Eastern Phoebe Painting by Shauna Finn Art at Etsy
Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to slow down, be present, and really take in all of the complicated feelings that arise when you close a very big chapter in your life. I’ve been through some major life changes over the past 10 years and through each of them, I rushed. I put my head down, worked through them like a freight train, and never really let myself feel any of them. But with the closing of Design*Sponge, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to pay attention to all of the things I was experiencing and remember them. And if one thing has helped me do that this time around it’s the family of Eastern Phoebe birds that have taken up residence on our patio fan.
It wasn’t long ago that I read an article by Emily Busse about how bird watching helped ease her anxiety. I made a mental note and started taking more time to pay attention to the birds in our yard. Then one day, Julia and I noticed mud splatters above our (unused) fan on the patio. A bird was building a nest on the fan blade. I was terrified, but after some quick research I realized it was fairly common. And as long as we didn’t use the fan (I used duct tape to hold it in place so it wouldn’t spin in the wind), the family and their nest would be fine.
Eastern Phoebe Watercolor by Joy Neasley Studios at Etsy
Over the past two months, I’ve gone from being a casual bird watcher to an avid documenter of nest behavior (I even registered our nest with the Cornell Nest Watch program). I like to think of myself as the official president of the Eastern Phoebe bird fan club. I’ve watched this tiny family of birds lay an entire clutch of eggs that failed to hatch, try again, and now succeed with a beautiful new nestling that I’ve been keeping a close eye on with not one but two pairs of bird binoculars (one records video, one does not). As I write this, I’m taking breaks to pick up my binoculars and watch the parents feed the baby an assortment of freshly-caught flies, moths, and other winged insects. This simple act of slowing down, paying close attention, and taking notes has helped me stay in touch with my feelings and a greater sense of overall perspective. So here’s what I’ve learned from these beautiful birds about life and work so far:
- Have Hope: When I first started watching the Phoebes make their nest on the fan blade, I thought for sure they were goners. Not because we were going to ever turn the fan on, but because it seemed like one good gust of wind would send their nest and the eggs flying off the blade. And while I researched nest locations and learned this spot wasn’t impossible to make work, I had my doubts. But watching them survive two rounds of egg laying and multiple storms, I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to take a deep breath, hope for the best, and see what happens.
- Not Everything Will Work Out, But That’s Okay: Our Phoebes had a first clutch of four eggs after they made their nest. I documented them for the nest program and then waited… and waited. But nothing happened. It seemed like they should have hatched after a few weeks, so I checked again (consulting the Cornell Nest Watch Guidelines) and there were… different eggs. They were still Phoebe eggs, but there were only three now, and they were smaller. I asked some local bird experts for their opinion and they told me that most likely the first clutch of eggs wasn’t viable, so they laid new ones. Nature knows when things aren’t working out and just goes ahead and tries again. With cautious optimism I waited and now… they have a baby nestling! I don’t think all three eggs survived to hatch, but I’ve been watching their first nestling bob around the nest and find its voice and it’s been such a sweet reminder that life always finds a way, it just may not be how you planned it in the beginning.
- Pay Attention to the Small Things: When I first started watching the nest, I learned how to recognize the Phoebe’s calls (I watched so many Phoebe videos on Youtube) and tell them apart from other birds’ calls. That little lesson led to me researching other local bird calls and now when I wake up in the morning, I don’t start my day with political podcasts. Instead, I listen to bird calls from my bathroom window and try to see which of the birds I can identify and see. Then I think about how each of them spends their day. A few days into this new routine, I found myself happier, calmer, and less distracted by devices and online drama. Just listening to these small chirps, chips, and cheeps made me so thankful for tiny sounds and tiny moments of joy. I had been chasing these small moments of joy in the form of comments and “likes” on social media, but I actually found them in nature instead.
- Become a Beginner Again: When I first started watching birds, I knew nothing about them. Like, nothing. I couldn’t tell a Chickadee from a Phoebe or a Starling from a Warbler. I didn’t know the terms for anything or how to tell one call from another. So I started learning again, from the bottom. I ordered a bunch of books, read up, watched a million videos on Youtube and found myself in that giddy early stage of learning again where everything is new and everything is exciting and totally foreign to you. I forgot how FUN that is. It’s so easy to get settled in our identities after doing the same thing for 15 years. I thought of myself as a blogger who liked the internet and TV and being indoors most of the day. And while that’s still pretty true, getting into bird watching has reminded me that I can (and do) have new interests that I wouldn’t have expected at first. And learning something new about myself has made me feel a different type of confidence I didn’t know I needed.
- Asking for and Accepting Help is Part of Life: Watching this tiny nestling Phoebe be so helpless in its nest has been an important reminder that there will be stages of every being’s life where you need to rely, lean, or depend on someone or something else. I see how the parent Phoebes dote on their nestling and feed it, fluff it, and nudge it. They even carry its waste out of the nest multiple times a day (see 2:02) to keep things clean. Humans can do the same for each other and it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of, on both ends of the equation. Taking care and giving help to someone— or being on the receiving end of that— is such a gift and is a beautiful example of how giving and accepting help when we need it is part of life.
No matter where you live, there is usually some type of bird life to watch, admire and learn from. I can’t recommend this hobby more highly. It’s relatively low cost (you can find used binoculars online for a good price, and many new ones at a low price, too) and it gives back so much in terms of life lessons and serenity. If you want to get started, here are some of the resources I’ve been using to learn more. Happy bird watching! xo, Grace
- Cornell Nest Watch
- Audubon Society (their app is amazing for identification)
- All About Birds (a great place to start!)
- American Birding Group (find fellow bird watchers near you)
Dramatic Phoebe on the sofa by Vivienne Strauss at Etsy