Alone, I walk the snow-covered path from the trailhead, over the Fish Creek bridge and through the shaded wood until I come to the pond where I pause in the bright morning sunshine. The tide is out and the ice covering the brackish water is sagging and cracked. Winter has ignored the calendar this year, and bucking the old adage, March has gone out like a lion. It is cold, and as good as the sun feels on my face, my fingers call out for warm blood, so I walk on.
Slowing, to prolong my time in the sun, I ease around the shore until a sound from the far bank freezes my progress. I grip my camera and slowly turn to look across the ice. Nothing sounds quite the same as the alarm snort of a buck deer. I glance down and check the settings on my camera then scan the trees. A flock of chipping pine siskins slips out of the trees and back. A belted kingfisher swoops, chattering, rises and departs. Everything else is still. I see no buck, detect no movement. Deer are slippery, I think. He was probably gone before I ever turned my head.
Staring at the silent, motionless trees, I hear it again. Still I see nothing. And again. Wary yes, but deer are not invisible. How am I missing him? Out of sight, the kingfisher announces her departure up the creek, and I decide to take her cue. I scan one last time for what I have decided must be a specter of a deer then make my way into the forest.
The trail emerges from the wood at the other end of the pond, and I pause again. From here, the sun is directly in my face, and I close my eyes, soak it in. I don’t even bother looking when I hear another snort. My faith in the unseen deer is wavering, even if my ears are convinced.
A pair of heavy whooshes brings a smile to my face and I open my eyes expecting to see a bald eagle swooping from the trees behind me. I turn around. I turn back. The air is clear. Another small flock of siskins loops out of one spruce, back into another. A far off bald eagle, somewhere on top of the forest, cackles, laughing at me, I am sure. He is not the one I heard flying. Where is the other one? I wonder. “Probably with that invisible buck,” I say aloud, laughing. At least I’m hearing deer and eagles and not some human voice telling me to do something stupid.
I walk on, thinking, If I’m gonna go crazy, this is a good way to go.
Soon, I find myself sheltered behind a dense stand of spruce and hemlock on the edge of a small delta—a refuge for a few dozen mallards too far off to photograph—I marvel at what seems to be scores of pine siskins in every tree—hundreds altogether, maybe thousands. The object of my affection—and target of my lens—is a single golden-crowned kinglet flashing and retreating, flashing and retreating, teasing me along the tree line.
From somewhere in the brown clumps of last year’s collapsed grasses, a song sparrow flushes to a small solitary spruce standing alone beside the trail, disappearing into dense green. I slink around the tree to find him perched, just visible in a little pocket in the foliage.
Silhouetted in the shade, he ruffles his throat feathers, cocks his head and offers four seconds of delicious song: a short series of perfectly-timed shrill notes, a whistled trill, a short buzz, three more notes—lo hi lo—then a faster, shorter trill.
Following his mini aria, he casually grooms a few feathers, then offers a second song, then a third before stepping forward into dappled light that falls perfectly on his right eye just long enough…
Around the corner from the sparrow, a half dozen chestnut-backed chickadees are busy feeding. I watch one of the tiny little birds settle on a spruce cone, pluck a scale or two, reach in for a tiny seed, then retreat to the shadows. Less than a minute later, it returns.
The routine is the same as when I feed chickadees at home, minus the work of plucking the cones. In the driveway, they need only land on my hand to to retrieve a pre-hulled sunflower seed which they then carrying off to a favorite anvil—a small crook in a limb, or a knothole to secure it for hammering.
Chickadee beaks are petite, not built for crushing. They have to chip each little seed into smaller bits before consuming. Spruce seeds are tiny, and among the many varieties, Sitka spruce seeds are some of the tiniest. Each of these chickadees will eat a lot of seeds today. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Meanwhile, more siskins, ever chattery, escape the trees in their small groups of six or eight to fly down to the rocks of the intertidal zone where they perch for a moment, then return. I do not know what the purpose these flights serve, but I watch for while, entertained and intrigued.
Shifting wind compromises my shelter, and not willing to choose between sun and lee, I make my way back to the pond where sun and stillness have not divorced. A varied thrush slips silently away from the shore, into the wood where a red-breasted sapsucker waahs three times, sounding like a drunken nuthatch, then emerges from the shadows to flit across the pond.
As the sapsucker disappears into the far woods, all hell breaks loose over the pond. A squeaking voice tuned somewhere between a coyote yip and the opening of a classic haunted house door whines in the middle of the pond, the mysterious buck snorts twice, then the invisible eagle wings along the shoreline to my right.
What kind of ghostly menagerie have I encountered? Has social isolation caused me to go completely mad? It’s only been a week!
Though I came here purposefully alone, trying to follow all the rules for social isolation, and enjoying my solitude among the birds, I am now wishing for a companion. I want—I need— somebody to stand beside me, point across the water, and say, “There’s the deer, right over there, Jim. See it? Beneath that eagle landing on that bare limb?”
But there is nobody, and apparently there is no deer, either, no eagle, no squeaky coyote. There is only me and a dozen siskins murmurating over the ice, and they are showing me nothing.
Addressing the current isolation orders around the world, an article in The Economist this week asks “How will humans, by nature social animals, fare when isolated?” Among other examples of people dealing with separation, the author spoke of astronauts in prolonged isolation, saying they may “suffer from disturbed sleep, heart palpitations, anxiety and mood swings.” The article made no mention of possible aural hallucinations.
With mental health on my mind, I walk on through the woods, back towards the far end of the pond. A junco eyes me from a lichen-covered limb lying in the shadows on the edge of the trail. “What the hell is going on?” I ask her. Apparently not liking my question, she turns away and flies into the canopy.
I have just emerged back into the sun when the weird takes a sharp turn towards absurd as hear a sound I have only heard previously once in my life, and will never forget. Seeming to come from all directions at once, a deep, rumbling bellow settles around me. I hear an elephant!
That is it. I am not losing it; I have lost it. Social isolation has gotten the best of me.
Almost afraid to move, I try to breathe as deeply as I am able until movement down the trail pulls me out of my panicked moment. A golden retriever bounds towards me, chasing a dirty orange tennis ball. Behind her follows a man carrying one young girl in a backpack, and holding hands with another. As they approach, I smile, nod, try to look like I am not losing my mind, then turn away from them toward the woods and the high-pitched, squeaky-wheel call of a kinglet.
The threesome stops behind me at the water’s edge where I hear Dad say, “Look, there’s a green one. See it? And way out there is a blue one.” I look over my shoulder to see him pointing at tennis balls—dog toys frozen in the ice.
He kneels besides daughter. “Listen,” he says. “What does the pond sound like? Frozen ponds have voices that can become anything you can imagine. Listening to pond ice is like watching a cloud. Remember how we watched a cloud change from a fish, to a cat, to a bicycle?”
Along with father and daughter, I cock my ear towards the ice. After a minute of focused listening, a soft, grousing creak begins at the far end of the pond, races towards us, tapering off into nothingness before reaching the shore. It is followed by a sharp, high-pitched bark.
“It sounds like a dog!” the girl shouts gaily.
“Keep listening,” he says. “Sometimes, when the tide is just right, and the wind slips between the ice and the water underneath… it sounds just like an elephant!”