Saturday, November 13, 2010
Lost and Found
It's said that the Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) has one of the loveliest songs in the entire bird kingdom. I believe it. Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to the Gatineau Hills, we rented a house high on a hill. A Hermit thrush nested on the property. It was the first bird to break into song before the sun rose and the last to be heard after the sun set. I opened my bedroom window wide, totally enchanted.
The Hermit thrush's song consists of a soulful melody, four or five clear, flute-like notes spiraling upward in a minor key. The melody is then repeated at a higher pitch. Each phrase is sung slowly and leisurely with a long pause in between. I can't speak for others, but for me, the song induces a state of deep, serene calm.
A few summers after first hearing the Hermit thrush, we moved again, this time 15 kilometres north to the home we had built in the intervening years. The back of our house hugs a steep hillside, massed with tall white pines, maples, oaks and birches. At the front, it faces rolling fields where horses graze. From time to time, a deer or even a black bear ventures into sight.
To my delight, I discovered that our new home was also home to a Hermit thrush who sang from somewhere up the hill behind the house. This particular bird had a slightly different voice from the one I was used to, but there was no mistaking the haunting lyrical melody. I was happy. Many evenings, I would sit outside, listening to the bird, silently begging it to sing forever.
In the spring, the Hermit thrush's arrival completes the migratory roll-call, following the red-winged blackbirds, Eastern phoebes, winter wrens, ovenbirds, song sparrows and robins. Each spring, I wrote down the date when the Hermit thrush first appeared, typically the third week in April.
This year, from mid-April on I cocked my ear towards the hillside. No Hermit thrush. Day after day, I walked to the back of the house and looked up through the trees. I held my hands on either side of my ears, elephant-like, to amplify any bird song. No Hermit thrush.
After a while, I stopped expecting to hear my beloved thrush, resigned to the fact that for some unknown reason, it had not nested in its usual spot this year.
The days and then weeks passed. Early summer unfolded peacefully, lush with green beauty. Song sparrows cheerily whistled their accented triads as they skipped from bush to bush along the roadside, peepers trilled happily in the nearby swamp. Yet without the Hermit thrush, something essential seemed to have disappeared. In a small, quiet way, my heart ached.
Then, one morning, I found myself hearing, really hearing, other birds that I had never heard before. A Baltimore oriole cockily announced that the sun had risen. I rushed outside, binoculars in hand. After a few moments, I caught sight of its orange and black magnificence. The identity of other birds remained a mystery. Often I woke to the high tinny zeep zeep zeep of some type of warbler. Another sang a burbly run – was that a yellow-rump, or a Nashville? I never did find out.
These new bird songs intrigued me. Had these birds actually been there all along? What else had I closed off by magnetizing my love on only one thing?
My sadness melted. The woods were ricocheting with song, inviting me in.