Thursday, February 5, 2009

Birds and Butterflies from Paraguay to Phippsburg





 Thirty years ago, I was in the Peace Corps. I spent three years in Paraguay. I was young and stupid then (now I'm moderately old and still stupid it seems), and I didn't know much about birds. Oh, I knew more about birds than most of the people I knew, but not what I know now. Today, I consider myself an actual Birder in the Audubon capital "B" sense of the word. I am a novice, but I'm dedicated. I spend way too much time and money in order to see birds, lure birds, count birds, photograph birds, anything to do with birds. I see lots of amazing, beautiful, and once in a while rare birds. Sometimes I get decent photographs of them, too. But mostly, I have a great time and it gives me repeated excuses for not doing the laundry or dishes or other mundane activities. I'm not employed so other than eating, sleeping and speaking to my husband once in a while, I can bird all I want to. Some would say I'm obsessed. Perhaps. I like to think that all this is keeping my mind sharp. I'm old enough that some of my pals are taking up crossword puzzles to stave off memory loss. That seems so dull compared to frantically thumbing through a Sibley's Guide to Birds trying to decide what some unfamiliar bird actually is before the memory of its identifying details fade away. Which brings me to another of my compulsions (I have numerous of them some of which conveniently overlap), photography. I'll discuss this particular neurosis later, but for now let's say photography helps me be a better birder because I can capture a bird in a photograph for later identification, and I actually see things about the birds in photographs that my withered naked eyes do not. I tell myself that this also keeps my mind sharp and that hefting my obscenely large telephoto zoom lens is stalling osteoporosis (osteopenia my physician says).
But, back to Paraguay. People often ask me if I want to go back there. No. The emphatic answer is no. I don't miss a thing about it. I was not happy. In fact, I was terribly depressed. I can't blame Paraguay or the Peace Corp for that; I was depressed before I got there. Paraguay and the Peace Corp just made my pre-existing condition worse. I never felt as if I was very productive while I was there and I wish I had more appreciation of everything I had seen. In short, I wish I had been a better birder, or even a birder at all! Oh, there were fun times, amazing times, and things I'll always remember (some of which I'll probably never share with anybody). I had a horse to get around places. Every day I rode the horse five miles from the grungy little village I lived in to the colony where I worked. I often saw Macaws in the trees and great flocks of parakeets and parrots. The waves of blue, green and splashes of red remain vivid in my mind. I can hear them squawking and chattering in the trees. I just wish I had more detailed knowledge, like specifically what species of Macaws , what species of parakeets and so on.

To get to the colony, the horse and I had to ford a small river. There was a strip of sand on the edge of the river where masses of butterflies collected to sip salt from the sand (so I was told). Most of the butterflies were soft, sulfur-yellow and there were hundreds and hundreds of them. For some reason they sat on the sand all headed in the same direction. They opened and closed their wings slowly and all at once like a practiced dance routine. I always stopped at the edge of the sand to watch them and to summon the starch to walk through them with the horse. Dozens of them were inevitably crushed under the horse's hooves no matter how slowly I tried to make the horse walk. The butterflies would whorl up into the air in a great cloud, scattering, then landing back on the sand, rising again, landing on the ears of the horse, on my hair, on my arms, on the saddle. Sometimes they would light on my face and lips and eyelids. It was a uniquely tactile event. I got goose bumps at their touch. There were so many of them that I almost felt like I might suck one into my lungs when I breathed. I hated to have to walk into them, disturb them, crush them. But, I also loved that feeling of being enveloped in the cloud of delicate yellow life. For me, nothing has come close to that same experience. Until recently.
For the past two weeks, the last weeks of January, the birds here have been abundant at my bird feeders. I've hardly been able to keep up with keeping them filled with seed. There is a flock of 10 White-winged Crossbills (which I had never seen before this winter), 40-50 Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, Black-capped Chickadees, Rose-breasted Nuthatches, American Robins, assorted Sparrows, Dark Eyed Juncos, and more. When I go out to fill the feeders the Crossbills stay put. They keep eating until I am close enough to actually put my hand on the feeder. The Siskins whorl up into the air, settle on the feeder lid, on tree branches all around me, on the top rail of the deck, everywhere! They are tiny birds, stripey with patches of yellow on their wings and tails. They are very crabby and aggressive with other birds, some three times their size. When they take flight from the feeders on my approach though, I think fondly of Paraguay.

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