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Archive: American Haibun & Haiga Volume 2

[Return to Author List, Vol 2 ]

Kate MacQueen


The Catbird’s Tongue

The path to the beach begins at the end of Macy Lane. We walk single file down a boardwalk through spartina, turning right onto a sandy path at a gap between the end of one boardwalk and the beginning of another. It is almost dawn. The air is chilly and the sky is gray with clouds from a front that passed through the day before.  Fall migrants rode the front through the night and now the shrubs and grasses are alive with the twittering and jumping of hundreds of hungry birds. Everywhere we step the muted sunrise reveals the pale yellow plumage of palm warblers and common yellowthroats.

autumn seashore
the azure edged brown
of an indigo bunting

I am with people I have known less than twelve hours, and in little more than two days I will leave them behind. I am passing through with the warblers, seeking a little spiritual sustenance while avoiding entanglements. The birds have brought us together at the south end of Jekyll Island where a fall banding station has been in operation for over twenty years. Two tables with awnings are set up among the beach dunes, daypacks piled on one while the banding station crew sets up shop on the other. Volunteers fan out along wooded dune paths to open the nets, teasing fine black threads apart, shaking the nets until they are strung like spider webs twelve feet wide and nine feet high. 

Warblers are caught in the nets almost as soon as they are opened.  The more experienced volunteers carefully free the birds and place them in cloth bags.  The novices, like me, carry the birds back to the banding table, dangling the bags from cords looped over our wrists to avoid jostling the birds against our bodies. The bags are so light they sway as though empty in the slight breeze of our walking.

my quiet steps
on the sandy path
a dragonfly rattles its wings

Back at the station the crew is banding birds at a steady pace, recording weight, wing length, and the amount of fat visible under breast feathers. After their long flight most of the birds have no fat left, and they weigh less than ten grams. Their skin glows red with pulsing blood. I watch a man handle the tiny warblers with a gentleness so casual it must begin in his bones. Holding a yellowthroat warbler in his palm, he shows me how to grasp its tiny drumsticks between my fingers. For a brief moment the bird sits against the back of my hand, then flutters its wings. I let go; four tiny tail feathers remain in my hand. 

He tells me not to be afraid of the bird. I remark that I’m not afraid of it, I’m afraid of hurting it. Same difference, he says.

the dune path weaves
from shadow to sun
sanderlings and waves

the feathery edge
of windblown sand

The cold front moves on and the next day sparkles with sunlight.   At the banding station I hold yellowthroats, palm warblers, and an indigo bunting. I watch as others band a rainbow of birds: magnolia, black-throated blue, parula, blackpoll, waterthrush, and cardinal.  At night I dream of colorful birds that emerge from trees and rocks, sea grass and flowers. They fly away, flashing in the sunlight, filling the blue sky above the sea.

tree swallows turn
in the morning light
our white breath

The people who were strangers become people with names and personalities. Little by little I learn some of their stories, begin to discern the fine threads weaving them together and the struggles that threaten to rend them apart. The man with the gentle hands has a laugh that ripples and lights up his face. It is sun on the water, and like a thirsty bird I canít resist splashing there. Words, too, tumble from him, tripping over all he wants to say until they pool into a place of clarity on my last night. Startled by what is reflected there, I retreat into jokes and witticisms. Only later, when I am alone, do I admit to my thirst.

turn of the tide
a gull walks the shore
with a broken wing

The next morning before leaving I learn to remove birds from the net.  I free two palm warblers, small and familiar now to my hands. Then I encounter a catbird. I contemplate the oneness of fear: that of hurting, and that of being hurt. Spreading the net open I reach in to grab the drumsticks, then lift the bird toward me with one hand as I untangle the threads from its wings with the other. It snaps its beak and complains loudly, but its back and breast are warm silky velvet against the palm of my hand. I place the bird gently in a bag, to be banded and set free again.

fellow traveler
the catbird’s tongue
darts quick and pointed

[Return to Author List, Vol 2 ]


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