Thursday, May 10, 2007

Deceiving Appearances

This morning I took my ramble up the road, anxious to see what birds might have dropped down into the trees at dawn. For those who may not know, migrating songbirds travel by night and stop to rest and feed on insects and caterpillars by day. At first light they look for a likely spot and settle in to eat and regain their strength for the next leg of their flight. When they arrive at what they somehow know is "their" territory they stay put and start courtship and nesting behavior and one can watch them day after day. Some people who spend time watching birds are excited by the prospect of seeing great numbers of different species. While I also enjoy these fleeting glimpses, I find it more satisfying to find a few birds I can observe over the course of their nesting season. This morning I was fortunate enough to encounter several such individuals and it was like greeting old friends, back from their travels abroad. One of the especially enjoyable aspects of birdwatching in the same location over time is recognizing which birds are likely to show up where. The brown thrashers are singing and courting in the same stretch of scrubby trees where they nested last year. The kingfishers are at home along the same stretch of creek near the bridge that the eastern phoebes use every year as their nesting own site.

It was while I was listening and watching for new arrivals that I happened upon the warbling vireos. Warbling vireos are small grey nondescript birds. In fact, they are about as plain as birds come and for many people seeing one would probably not be cause for celebration. Once they begin to sing, however, one wonders how any bird can produce a cadence so beautiful and so complicatedly rhythmic. They particularly like to nest near water and I have heard them singing down near the creek in previous seasons. Recently, however, they have been in the trees up near the road and today, for the first time, I was able to see and watch them at eye level. Though the males and females look exactly alike, I am fairly confident I was watching a breeding pair and I stayed for some minutes, the birds just 15 feet from where I stood. The light was good, as are my binoculars, and I could see their individual feathers. I could even the small insects that the birds were picking from a newly green hop-hornbeam tree. As they foraged, the male paused to sing and I stood still listening, thinking about the discrepancy between his song and his appearance. A bird so plain that most would pass him by singing a song that reminded me of bubbling streams and the exuberance of life...

I was humbled as I watched and listened. I thought about the number of times I have taken people and situations at face value, not pausing to wonder or seek out the uniqueness that lay beneath an outward appearance. The vireos' glory lies not only in their voice but also in the simple fact that they fill a unique purpose and a position in the world in which they live. It is a role filled by no other species in exactly the same way and its absence would leave a hole in the fabric of the riparian system. The same is true with people. We are each created to have a special role in the lives of those with whom we come in contact and each of the people we meet are created to be unique as well. I want to remember the lessons learned this morning on the road. Something that appeared so ordinary became the cause for joy and for praise and for learning.

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