Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Scarlet Tanager, the Maroon-shirt Man, and the Life Lesson

True stories usually take time to tell—or to write.  Sometimes they are worth the time it takes to hear—or to read.  I decided to take action and write down this true story that crossed my life path.  I don’t know if you will spend the time to read it.  That is OK.  It will still be a part of my life story.

The Setting:

I spent a recent two days gloriously immersed in what birders call Spring “fallout” of rare migrant warblers.  Fallout conditions occur in April and May when a bounty of warblers (and other amazing birds) fly across the Gulf of Mexico, heading north to their summer breeding grounds.  Under normal spring weather patterns these warblers will continue northward in flight, not stopping in large numbers in any one spot along the gulf coast.  But the occurrence of a late season cold front, with strong north winds, will cause these migrants to “fall out” from hunger and exhaustion as soon as landfall allows.  Their multi-hour flight across the gulf, into a stiff head wind, makes their birds-eye view and “falling” into coastal oak mottes a critical safe haven to pause, rest and feed.  The brushy undergrowth of a coastal oak motte provides a bounty of fruits and berries, not to mention a springtime plethora of insects.
Birders pay attention to springtime weather patterns. A forecast with northerly winds will create a “fall out” of human_birders to the famous Boy Scout Woods of High Island, to the grounds of the South Padre Island Convention Center, and to many, many coastal mottes in between. 

This past week of cool weather and strong north winds found me at a multi-acre Live Oak motte on the west side of Galveston Island. Two days at this one spot gave me opportunity to sight 15 different warbler species!  Go to your favorite web search tool or dust off your birding field guide and look up the Bay-breasted Warbler; the Chestnut-sided Warbler; the Blue-winged Warbler; the Golden-winged Warbler.  These were but a few of the amazing beauties I watched as they rested and hungrily fed, often openly at my eye level or at ground level.  In their summer breeding grounds, it would take a birder craning her neck to the tree tops to catch a glimpse of one of these beauties.

But this story is about the bird I will most remember from these two days. This story is about a beautiful male Scarlet Tanager, about the man that I do not know, and about the life lesson from Mother Nature.

The Story:

I walked back out of the gorgeous old Live Oaks that anchored this Galveston motte to the coastal edge of the upper Texas Gulf Coast.  I did not want to take a break from the fabulous viewing of tired and hungry migrant warblers, but I needed a break from the voices and positioning of human birders so hungrily and noisily watching.  I walked away from the human and Aves crowds to give myself time to stand alone at the sunny outer edge of the motte.
Welcoming me back out into the sun and quiet calm, two different species of Empidonax flycatchers were moving about.  “Emps” charm me with their elegant tuxedo-like costumes, and frustrate me with their challenge to uniquely identify them within the Empidonax genus.  I find it near impossible to uniquely identify the several species from within this genus of flycatchers.  These Aves cousins all bare strong family resemblance; and when Sibley says they are usually indistinguishable except by voice, I say yea, right—as these beauties go about their acrobatic maneuvers and fly catch in silence.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a larger yellowish Aves, perched on a bare shrub limb, about 18 inches off the ground.  I put my binoculars on it to confirm it was a female Scarlet Tanager.  I went back to viewing the Emp flycatchers but pondered the female Tanager’s behavior.  She was not feeding. She seemed perched to alertly wait rather than to rest in exhaustion. And she was not feeding on the bounty before her.  I moved my binoculars back to her and circled the area. 
And there he was--the beautiful male Scarlet Tanager with his vibrant scarlet-red body and blacker-than-night wings.  He was on the ground, almost directly below the female, obscured from my original casual viewing by a thick bramble.  He was the one that seemed exhausted.  No other birders were around to bother them, so I assumed her watch was to give him rest. I turned my binoculars and concentration back to the ding dang gymnastic antics of the flycatchers, “entertaining” me from two different corners of this southern entrance to the motte.

About ten minutes later I was ready to go back to warbler viewing—I confess giving up on identification of the flycatchers although I’d call one a Least, with some certainty.  It is the largeness of the eye in the dainty head that seems unique in the Least Flycatcher.  Or so I tell myself.
I looked over to the briar patch area and the female Scarlet Tanager was gone.  But the male was still on the ground.  I didn’t think this was a good sign.  I quietly moved over to the area, staying a good ten feet away from him.  His left wing was out and appeared snagged in the bramble.  He was gently struggling to break free, but making no progress. His struggle was punctuated with exhaustion.  This beautiful tanager was snagged in the heat of full sun and I now knew he was in trouble and had been struggling a good while.  The female must be in the area, but some circumstance or risk took her away from his side.

