More than Meets the Eye

“The least I can do is keep my eyes open. Attention is what I want to spend. I don’t ever want to feel inside me a whole storehouse of unused binoculars, magnifying glasses, telescopes.”

~ Barbara Hurd, ‘Sea Stars,’ Walking the Wrack Line

Walnut in snow

Here in the mountains of northern Greece, we never know what kind of a winter we’ll have until it’s over. In some years deep snow mantles the valleys and slopes like a rippling white sheet has been thrown over the world, the temperatures steadily sinking until the smaller of the two nearby lakes is glazed with ice and our village water pipes freeze solid until spring. In other years, though, winter simply feels like a long extension of autumn, when lizards continue to scatter over the stony hillsides and butterflies drift through the pale and slanting light, worn to a faded memory of their earlier sheen, as if in deference to the supposed season.

This winter has been one of the hard ones so far; the kind of winter when wild snowstorms are followed by a piercingly cold brilliance – the night skies so deep and refulgent that the clarity of vaulted starlight is haunting. But these winters, however beautiful and stilling I find them myself, are tough on the wild species we share this valley with, and so just before Christmas I hung our bird feeders from the snow-sleeved apple trees in the garden and loaded them with seeds. It took a few days for any birds to find them, the feeders swaying like censers in the whistling mountain winds, but when they did, their calls went out across the valley, echo after echo until a carnival of winged creatures turned up one morning in the snow.

Photo by Julia Henderson
Photo by Julia Henderson

The main beneficiary of the bird feeders is the great tit. A relative of the North American chickadee, the great tit is one of the commonest species that exists here, an everyday sight around the village in any season. It’s joined in these roving winter flocks by birds that are no less unusual to this valley – chaffinches and tree sparrows that love to feed on the spill of small seeds at the foot of the trees. We’re so used to these particular birds that it’s easy for them to go unremarked, to see them simply as part of the outdoor furniture. The usual suspects – that’s what my wife and I often call them when we ask one another if there’s anything on the feeders.

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Last March I travelled down the west coast of the United States on a book tour. It was my first time in that particular part of the world and everything about the journey – the people, places, landscapes and wildlife – was new to me, brushed with a unique light, the unmistakeable signature of first experience. My days carried a corresponding intensity. One of my stops that month was in Corvallis, Oregon, where I stayed with my friends Charles and Kapa. Along with their generous hospitality, and our long conversations and shared laughter, something else of that stay stands out for me: my time spent watching their bird feeder.

Charles has a ground-floor study facing the garden and he’s hung a bird feeder just beyond the window. Leaving for work one morning, he kindly said I could use the space to get a close view of its visitors. I settled in that morning with a mug of coffee and a field guide, and within minutes that simple pane of glass that framed a feeder had become a window onto another world. Something small flew in and foraged seed from the ground. It was black-eyed and shy, keeping close to the edges, the same cryptic colour as falling dusk. Another bird arrived, sporting rich chestnut flanks and startling ruby eyes beaded black at their cores. I watched, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of these birds that were new to me. As I turned the pages of the field guide, trying to assign names to a cast of colours, shapes and sizes, a bright flash caught my eye. I looked up from the book to see a large bird of deepest azure peering in from the other side of the glass. It carried the wash of a glacial lake on its head, tail and wings, as if an emissary from the far north. It sprung from the feeder and oared away on its own river of blue, but those few seconds in its presence were magnetic.

Snow on the plain

Charles asked me how I’d got on when he returned from work that afternoon. My excitement and delight must have been noticeable as I rattled on about the birds that had graced my day, their names alone a litany of mystery to me: dark-eyed junco, rufous-sided towhee, scrub jay. It turns out – and I should have known, given that it was a garden feeder – that these birds are some of the commonest around, the everyday Oregon equivalents of our great tits, chaffinches and tree sparrows. But that morning, staring through a pane of glass at a suite of elegant and astonishing creatures that were completely new to me, they were anything but ordinary. We tend to honour the first of things in our perceptual experience, elevating newness over repetition, rarity over regularity. It’s the novelty of the encounter that often sharpens its impression for us. Of course no matter how frequently we see a particular bird, becoming so used to its presence that we can sometimes turn indifferent to it in the process, the bird itself never alters at all.

Photo by Julia Henderson
Photo by Julia Henderson

Whenever I look out the window in the direction of the apple trees I try to keep that bird feeder in Oregon in mind, as if it were my first time in this snow-filled valley instead of being midway through my fifteenth winter here. I watch the great tits with the same keenness of eye that saw juncos, towhees and scrub jays blaze into my world as if forged new from a fire, resolving to be attentive not only to the things that are unexpected, but to those that are ever-present as well. The great tits are a blur of steely-blue wings against the snow, jackhammering sunflower seeds against the limbs of the tree. They send the bird feeders spinning like merry-go-rounds when they land on them at speed, twirling together until they finally slow, their feathers the colour of lemon peel and coal. I’ll see these birds throughout the year, long after I’ve cleaned the feeders and hung them from a beam in the shed, wondering what kind of winter will grace us next time around; creatures so commonplace that they’ll put in daily appearances as I sow and weed the garden and then harvest its fruits, but no less wondrous for their familiar and predictable presence.

