What I’ll miss most about the Pacific Northwest are the trees, the preponderance of conifers, Douglas firs in particular, and two bird species. Both of the latter – dark-eyed junco and Steller’s jay – are indigenous to this region, and I had never seen them before moving here three years ago. As I write, I’m listening to the tick tick of a junco pair working the front yard for seeds and ants, and perhaps the slugs we almost flattened on the sidewalk.
Last week, while I tutored a middle-school student at his house, two Steller’s jays made their usual abrupt, brassy appearance in the back yard. They landed on the roof of the gazebo, inspecting the gutters, and then moved to the algae-covered fountain, lingering as though it were a buffet. My student grabbed his binoculars and we watched the feeding frenzy in detail. Later I took a closer look and found worms, ants and bits of beetle in the bowl of the fountain.
As a swan song to Washington, so to speak, I’ve been reading American Museum of Natural History Birds of North America Western Region (2011) by François Vuilleumier, curator emeritus of ornithology at the museum. Good reliable field guides are among the best-written books in the world – concise, precise, as well-organized as a sonnet. About the dark-eyed junco Vuilleumier writes:
“VOICE: Loud smacking tick and soft dyew calls; flight call a rapid, twittering, and buzzy zzeet; song a simple, liquid, 1-pitch trill.”
Birdsong is notoriously difficult to capture with human language, but this is a valiant, recognizable attempt. Here’s the Steller’s jay, also notably accurate:
“VOICE: Series of harsh, short, rasping notes, shek, shek, shek; single longer pitch-changing shuhrrrr.”
I never climbed Mount Rainier, and have no desire to do so, but was always pleased to see it, glowing unexpectedly in the afternoon sun like an iceberg lit from within. My pleasure grew after learning Marianne Moore spent two days in 1922 exploring Nisqually Glacier on its southern slope, and based “An Octopus” on the experience. Louise Bogan knew the mountain too. Go here to see a marvelous photograph of Moore, age thirty-four, climbing Rainier. She’s third from the right.
There are few mountains in Texas, where I’ll be returning later this month. I’m going back to my old job as science writer for the engineering school at Rice University in Houston, land of lizards, live oaks, loquats and lichens. I start July 1, the one hundred forty-eighth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, and my middle son's eleventh birthday.