I stood for a minute cycling through my mental database as to what I should or should not do.  No other birders were about.  They were all within the cool cover of the motte, collectively gazing at the bounty of migrant warblers.  I did not feel qualified to physically assist this Scarlet Tanager.  I also debated the laws of Mother Nature and my place within her garden.  But I also knew of my own personal loss when a Good Samaritan is nowhere to be found.  And I also knew of my own personal life-saving gain when a Good Samaritan chose to come my way.
I knew that doing nothing was not an option that would leave me comfortable in my own skin.

Earlier that morning, well within the motte, I came across a nature preserve volunteer as he watered newly planted trees.  I thought he would be my best source for experience and possible intervention on behalf of this male Scarlet. So I quickly and purposefully walked back into the motte, searching for the volunteer.  I tried to quietly move around and about the many birders within the motte. With their binoculars raised, they thankfully ignored my faster-than-sanctioned movement.  But I could not find the volunteer.  I could feel the time-critical need of the Scarlet Tanager weighing on my steps.
Going way outside my comfort zone, I quietly walked up to a group of male and female birders and started my communication with “Excuse me, but have you seen a volunteer working this area?”  The female said no, and asked me why.  I quickly told her of the male Scarlet Tanager in distress, with left wing caught in the briar.  She emphatically told me the bird was just exhausted and I should leave it alone.  Her response surprised me.  My response, standing my ground to this group of strangers, surprised me more.  I assured her the bird was snagged.  And so she argued her opinion.  I ran out of words to say and was about to turn in search of another path’s help.  At that point a man in her group spoke up and pointed to another man, in a maroon shirt, standing alone some 30 yards away from us.  Her group’s man didn’t know if Maroon-shirt man was a volunteer but he did believe that Maroon-shirt man was an experienced birder.  I thanked group-man and turned away.

Quietly but quickly I walked up to Maroon-shirt man, forcing an action on his part that most birders hate: lowering his binoculars from the bird he had in view in order to acknowledge my presence.  I apologized and asked Maroon-shirt man if he was a volunteer.  He said no.  I stayed.  Again I apologized for bothering him, and quickly and purposefully explained that I knew no one birding this motte. I continued with my concerned babble by describing the Scarlet Tanager’s plight.  Maroon-shirt man asked me no questions, but actively listened.  And then quietly he spoke: “Show me and I’ll take a look.”
We walked in silence back out of the motte.  He asked nothing and I chose, for once, not to nervously babble.  We came out into the bright sun and I pointed to the ground ahead and off to the right of the trail.  Maroon-shirt man walked over to the Scarlet Tanager, taking a quick and silent assessment of the situation.  I stayed in place, some ten feet away, with instinct telling me the less human involvement the better.

Without hesitation or spoken word, Maroon-shirt man knelt down behind the tanager and cupped its body in his right hand as he quickly but gently freed the tanager’s snagged left wing with his left hand.  His right hand then gently closed around the tanager (in the same way as all those PBS Nature series birders do when banding their netted birds before tagging and releasing their birds of choice).
Maroon-shirt man had obviously handled birds before.  It was rather amazing to silently watch his action.  I felt like I was watching a surgeon operate.  With the Scarlet Tanager freed and gently cupped in hand, Maroon-shirt man silently walked past me, not pausing to show or speak, but purposefully walking over to a wooded area, not fifteen yards away, thick with shrubs. 

As Maroon-shirt man walked past me I focused on the Scarlet.  This beautiful tanager seemed alert, but not struggling against the man’s skilled grasp.  I wanted to assume its head-up alertness a good sign.  The imagery of a person bobbing on a violent sea, but safely tethered within a lifejacket, flashed through my mind.  Maroon-shirt man’s hand was a snuggly fitting lifejacket for the Scarlet.
Maroon-shirt man knelt down behind a shrub and I realized he had picked a spot that I could not view from my layperson’s viewing angle.  I knew my role was to stay in place.  Thoughts rushed through my brain.  Did Maroon-shirt man pick this hidden spot so that he could quickly end this bird’s life if the damage to the wing was terminal?  Or was it simply his experience base to pick an isolated area, giving this Scarlet a well-hidden and shaded spot to recover.  I could not see Maroon-shirt man’s hands, but I watched his face, assuming it would tell me the answer.

