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The peak of the nesting season has passed at Somme Woods, the forest preserve in Northbrook where I am helping with a survey of nesting birds. Mornings are quieter. The traffic noise no longer has to contend with hordes of male birds singing to maintain their territories. Now the songs come less often, and fewer species are singing. We are seeing more and more fledglings out of the nest, immediately recognizable by their stubby tails and awkward flight.

Our three species of blackbirds--grackles, redwings, and cowbirds--are beginning to gather in mixed flocks. By the time you read this, most will be gone from Somme. They will gather, along with birds from elsewhere in the region, in choice locations--Lake Calumet is a good one--in ever-larger flocks to fatten up before winter comes. In fall, they will head south to the huge roosts in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky to wait for spring.

There is still some activity. Sedentary species like cardinals and short-distance migrants like song sparrows and robins are beginning their second nesting of the season, so we are still hearing from them. And I know of a house wren still sitting on eggs. Her nest--in the stub of a dead tree--has an entrance hole at the top, and down below is a tiny puncture in the bark that looks right into the nest chamber. When I look through it, I can see her beady little eye looking back at me.

We've had some exciting new stuff this year, starting with the blue-gray gnatcatchers that built a nest in a hawthorn near the seasonal pond at the head of the low area we call Middle Swale. We were looking forward to celebrating our first fledgling gnatcatchers, but sadly the violent storm of two weeks ago blew down the hawthorn limb that held the nest. The adults have stayed around, but we don't know if they will try to nest again. Life in the wild is hazardous.

The storm also blew down a tall snag that held a downy woodpecker nest, and I'm sure there was a lot of other damage that we don't know about. The long-term plan at Somme is to remove much of the forest and replace it with savanna and prairie. The easiest way to do that is to girdle trees by removing a strip of bark--and the living tissue directly under it--all the way around the trunk. The missing strip cuts off communication between roots and leaves, and the tree dies. But it doesn't fall over until rot and boring insects have weakened it enough for a good wind to topple it. When it falls, it may take the nests of woodpeckers, great crested flycatchers, and black-capped chickadees with it.

The storm did not take the wood thrush nest. As of last Thursday, the wood thrush female was still sitting on her four eggs. The cowbirds have not found her, and we are hoping for the best.

I discovered one great crested flycatcher nest, and Bill Valentine found another. And between us we have found five cedar waxwing nests. I spent days last year unsuccessfully looking for one of these. This nest is a hard one, because the waxwings don't make any fuss about it. With song sparrows or great crested flycatchers, nesting is accompanied by a lot of hollering and arm waving. Brawls break out as the males battle to see where territorial lines will be drawn.

But with cedar waxwings, the style is muted, restrained. I was watching a male who was perched in a tall snag watching a female weave a nest. Two more waxwings flew in and perched in an even taller snag. The territorial male flew up and landed next to the new birds and just sat there. He didn't flap his wings or his beak. He just sat, and after 30 seconds or so the others flew off and he returned to his perch over the nest.

Very restrained. An upper-class English way of resolving disputes. "I say, old man, might I have a word with you." Waxwings have the sleekest plumage of any bird, and it is hard to imagine them doing anything to ruffle it.

So social are they that they nest in an almost colonial fashion. Our five nests are all within 100 yards of each other, and Bill and I both think there are more to be found in that same area. Waxwings are nomads. This year a flock nests at Somme. Next year, they may be someplace else.

I saw a yellow-billed cuckoo two weeks ago; others had seen it before I did. It could be nesting. If it is, it represents a new species for us. So I have been searching, unsuccessfully, ever since.

When I look at all we've learned this year, I don't know whether to be happy or miserable. We do know a lot about the birds of Somme, but frankly I was hoping for omniscience. I wanted to be able to say that we had 15 song sparrow nests with an average of 4.2 eggs laid in each. That 8 nests were parasitized by brown-headed cowbirds (average 1.8 cowbird eggs per nest), that 5 were destroyed by predators, and that all told 18 song sparrows were fledged, one of whom had a broken claw on its left foot.

I recognize that omniscience is not a reasonable ambition. There are obvious practical barriers. The birds are anonymous. Maybe one in ten thousand has some kind of distinctive trait that allows you to identify it. I see a pair of song sparrows on territory in June and think they must be the same birds that were there in April, but it's quite likely that the birds of April were eaten by a Cooper's hawk and this is a whole new set who have moved into the vacant space.

And there are floaters. Experiments with banded birds suggest that as many as half the birds we see hanging about during nesting seasons are wanderers, birds of no fixed abode. They try to look like reputable territory holders, but they are really living the avian equivalent of life in a packing crate under Wacker Drive.

The bobolinks I saw one Sunday morning were floaters. We keep hoping that a real prairie species will settle at Somme, and bobolinks certainly are that. They are among the open-country birds that sing in flight--the European skylark is another--using their wings as a substitute for the solid elevated perches that trees provide for forest birds.

The little group of bobolinks I saw included a male and three females. I watched them about half an hour, but then they flew off to the south. I followed them with my binoculars until they disappeared.

And there are theoretical problems that stand in the way of omniscience as well. Things are constantly changing. What you learned yesterday is no longer true today. And, as Einstein told us, the observer affects the observed. Just the act of trying to learn about something changes that something. If you think the Cubs lose every time you watch them, you are probably right and it is indeed your fault.

There is a scene in White Men Can't Jump where Woody Harrelson's lover tells him she's thirsty. He gets her a glass of water. She complains that all she really wanted was to commiserate, to achieve a mutual understanding, to connect with him about what it feels like to be thirsty. She's upset that guys don't want to explore common experience; they just get a glass of water. I could be the poster child for this affliction. I want a solution. Unanswered questions make me nervous.

Nature does not indulge people like me. She doesn't reveal much, and if she does part the veil for a moment, it is usually only to reveal new, previously undreamed-of levels of confusion, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery. Knowing this in a general way doesn't seem to help much. I mean, yes, I can accept the idea that mysteries are inevitable, but why does this particular thing have to be a mystery? Couldn't we have mysteries about, say, beetles, and total clarity about birds?

So I find that my relations with nature consist of moments of intense joy--when I do manage to figure something out--that serve as punctuation for long periods of low-level anxiety. Most of the time I am either stewing over the grandiose worry that I'll never be able to figure everything out or grappling with the more mundane fear that, though I have figured out one or two things in the past, my latest insight was probably my last. A lot of the rest of my life is like this, too. I thought nature was going to save me, but it turns out I can't go to the woods without bringing me along.

Whenever I get too down about all this, I think about a story Scott Robinson told me. Robinson is doing a major study of nesting birds in the Shawnee National Forest. Every spring he sends an army of grad students out to scour the woods for nests. Timber rattlers and copperheads live in the forests of the Shawnee, and poking around in the brush is a good way to encounter one. So a couple of years ago one of his grad students decided to hang bright-colored cloth tapes directly over the places where he had seen a snake. The tapes, he thought, would serve as a warning to others. Of course, this plan overlooked an important element of serpent biology: snakes move. You can't know where all the snakes are, just as you can't know what all the birds are doing. All you can do is stay alert and be aware that at any given moment something is probably about to bite you. If you can achieve a visceral acceptance of this situation, you can live a life of peace. So far, I haven't.


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