One winter when I was perhaps twelve, Silas and I were walking down the snow-covered road towards another friend’s house, sleds in tow. Fresh snow blanketed the Pennsylvania woods, insulating a calm stillness. Our boots thudded with each step, and skidded over the gravel beneath the snow. Despite this calm, the sudden quiet made us look up from our feet periodically as though we were being watched. We were the only things moving it seemed; the only things not covered in snow. I scanned the barren canopy above us, squinting into the bright white void above. Usually a flock of titmice or chickadees could be seen flitting through the tops of the tall tulip poplars and oaks in the forest surrounding us, but even these individuals appeared to yield their daily duties to the sudden change of weather.
Finally, off in the distance a bright scarlet flash exploded from the white stillness. I remember yelling something to Silas, and took off after the aberration. I knew it. Deep down, I felt it was the bird; one of the few remaining left in my bird book to check off. Running up the road, my boots thudding only slightly louder than my heart, I stared into the trees. I needed only one more glimpse to be sure.
“It’s a scarlet tanager,” I exclaimed to Silas, “I know it! That’s the first I have ever seen!” Saying its name helped me feel convinced of its presence, as though its name could draw it from the woods. However, after one intrepid outburst, only the calm quiet remained.
Later I showed everyone the drawing of the only bird I know that is brighter red than the eastern cardinal. Even in this drawing, its bright red body seemed to glow, and over the years I had repeatedly daydreamed of seeing one dart through the forest. However, despite all of this excitement, I felt a doubt in the pit of my stomach that I was wrong, but I couldn’t deny myself the pleasure of such a sighting. So, I told only the people I felt wouldn’t even know what a tanager was in the first place so I could relish in the pleasure of denial.
It wasn’t until years later that I would come to acknowledge the fact that I was definitely mistaken in my excitement, and that there was no possible way I had seen a scarlet tanager in Pennsylvania, in the dead of winter. Most of them were thousands of miles to the South, waiting out the northern winter in the tropical latitudes of the Andean mountains.
Having completed my first two semesters of college with desperate success, I returned home for a week before heading North to the Adirondacks with Silas. We were about to begin another adventure together working on a trail crew in the muddy, black fly infested High Peaks Wilderness Area. One year of college had brought much change and distance to our previous lives, and deep down I think we were both tormented over the possibility that our childhood, or even our dear friendship, was fading.
Similarly, I had never spent so much time away from my home. Being away from home was never really an issue in my life, but being gone for so long subtly changed the way I felt up on returning nonetheless. For the last nine months my home had become hours reading in 7th st café, a lecture room of sleepy faces, and a wonderfully large single dorm room. Yet as I walked around the flowerbeds in my yard and looked up the hill into the verdant forests, an underlying tone girded a marginal sense of comfort that was relaxing all the same.
While my family was off to work, I enjoyed several days void of responsibility. The soil was warm and wet, and as I walked around the lush grass inspecting hundreds of brown mushrooms, mud squeezed in between my toes. The bright morning sun brought hazy heat to the day quickly, but luckily there was relief to this day. In the afternoon, a warm breeze swept in over the western ridge, sending undulating murmurs through the forest.
With no pressing engagements, I slipped on my moccasins and wandered across the road, past the apple trees in Mrs. Hollerbush’s old overgrown farm, and finally up into the edge of the oak forest. My feet slipped on acorns and soft soil as I followed the same deer trails as always into the forest. Things atop the ridge however, were quite different. My father had told me how the loggers’ promises had finally sunken in the ears of local landowners looking for money, and finally the forest I knew growing up became a memory. As I topped out on the ridge, the forest opened up and was hot. All of the large poplars and oaks were gone, as well as many of the maples. With reserved dismay, I surveyed the new forest. Large patches where laurel and rhododendron had blanketed the understory were now replaced by tangles of choking jaggers. I felt embarrassed as I looked up to the remaining trees. They looked awkward and sheepish, like the first day of middle school when every year several unlucky boys realize that over the summer they suddenly became several inches taller and much skinnier than everyone else.
