A Vireo Underwater
THIS MORNING I SAW A PHILADELPHIA VIREO UNDERWATER. It jumped sluggishly among branches of specked alder at the Ice Pond here on Monhegan Island. At the pond I saw lots of birds underwater. A White-eyed Vireo, kind of rare this far north in Maine, darted through bayberry branches, stopping a few times to pose full-frontal for me. A Least Flycatcher called out “whit” from its perch underwater on a ragged birch. I noticed Green Heron, Herring Gull, American Crow (all in flight) and Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Swamp Sparrow and Common Grackle — all of them underwater. But the Philadelphia Vireo — the one underwater — it nearly made me weep.
Normally, atop one of these blog posts you would see a bird photo, in this case a Philadelphia Vireo. I’ve been watching birds for nearly 40 years, 20 of them with serious cameras. But I have no bird photo for you today. I left this morning for the Ice Pond with only my binoculars. No camera, no glowing screen, no gadget of any kind. No rain coat, no water bottle, no notebook. No distractions.
And here this morning on Monhegan Island, 10 miles out to sea off Maine’s midcoast, there were no winds. Nothing made the branches shake and the leaves tremble but the birds. And when that happens, when it’s dead calm like this, we easily find tiny songbirds: just point your binos at anything moving in the green. So tranquil was Monhegan this morning that the Ice Pond was slick and still and shiny and flat — so smooth that it reflected, in sharp focus, the trees of its shoreline. So as I gazed deep into the pond below me, I saw trees plunging toward the sky and birds flying even farther below into the blue. And when I tipped the brim of my ball-cap just low enough, just right, I would lose peripheral view of the actual trees and the actual sky. The world where I stood was gone; it unfurled instead beneath me into the pond. That’s when I noticed, underwater, the Philadelphia Vireo on the alder. (It was upside down.)
Among the great rush northward of birds here on Monhegan, Philadelphia Vireo is by no means the most flashy or charismatic. Smooth and gentle is how I would describe him: a clean olive-gray back; soft white below with a watercolor wash of yellow mostly on his throat and upper breast; and a rounded gray head, with a soft, smudgy darker gray sketch-line from behind his eye to his bill. All those are fine field marks in the pantheon of vireo identification. But there’s another mark that you won’t find in your field guide, and that mark is this: When you see a Philadelphia Vireo, a gentle euphoria washes over you and through you.
Again, it’s a gentle joy. Not like the raging joy you get from a Sage Grouse or a Swallow-tailed Kite or a Resplendent Quetzal — the raw euphoria ornithologists and birders call “ornigasms.” No, a Philadelphia Vireo is more like one of those wonderful dreams that you get to live real life, like finding love or seeing whales or eating chocolate. That’s how I feel when I see a Philadelphia Vireo. And, at least to me, it’s a damned good field mark.
You yourself cannot test this field mark of mine, at least not with any photo I took of the vireo. As I mentioned, I left the optics behind this morning. And I’m doing a lot of that here on this particular Monhegan expedition, and on most of my journeys birding. As a result, I’m enjoying birds now more than ever.
Cameras change the way we are outside. As we try to take a photo, to capture the bird, to take it with us to enjoy again later, to share it with others, the camera also takes something from us. Even as we aspire to preserve the moment in nature, the camera steals some of the actual moment, some of the actual nature. To be sure, the rise of digital cameras and gadgets has expanded our knowledge of birds and their wonderful vagaries. Now, anyone with a point-and-shoot and the temerity to ask, “What’s this?” will often get a quick answer. And sometimes they unwittingly photograph something rare, something we experts would never believe without the image. So, yes, we can learn a lot. At least collectively we learn a lot.
Individually, we stand to lose a lot. I will not conclude this essay with a polemic against cameras and gadgets. You need not lose the glowing screens. After all, on my laptop are 18,884 images, 3,399 of which are birds. I’ve used photography to share with you wildlife and wild places. I’m proud of my images. So all this is easy for me to say.
But I will only suggest that you more often leave behind the camera and the smart phone. Far too often birders outdoors are looking far too often at nature in their gadgets and not enough at actual nature. Bring instead your field guide — an actual book. Record your eBird lists not as you watch birds, but after you’ve enjoyed them, as you sit in the woods or back at the car or back home (entering sightings from a list in your notebook). And, yes, photos are great, a thrill, a source of detail, memory and verification. But to borrow from Agassiz, “Look at your bird.” Not with the distraction and challenges and frustration of photography — which, oddly, brings to the photographer less focus on the beauty and lives of our birds — but instead with a singular attention to the bird itself. Nothing more.
Maybe then you’ll find even more euphoria from birds. You’ll most certainly see more of them. You’ll more often notice the crimson explosion from the head of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. You’ll find the time to observe and understand and know the markings of sparrows. The sun will rise a second time for you from a Northern Parula. You shall more often hear the distant and the ethereal songs of our thrushes.
Maybe you’ll even see a vireo underwater.