The frame I have on Penobscot Bay is about twenty feet wide. This is the unobstructed view; blue water (or green or gray or silver, depending on the sky) also peeks through the outstretched branches of the pointed firs on right and left. The bottom comprises Adirondack chairs on the lawn, the top sun and moon and lightning and stars. Across the frame, from fir to fir, flit yellow jewels.

I can observe worlds through my frame:  the tides covering and uncovering the seaweed on Little Island; dragon flies and hatches of flying ants; gulls, elegant terns, osprey, crows, loons, cormorants, eider ducks; small red squirrels that chatter in the branches before dashing across the opening, and once in a great while Brer Fox making his rounds along the ledge; the neatly nibbled stems of phlox shortened overnight, hinting of deer; lobster traps moving closer to shore as the summer progresses; the men in boats and airplanes, working and pleasure, the occasional tourists in yellow kayaks. Among these many wonders, today I think about the finches.

At least I’m assuming they are finches. I look them up in Sibley’s. None of the regular finches are yellow, but there are three goldfinches – Lawrence’s, Lesser, and American. There’s also a page of exotic finches that regularly escape from captivity and occasionally compete successfully enough to form feral colonies. I don’t have a sharp image in my head of what bird I’ve glimpsed, so I page through the whole book, looking for more yellow. There are orioles, tanagers, and grosbeaks, but they are bigger, eight inches in length. Warblers occupy pages and pages, all yellow, all around five inches, many in the right territory….well, OK, I’m not sure I’m up for this confusion of birds, this riot of evolution, so I’m putting my money on the American goldfinch, which will require a closer and longer look. I’ve seen the little guys fly back and forth, low along our small cliff as if they have nests down there, and I think I need to be at the cliff’s edge for the best view. Which lets me in for the temptation of the wider view.

This is what scientists strive to ignore while they work: I walk from the deck down to the water and can now see the ends of Sheep and Monroe Islands, and the low blue seductive curves of Vinalhaven, and the open ocean to the southeast (all the way to Spain if my orientation is correct). But I must focus on a tiny area even while accepting these stereoscopic glories circling around. I have to look for a little yellow speck, and now I’m nearly in its flight path, and will it show itself at all?

I resolve to spend an hour, concentrating. The sounds of the surf and the lobster boats make it hard to distinguish bird song, and I swivel around even at a robin’s screech. I scan the tall trees behind, the short bushes on the shore. At the half-hour there’s a brief glimpse of what might be a female finch, but the brief comedy of taking off eyeglasses and putting on binoculars misses the ID. I wait some more, getting distracted by some guys laying a new string of lobster traps, thinking that science has become magical. If I had wireless, I could pluck that American goldfinch right out of the air, and make all of its data and songs and closely related species appear on my screen. (Could do that back in the house, too, through the wire, which illusion seems more understandable than what happens in the ceaseless surf of electromagnetic wave theory.) Does this disconnect between pixels and reality explain my slight sense of anxiety, wanting the real thing to appear, wanting to know something solid, scientific, historical about the marvelous place I inhabit?

No small yellow thing appears. I’m in the frame, I must be interfering with the observation.

Charles Darwin made some of his most dramatic discoveries in finches. He didn’t really know it at the time – he brought back a dead dozen specimens from the Galapagos Archipelago, presented them to the Geological Society of London on January 4, 1837 along with a lot of other stuff, and left the corpses for others to classify. The birds weren’t even named after him until a hundred years later. But of course he realized what he had seen in the perfect gradation in the size of their beaks. In the book that eventually become The Voyage of the Beagle he wrote, “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related groups of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” (Note the passive voice – he wasn’t quite able to proclaim that God is dead.) In the course of a couple of million years, a finch that migrated from Central or South America evolved into 14 species with dramatically different ways of coping with changing climatic conditions. One now feeds on ticks plucked from tortoises and iguanas, one scrapes at dead tree branches to eat larvae, several eat seeds like finches around the world, and one – the vampire - tears at the feathers of red-faced boobies to drink their blood.

And what will happen to those small, harmless, non-descript birds in our new world? One species is already nearly extinct, from fishermen tearing up their mangrove habitat in search of sea cucumbers, and the others are threatened with new, dramatic, un-climatic conditions of cats, rats, and parasitic flies.

Darwin’s expedition left England on December 27, 1831 and returned October 2, 1836. He had the widest view of nearly any human of his time, and the narrowest. He killed nature in order to study it, he spent countless hours, even years, in close observation and communion. Our folks get impatient with time passing and want the Internet to tell them their circumstances.

I return to the house for lunch and some surfing.

The next day, sitting on the deck away from the ledge, chastely uninvolved with its “bounding flight and distinctive flight calls,” I make the identification of the American Goldfinch almost immediately. Obligingly, a male proudly perches high up and far out on a branch of the fir tree to the right (and defecates), and a few minutes later a female grooms herself briefly inside the fir to the left. The male is bright yellow, with a black forehead and wings. The female is paler, without that rakish black hat. They are both very plump, fatter than Sibley shows – life on the shore must be rewarding for birds as well.

I know now that even though they are so common and widespread, they have their interesting little points. They are seed-eaters; thistles are a favorite, and they use the down to line their nests. Their nests are so tightly woven that sometimes a rain storm will accumulate enough water to drown the chicks. They are mostly monogamous (although a few females will take a second mate and family, leaving the first male to care for the fledglings); usually gregarious (big groups in winter, two or three couples in summer); and ubiquitous (found almost everywhere in North America). Males sing and perform aerial maneuvers during courtship in late July. Females incubate, males hunt and feed, and when chicks are ready to be on their own, they no longer make calls for their father to hear. They are the only finch to molt completely, they migrate just far enough to stay reasonably warm, and they have thrived in the presence of human deforestation. It is a thoroughly sensible species.

           I feel excellent having made its acquaintance. I’m in the process of adapting city ways to country life, and welcome the chance to believe that the more our lives become virtual, the more we seek the tangible; the more that news, usually concerning a disaster or a war, becomes instantly available anywhere in the world, the less it personifies. I don’t believe that things are quite so bleak as in 1960, when John Steinbeck, traveling across the Mojave with Charley, wrote, “The lone man and his sun-toughened wife who cling to the shade in an unfruitful and uncoveted place might, with their brothers in arms – the coyote, the jackrabbit, the horned toad, the rattlesnake, together with a host of armored insects – these trained and tested fragments of life might well be the last hope of life against non-life.” The Cold War has evolved into a series of religious wars; somehow these seem more tractable than nukes if only the combatants would examine the abundance of life in the sub soils of their deserts.

Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing for 30 years and has mostly retired, writing essays and a blog, One Man’s Maine, and dividing his time between Newton, MA and Owls Head, ME.http://onemansmaine.blogspot.comshapeimage_1_link_0







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