Luckily that moment didn’t last long. A flicker in the bushes caught my eye, and an odd rusty colored sparrow-like bird flitted through tangles. A small flock of titmice ensued, and then there was a cardinal. I followed them, trying to get a better look at the unknown bird for a minute before they flitted off out of sight. There was still life here indeed, and animals I didn’t know. As I walked across a fallen poplar left behind by the loggers, I thought about how I had never seen those birds at this place before. This change in forest and the new food and shelter the jaggers brought had also brought different birds to this spot in the forest. Later the next year in college, I would learn what edge habitat and forest succession was, but right now I was still slightly dismayed over the change in my home forests. I crossed the deep scar of the jeep trail, and continued down past our hunting trees almost completely atop fallen refuse logs. At this point in the forest, the soil drops away leaving a sea of small, moss covered boulders amidst smaller trees. I hopped along atop the boulders, feeling their rough edges through my moccasins as I followed the slope down until it flattened out in the valley floor. I followed the spring that emerged here as I had done many times, and then cut back up into the forest where the laurel was thick.
As I got to the pinkster bush I had seen the hummingbird moth at the previous year, I paused to look around. The pale pink blossoms were fading, most of them having shriveled past prime. Realizing there were most likely no sightings to be had, my attention turned to the canopy. I followed some chickadees floating from tree to tree, and my eyes fell upon a large oak farther off through the forest, where I saw two larger birds in the shadows up high. As I worked my way over to the tree, a loud bird song came from up high in the oak. It was playful and screechy, similar to a finch in the morning. I called back absent mindedly, attempting to mimic the call, looking up into the oak as I finished.
My mouth dropped wide open as a fiery red bird dropped straight out of the canopy and alighted weightlessly upon the lowest branch of the oak. Its jet-black wings brought great contrast to its glowing red body. He leaned forward anxiously, cocking his head back and forth before flying out to the end of the branch for a better look.
My gaping mouth curled into a grin as I stood there silently in realization that a male Scarlet Tanager had just taken my return call for a challenging male entering his territory. I called back again, and the male flew towards me without leaving the large oak tree. Aching to get a better look, I took a step forward but the dry leaves alerted the male to my presence, and he flew back up into the canopy.
I was elated. I had just seen a bird that I had been searching for since I was a child. I looked back at the large oak over my shoulder as I walked away, grinning in pleasure. Moving on up the trail, I began to look for other large oaks, and scanned the canopy for any bright red bird. Ten minutes later I came upon several mature oak trees, and paused to scan their canopy. My jaw dropped and my face tightened into a grin simultaneously as another male tanager glowed brightly against the bright green oak leaves.
I watched the bird in awe for a few minutes, and a pale olive colored bird flitted through the oaks around the male. I slowly pulled out my Audubon guide, and flipped to the section about tanagers. The description said something like, widespread and uncommon. Found in the canopies of mature deciduous forest in the eastern U.S. This description was so dry and sterile, yet it was so succinct and correct. If the description had just as plainly instructed me to go walk around a tall forest and look up high in the trees for this bird, I wonder if I would have found them any quicker?
This was the first time I realized that what I had been doing subconsciously for years was actually very important to finding birds, or anything. While I knew where and how to look for common birds such as bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers, and the patterns of their presence had become very familiar to me, I had never realized that most animals follow very distinct patterns and live in very specific places. After that day, I began to read each description of the birds I had yet to discover for myself very closely. I wasn’t able to memorize things as easily anymore. So, I began to read the book in the woods, and then go searching for individual birds. At this time, I still had yet to find anyone to share this delight with. Perhaps it was just the lingering urge to be alone after the past several years of relative solitude, or perhaps it was just too hard to have such experiences with other people present. Nonetheless I savored these hikes through the woods.
A week later Silas and I packed up and left for our summer in the Adirondacks. It would be several years before I would find myself walking through these woods again, and several more years after that before someone came along to share these experiences with me. Whenever I hear the finch-like screech of a tanager call, everything else seems to fade away, and I can’t resist walking away from whomever I am with to call in these magnificent jewels of the forest.