Be Still and Know

I think it’s fair to say that most faith traditions share an important tenet, that being still and knowing go hand in hand—that being still and contemplative lead to understanding and insight.

I recently posted a dual tribute to nature poet, Mary Oliver. In Jean Mackay’s tribute, you’ll find these words from Oliver’s poem “Messenger,” which begins with the memorable line: “My work is loving the world.”

Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be

Oliver’s work and what mattered to her, then, was “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” She, too, believed that pausing and observing were precursors to learning and amazement. She, too, believed that stillness was “one of the doors into the temple” (words from her poem, “Today”).

Seton Sitting

I’m reminded again of the bird walk that I recently led at Paradise Creek Nature Park in Portsmouth, VA. Twenty-five people participated, including a few very sharp young people who had obviously caught the birding spark. We observed close to 20 species in a park that has “hosted” well over 150. The group’s favorite bird by far was a male Eastern Bluebird, a “sit-and-wait predator” and model of stillness and concentration.

Male Eastern Bluebird
Male Eastern Bluebird

Before we set out on our walk, I told the group that the more I bird, the more I realize how important it is to be quiet, and sometimes still, in the process. I shared with them the story of writer, naturalist, wildlife artist, and Boy Scouts of America founder Ernest Thompson Seton and the field technique he employed and described that has come to be known as “Seton Sitting.” Seton learned, as one who often sought out wildlife, that animals fled upon his approach but usually returned if he were still. This large group took my words seriously as they were amazingly quiet as we walked. That’s probably why we were afforded good looks at so many birds, like the bluebird above and the “mocker” below—another, more occasional, sit-and-wait predator.

Northern Mockingbird perched
Northern Mockingbird

Bird Photography

Birders, bluebirds, and mockingbirds aren’t the only ones who use the Seton sitting approach. Photographers use it, too. Here’s photographer David Shaw’s take. This is an excerpt from his outstanding piece, “A Guide to Photographing Birds and Wildlife in a Wetland Area.”

The first, and most important, skill for getting close to wild birds is really a non-technique, technique. It’s called “patience”. When I have the time to dedicate to a shoot, I will frequently take a small waterproof pad, plop it down on the waterline of my local pond, spritz myself with a generous dose of insect repellent, put the camera on a tripod, and sit down. There, I will remain, sometimes for hours. In time, the local birds relax after my initial appearance and go back to doing what they do.

Shel Silverstein, another poet whom we’ve lost, wrote about a “whole mess of geese” in his famous poem, “The Unicorn.” If you haven’t actually read that poem, you’re no doubt familiar with the musical adaptation. Well, we recently saw a whole mess of ducks on Lake Ballard at the wonderful Hoffler Creek Nature Preserve in Portsmouth, VA. (On occasion we venture beyond the Elizabeth River watershed.) Here’s what they sounded like.

And here’s what they looked like.

American Wigeon taking off
American Wigeons taking flight

I captured these American Wigeons—formerly known as “Baldpate” because of the white on the male’s crown—from a spot nearby. I’d taken up a seated position on a viewing platform that overlooks a corner of the lake. I was visible, but still, my camera lens resting on the railing. After I’d been there for half an hour, the flock flew in from another part of the lake. And in no time at all, it began to engage in a feeding frenzy.

Suddenly, and as these birds are inclined to do, they all bolted. Fortunately, I was able to get some decent shots of them as they took flight. But I wouldn’t have been able to capture them, or watch them, or hear their calls, or enjoy that moment, had I not prepared and been still, and had I not become a non-threatening part of their environment.

And This Just In

Here’s another wintering duck I captured in a different environment altogether: the brackish water of the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake, VA. This is an immature male Red-breasted Merganser. Unlike the American Wigeon, a dabbler and an herbivore, the Red-breasted Merganser is a diver and a carnivore. The wigeon is nicknamed “baldpate,” and “poacher” (it’ll steal other ducks’ food), whereas the merganser is nicknamed “saw-bill,” “fuzzy-head,” and “fish duck.”

Immature male Red-breasted Merganser swimming
Immature male Red-breasted Merganser

Though the “fish duck” is commonly seen diving for fish, for the half-hour I watched this bird, I never saw it dive once. What I did observe was feeding behavior I’d never seen before. As it swam, it would put its head underwater to look for prey. I thought I was watching a periscope in reverse! Evidently, this species can see quite well with its head submerged.

Here’s another wintering bird, but this time, a songbird: a White-throated Sparrow. This photo is courtesy of Reese Lukei, Jr., Research Associate with The Center for Conservation Biology, and conservationist extraordinaire.

Leucistic White-crowned Sparrow on the ground
Leucistic White-throated Sparrow

You might be able to tell that this bird looks a little different. White-throated Sparrows are ordinarily darker with much more contrast. This one, however, is paler throughout, owing to what appears to be a partial loss of pigmentation in its feathers. Leucism is the name for this genetic condition.

Quip, Question, Quote

Shortly after we’d seen that “whole mess of ducks,” we were unexpectedly treated to the sounds of a Great Horned Owl. So we’ll end here, but not with the usual “quip, question, or quote.” We’ll end instead with my recording of this mysterious woodland bird.


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