An almost smile crossed his focused expression.  He stood, brushed his hands against his pants legs and walked directly toward me.  Words were spoken:  “He scrambled away as soon as I released him.  I think he is going to be OK.  But he was badly snagged and if you hadn’t found him, he wouldn’t have made it.”
I just stared for a minute at Maroon-shirt man.  How could I calmly unbundle my thoughts into a polite, calm response.  I wanted to cry out:  “It was YOU that knew how to SAVE him—what you just did was AMAZING!”  But I did not say these words.  Instead I stumbled over a babble of thanks.  Thanks for listening, thanks for responding, and thanks for taking action and knowing what to do.  Maroon-shirt man gave me a gentle nod.  I attempted to hide the tears that caught me by surprise.

We walked the trail back into the motte, no other words spoken.  No awkward silence; no exchange of names; no small talk; no discussion of the emergency response.  As the trail forked, Maroon-shirt man went to the left, and I to the right.  Our paths crossed on occasion the remainder of the day as neither of us birded with groups.  As is the etiquette of serious birders, we’d give a polite nod as we silently passed each other.
I continued to bird the motte with a joy that treasures a holy experience.  But a short time after reentering the motte, the same woman approached me as I had originally approached in search of the preserve volunteer.  This was the woman that opined leaving alone what would surely be a tired bird.  She approached me and questioned if Maroon-shirt man confirmed her opinion. I quickly and quietly summarized his skilled action and release of the bird.  “He touched the bird?” She seemed startled.  “Yes” I replied.  “Did he really touch the bird or just nudge it away?” She continued to question. And question.  I just looked at her and said “Why would I lie about it?  He freed the bird by un-snagging its left wing, carried it, and released it in the nearby wooded area.”  I turned and walked away, but only a bit.

And from underneath my large hat and from the side of my binoculars, I watched the woman stride away into the opposite direction—toward Maroon-shirt man.  I could see her bounty of words and see his nod of head, punctuated with what appeared to be an occasional “Yes.”
Towards 5:00 pm I headed out of the motte, toward the parking lot.  This path took me past the southern edge where the Scarlet Tanager had been snagged, saved and released.  A group of birders were watching the flycatchers.  I heard a timid guess of a Least. 

Another group was looking in the opposite direction, at two female Tanagers almost side-by-side on a limb, head height, just twenty yards off the trail.  A seasoned birder was expressing their presence as a wonderful side-by-side contrast of the female Scarlet Tanager and the female Summer Tanager.  Suddenly the woman of this story came up beside me, smiled excitedly, and said “Look, there is your bird!”  And there he was: the male Scarlet Tanager.  He was perched in full glory in the tree next to the two females, some ten feet above them.  It was a moment I won’t soon forget.  I put him in my binoculars and sang praises for his beauty and what appeared to be his contentment for this moment, in his world. 
I drove home reflecting on the gift of this day.  I spent the evening updating my life list, creating my day’s sighting log, and sending an e-mail to birding friends with a list of my day’s warbler sightings.  I held the story of the Scarlet Tanager to myself.  I didn’t know how to express it in e-mail.  I wanted to save it for my blog. 

As that wonderful evening came to close I decided to change my next day’s plans.  I decided not to bird High Island, but to return to Galveston, and spend another day in the same oak motte, birding what I hoped would be another day’s bountiful fallout.
The wind was blowing and gusting from the north the next morning.  The temperature was colder and I donned my windbreaker as I walked the path from car to the same west-island Live Oak Motte.  A group of birders were on the south edge as I approached, none familiar to me from the day before.  They held binoculars focused just above head height at a lower limb of one of the oaks that seems to grace the entryway to the motte.  I was guessing they were studying a flycatcher.

I stopped my approach to give their viewing my courtesy.  I raised my binoculars to intersect the angle of their view.  And there he was:  my beautiful Scarlet Tanager.  He was dead; his body leaning awkwardly against a crook in the tree’s limb where the limb met the main trunk. 

