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A Songbird Underwater
Our gadgets, ourselves and how we might experience more of the natural world.
ON A TRANQUIL MORNING beside a pond in Maine, I watched a Philadelphia Vireo move sluggishly underwater on the branches of a Specked Alder. At the pond I saw lots of birds underwater.
An American Redstart, flashing black and red, darted through Bayberry branches, stopping a few times to pose full-frontal for me underwater. An olive-gray Least Flycatcher called out “whit” from its underwater perch on a ragged birch. Then I noticed a Green Heron flying in a blue sky with puffy clouds — underwater.
But the Philadelphia Vireo, submerged, was sublime.
Normally atop one of these dispatches you would see a bird, in this case a Philadelphia Vireo. Not today. That’s because on that particular morning at the pond I had only my body and binoculars. No camera, no gadget, no glowing screen of any kind. No rain coat, no water bottle, no pencil and notebook. No distractions.
And no wind — only calm. Nothing made the branches shake and the leaves tremble except the birds. And when it’s dead calm like that, we easily find those tiny songbirds: just point your binos at anything moving in the green. Even underwater.
Even in the glassy reflection of a pond.
Gazing into the shiny water, I saw trees plunging toward the sky. I saw birds on their branches and in flight even deeper below me. And when I tipped the brim of my ball-cap low enough, just right, I lost my peripheral view of the actual trees and the actual sky. The world where I stood was gone; it unfurled instead only beneath me forever into the pond.
That’s when I noticed the Philadelphia Vireo on the alder branches. (It was upside down.)
Among the great rush northward of birds this month, Philadelphia Vireo is by no means charismatic: it shows a clean, olive-gray back; soft white undersides with faint yellow wash on the throat and upper breast; and a rounded gray head with a smudgy sketch-line running from behind the eye to the bill. In the realm of vireo identification, those are fine field marks. But here’s another you won’t find in your field guide: When you see a Philadelphia Vireo, you feel gentle euphoria. (Well, at least that’s what happens to me.)
The Philadelphia Vireo is subtle joy. Not like the raging pleasure of a Sage Grouse or Swallow-tailed Kite or Resplendent Quetzal. No, a Philly V., as we affectionately call it, is more like one of those dreams you sometimes get to live real life, like seeing whales or eating chocolate. That’s how I feel when I see a Philadelphia Vireo. And to me that’s a damned good field mark.
You yourself cannot test this field mark, at least not with any photo I took of the vireo. As I mentioned, I left my camera behind that morning. And I’m doing a lot more of that while in nature these days. (I also try to leave behind my fusillade of distractions, but that shall be the subject of another essay.)
Cameras change the way we are outside. As we take photos in nature, the camera takes nature from us. Even as we seek to preserve the moment, capture it, bring it home to enjoy again later or share with others, the camera steals some of the moment, some of the raw experience, some of the actual nature.
To be sure, the ascendancy and versatility of digital cameras and gadgets has expanded our knowledge of nature. Now, anyone with a point-and-shoot or phone and the temerity to ask, “What’s this?” can get a quick answer. Sometimes novices unwittingly photograph something rare, something we experts would never accept without the image. So, yes, we gather data and we learn. Collectively we learn a lot.
Individually, we sometimes lose. This essay is no polemic against cameras and gadgets. We don’t need to hear any more about curbing screen time, no more than we need to be reminded to wear seatbelts, walk more and eat better.
So let us, especially the birdwatchers among us, experience nature more often with all our senses and not in the company of our screens. I see lots of birders with phones drawn for instant uploading of their sightings to the crowd-sourced dataset eBird. Not me. I shall not watch birds in the presence of a glowing screen. And I gently rebuff others who, despite their sincerity, want to show me some distraction on their phones while we’re out in nature, which to me is akin to tailgating or yammering in the movie theater.
At gunpoint I might sooner surrender my phone than my pencil and notebook (see the postscript on those). Not only do I write my nature sightings and ideas first on paper, I cherish the act of sitting and thinking and writing in the wild. (My first-draft essays are also usually in pencil in my notebook, which I safeguard as I would a diary or a child.)
Yes, photos are great, a source of detail, memory and verification — and yet sometimes a mistake. When a curious ermine came within a few feet of me as I sat along the coast of Maine one winter, I blew the encounter by slowly reaching for my phone.
Admittedly, this preachiness on cameras comes easily for me, a nature photographer who already owns 27,000 images, mostly from nature. So I cop to being a bit like a righteous reformed smoker here.
Even so, I’m finding even new joy in leaving the camera and ambition at home during my daily walks. I’m capturing less, and yet experiencing more, including, just this past week:
serviceberry petals falling to earth like fat vernal snowflakes;
the aroma of balsam poplar;
the azure glow of tiny butterflies;
the rolling din of American Toads; and
despite enjoying many hundreds (if not a thousand) of them over the course of four decades, an Ovenbird flashing its orange Mohawk hairdo on a bare branch at eye level 15 feet away, for which all I did was stop, look, listen and enjoy, as if I was dreaming, as if I was seeing this stealthy songbird for the very first time in my life.
All of it, especially the Ovenbird, came by way of my sensing more of the world with less of the world, by way of an ermine that vanished on land — and a vireo underwater.
Essays like this one don’t grow on trees. If you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to Chasing Nature or upgrade your subscription to paid so that I can keep writing. Thanks!
I write with a 0.5mm Pentel P205 mechanical pencil in a LEUCHTTURM1917 B5 hardcover notebook. I’ve recently switched to LEUCHTTURM from Moleskine notebooks (and Ben Meadows field books before that). But few things have been more enduring in my life than those P205 pencils, which I’ve been using for at least three decades (preferring rust or green barrels now because I’m picky about pencils). Anyone got a better mechanical pencil or notebook to recommend in comments below? I recognize that this could turn into an exchange as fierce as those over the Oxford comma; so, people, let’s keep it civil.
I’ve got lots of breaking eco news to share with you — on everything from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers to butterfly phylogenies to my favorite Substack writers. I’ll try to post a digest for you in the next few days if, as expected, it rains on Saturday here in Vermont. Meanwhile, I’m off searching the rest of this month for two exceedingly rare butterflies: Erora laeta (Early Hairstreak) and Callophrys lanoraieensis (Bog Elfin). Okay, yeah, I’ll try to get photos.