hung on the cross.
It’s rarely simple when we think about birds.
It’s one of the commonest of commonplaces when you’re birding the American tropics: “This place looks like an exotic plant nursery!”
Especially this place, because it is … an exotic plant nursery, a quiet corner of Guatemala City’s Universidad Francisco Marroquín where palms and bamboos and other tropical fancies are being raised in pots for use in campus landscaping.
It’s a spectacularly beautiful site, nestled into a steep canyon just a few minutes by taxi from the city’s international airport. I’d meant to have a quick look this morning while I was waiting for the Popol Vul Museum to open, but that look turned into nearly four hours of slow walking and exciting birding.
I found about 40 species on my walk–and surely would have come up with more if I’d had my ear in better.
It’s a blast to see Lesson motmots, rufous-browed peppershrikes, and boat-billed flycatchers, but my favorite thing about visiting Guatemala this time of year has always been the combination of tropical novelties with so many wintering birds from the north. A motmot perched quietly above a path with a feeding wood thrush, a peppershrike hunting at eye level while a yellow-bellied sapsucker studies the tree trunk, a boat-bill striking righteous fear into a little flock of Townsend warblers and warbling vireos: that’s the Guatemala highlands in winter.
My favorite constellation this morning came late in my walk, when a couple of white-naped brush finches drew my attention to the weedy edge of a compost area. I love atlapetes, but there was no way I could ignore the magnolia and MacGillivray warblers and stunning yellow-throated vireo feeding alongside them, now was there?
Eventually it was time for me to do some indoor stuff. The museum was well worth the visit, though it wasn’t always entirely clear which objects were real and which were replicas (I’m guessing that I didn’t luck into the one single day in the history of the world when most of the most famous and most often reproduced pieces of Maya art were on loan here together).
I was especially impressed by this curassow-headed whistling vessel. And I think I’ve found my new VENT leader portrait, too.
One of my favorite lines in the entire North American ornithological literature:
[Jonathan] Dwight never abandoned his hope of acquiring an adequate collection of Guatemalan birds, fully aware that this country was a far richer field than Costa Rica.
At the moment, looking at snow through the windows at Newark airport, I’m at least as eager for some clement weather as I am for the birds.
Our VENT Birds and Art tour starts tomorrow, and I can’t wait to meet up with old friends and new in the group.