I leaned over as if someone had punched me in the gut.  I couldn’t get my breath.  Tears welled up and stung my eyes.  My binoculars hung like a weight pulling me to the ground as my hands fixed to my knees. My position was behind the group of birders so they did not see me stop, or look, or bend over and quietly gasp for air.  But I could hear one man’s words describing the rumor he’d heard of a lady attempting to save a Scarlet the day before.  I heard the click of a camera shutter as another man took pictures of the Scarlet. 
I almost turned back to my car. Suddenly I just wanted to drive home and pretend the day before could stand alone with ignorance of this day after.  But I did not leave.  I do know no why but I put my binoculars back on the Scarlet one last time.  He was eye-open dead. I saw no ants or insects on him so I knew he had not been dead long.  Whether he arrived at this awkward angle as a dying bird placed by human hands, or as a last free-will decision on his part to lean in and die, I do not know.  I was not witness to any but a mere few hours of his life.

I stood back and looked for other Tanagers—male or female.  I saw none.  In fact I saw no birds at this entrance, as if they all had moved away in sacrament to the Scarlet.

I thought about Maroon-shirt man and wondered if he knew.  I knew it would be wrong of me to turn back to the car and leave.  It would not be who I am.  I walked quickly and silently past the birders and on into the motte.  A rip roaring debate was exploding in my mind. I walked blindly past birds fluttering about the motte, gleaning their bountiful harvest of fruit and insect.  I walked without seeing.
I found a quiet corner of the motte and fought back tears and practiced my yoga-sanctioned breathing.  I silently fussed at myself.  I just needed to think and breathe; to sort; to put the experience into the context that it deserved; the context that I should respect and value.

And soon that thought process caused me to give Mother Nature my full attention.  Regardless the name we give Her, it seems we too often judge Her by human standards.  Our memory will choose a day of easy living; a day filled with beauty and family and lovely experiences. We sing with praise for that day and call life glorious.  Our memory will choose a day of hard living; a day filled with pain or loss or death of a loved one. We bemoan and gnash our teeth for that day and call life harsh and cruel.  We cry out against the worst days of our lives.  We talk about the unfairness of life.
But when we give human character-traits to Mother Nature we may be missing the view from her binoculars.  Yesterday this beautiful Scarlet Tanager was a living organism, fully engaged in living and fighting the challenges of his life.  Today this Scarlet Tanager is a food source for so many other living organisms.  With both roles, he is a part of Her creation. There is no moral debate.  Death is a part of life.  I do not know how to extend the words of that statement:  death is always a part of life.  And if Mother Nature is not placing challenges in our life, we must be dead.

But it is the Maroon-shirted Good Samaritan that I last thought about.  Whether in our own life, or the life of someone in our path, we can choose to stop and act, or we can choose to turn and walk away. 
Sometimes our actions bring the grace of saving, of lifting up.  We talk of intercession; of heroism.  Sometimes our actions bring the consequences of mistake, of added pain or misery.  We talk of accidental or unintended tragedy.  Sometimes our actions bare little change to a certain outcome, but we most often do not realize that—until we do.  And sometimes the consequences of our actions may not be known or understood for a good long time—until they are. 

I witnessed the actions of the snagged male Scarlet Tanager—fighting the good fight against his last full day’s challenge.  I witnessed the Maroon-shirt man stop his path to take action—to give aid in a struggle that was not man-made. 
Both tanager and man reminded me that Mother Nature’s creation is about fully living; and about fully dying. 

I slowly moved from the corner of the motte into its center.   I spent this one day of my life birding the motte with a joy that treasures a holy experience.

I ‘m certain of only one thing in this life and death process:  that the view from Mother Nature’s binoculars is surely so very different than the view from mine.  


  1. Nicely-told, Emily. There's always a sadness, I think, in any memory that is worth keeping for long, as it seems that either the moment itself or the absence of that moment must cause pain. One way or the other, memories seem to tend toward small or large cuts that we perhaps thought healed.

    I liked your story very much.

  2. Great story Emily. Too bad it ended the way it did. Hope to see you soon. - Debbie

  3. Beautifully stated, as is your gift for eloquence. Again I say, the mind of a scientist, the soul of a poet. You bring me to tears with the power of your words.


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