Photo by Julia Henderson
Photo by Julia Henderson

This post first appeared on Jana Svoboda’s Tiny Resolutions series on her blog Door Number Two. Many thanks to Jana for inviting me to write for it!

24 thoughts on “More than Meets the Eye

  1. Nicely put!

    We get as much pleasure from watching the birds that visit us every day as we do from the more unusual visitors.

  2. I can definitely relate to this. My boyfriend is from Massachusetts and I always marvel at their “common” birds like chickadees and cardinals. Equally, I was amused by the fact that my boyfriend thought magpies were really beautiful birds when he first saw them – but it made me look at them anew and they are very beautiful!

    1. So true, Naomi! If the magpie was a rare species it would be heralded as one of the most beautiful in Europe. Likewise, I know those cardinals your boyfriend is on about – they were very much a part of my childhood in Ontario. They’re such respledent creatures, equal to our magpie!

    1. It’s all a matter of perspective I think. What’s common to one is often exceedingly rare or new to another. To makes those things equal in our eyes is the big challenge. Many thanks for reading, Juliet!

  3. Lovely post, Julian. There’s a magic to bird-feeders and, as you point out, the ‘usual suspects’ depend on where you are in the world. I have seen several species of tiny iridescent sunbirds hovering at a single feeder in the Andes, although these were not considered to be anything special by the locals.
    Here in Norfolk, I think we have much the same usual suspects as you – great tits, blue tits, goldfinches, greenfinches. They are always worth watching though as once in a while something special turns up in our tiny backyard – a wintering blackcap, a goldcrest, even a sparrowhawk (eating a sparrow). It doesn’t really matter though – I never tire of goldfinches.

    Laurence

    1. Many thanks for the kind words, Laurence. You’re so right – there is a magic about bird feeders, something about its proximity and intimacy. I think we do share many of our usual suspects – great tits, blue tits, tree sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches; and like you, I never tire of goldfinches. I don’t think there’s a more suitable collective noun that a charm of goldfinches!

    1. Many thanks for your kind words, Carla. I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post. Those dark-eyed juncos have lingered with me – absolutely exquisite creatures. Great to hear you have them feeding on your suet feeders!

  4. I enjoyed this very much, Julian. Here in Catalonia I’ve become very fond of a pair (male/female) of Black Redstarts that are currently visiting the garden every morning, and no doubt this is partly because I never saw these fine birds back in the UK. The Blackbird that invariably comes to feed during the hour before sunset is, however, no less captivating provided that one takes the time to observe its behaviour with interest.

    1. Thanks ever so much, Alan. The black redstart is one of my favourite village visitors. Although here they tend to breed in their native rocky alpine habitats, there are always a few pairs that choose to nest in between the stones of old falling houses. They are a fabulous bird to watch, at any time of the year. And the blackbird, though so common, is still blessed with one of the most moving songs I know. Hope all is well with you in Catalonia

  5. It reminds me my trip in Quebec, and the emotion I had every time I was seeing a “common bird” for them… yes indeed, this makes you feel that you have treasures in your own garden! The word “common” is so relative. It can also be the answer to the common question I had while guiding groups into a land full of orchids close to their village: “why is that protected? There are every where, it’s not so rare!”…depend for whom… Well done Julian!

    1. So good to hear from you, Francois! I remember these stories of yours from Quebec and it’s wonderful to hear them in this context of ‘common’ species. You’re so right – ‘common’ is a relative word and we do have treasures in the garden. It’s been snowing here again these last few days and the bird feeder is full of great tits. I nearly began laughing at how beautiful it was seeing them all hovering around it this morning.

      Delighted you enjoyed the post and hope all is well with you, my friend!

  6. ‘a carnival of winged creatures’ – yes, of course! There can be no other way of describing the rush of wings and color that herald a visit from these winter sprites!

    But I am still surprised, still so wonderfully taken aback. There can be no other way to describe it, yet here – once again – I am reading it for the first time.

    Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Aubrey. You have a wonderful way with writing your comments that always makes me smile. I take a great deal of pleasure from your words, and hope all is well on your western coast. Thanks for reading!

  7. Another lovely praise of the everyday Julian! It always seems surprising that other European countries have such similar birds to the UK, just with some different additions. Great tits are my constant companions looking out at the trees from our windows. I remember being taken aback though by a robin in NE USA which was nothing like ours!

    1. Thank you, Diana, as always. I grew up with those robins you met in NE USA! I remember moving to the UK from Canada and wondering what people were on about when describing this tiny little thing as a robin! And you’re right, so many of our common birds here in Greece are the same as those in the UK – those species that have been able to adapt to such a range of habitats and differing climatic conditions that they’re able to make a home in such a vastly varied continent. And they’re always a pleasure to encounter, wherever they are :)

  8. A wonderful, thoughtful post. Your brother sent me this way. A gifted pair, you are! I agree totally, the humble chickadees and ubiquitous bossy blue jays are to be respected!

    1. Wonderful to hear from you, Jennifer! Thanks ever so much for stopping by and reading. Justin’s become an extremely good wildlife photographer and I’m very proud of how he’s done. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post and completely agree – wherever we are it seems there are common species that enthrall visitors. Those chickadees and jays have a lot going for them!

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