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The blue-winged warbler struggles as I extract him from the fine netting stretched across the underbrush. Our instructor Caleb assures us that this will only be a tiny interruption in his migration, and the information gleaned from our bird banding will contribute to stewardship efforts. I immobilize the bird’s neck between my first and second fingers, as instructed, but realize that any flinch or spasm on my part could cause gross bodily harm. I gently slip him into a muslin bag with a drawstring top and take him to the processing station. Caleb advises us to place the muslin bags inside our fleece jackets to keep the birds warm until we release them. My warbler’s wings flutter against my beating heart.
I weigh and measure my bird, fluff his feathers to record his fat reserves, look for lice. I have just flown back to the Midwest from a bird watching trip in Florida. My blue-winged warbler has flown here from his wintering grounds in South America across the Gulf of Mexico and then up across the United States to his breeding grounds along the Great Lakes. The warblers fly at night, in diminishing numbers, but still in flocks large enough to be picked up by radar, a puckered veil over the night sky. During the day they drop down to rest and eat. What wild wind has deposited him here, in this scrap of brush in my suburban backyard?
The last step in the processing is placement of the numbered metal band encircling his ankle. The band number is sent to a central data bank and if the bird has the misfortune of recapture, his movements can be tracked. I now hold him by his feet in the birder’s pose, suitable for photographs. This is the first blue-winged warbler our team has caught, and he causes a stir among the other banders, weary of the more mundane back-yard birds – cardinals, sparrows, and doves - who gather at bird feeders and eat the seeds we offer them. Blue-winged warblers only eat insects, so have no reason to grace us with their convenient presence. The group gathers around for a picture of this stunning bird.
I recall my first sighting years ago on a business trip. I grabbed my binoculars at the end of the day to investigate the swampy underbrush circling the corporate campus. An unusual song prompted me to tromp into the swamp in my business attire. I struggled to follow the bird as he skittered from branch to branch. My shoes were ruined, burrs had wadded my fancy silk skirt into a jumble But suddenly, there he was above me, my first blue-winged warbler, singling lustily, a tiny mote of wilderness above my head. I was a little bit in love.
Now, holding him, I can look directly into his eyes, imaging I'm comforting him with a gentle pat to his head. His fierce eyes accuse me of keeping him from his goal of fattening up during this brief stopover. Tonight he will again fling himself into the night sky to head north, guided by an ethereal pull only he understands. This spunky spirit is not apparent in all the pictures and drawing in my guide books.
I stare at him with solemn awe. He leads a harrowing life, always on the edge of survival. He weighs no more than a couple of pennies and now the bird band adds to his burden. When I let go of his feet, he sits motionless on my palm for a moment, as if considering me, wondering about the human stench now despoiling his feathers, feeling the discomfort of his numbered bird band. My touch has tainted him, stigmatized him, stripped him of his enrapturing wildness.
He flits off into the woods. Later that morning his wheezy song drifts down from overhead trees. "Safe travels," I whisper.
Maria McNitt (@maria_mcnitt) is an artist who lives in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Mom of three, grandmother of eight, she loves to paint, draw and paste papers together. Collaborating with her writer friend Elizabeth on this project was a lot of fun. It reminded her of her many days in the advertising business - putting imagery and words together to provoke a feeling. www.mariamcnitt.com.
Elizabeth Brown is a physician embracing her transition as author of dreary medical reports to the vibrant world of creative writing driven by imagination and curiosity - and the opportunity to collaborate with her artist friend Maria McNitt. Elizabeth's essays can be found on her blog site www.fanagrams.net, or on iTunes (for free). Search under fanagrams. Elizabeth also performs her stories at bars, preferably in front of a drinking audience.