Nest spotting

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It was one of the first warm days after a bitterly cold and seemingly endless winter. The sun shone brightly, its rays calling me outside. Sitting at my desk, willing myself to work, I tried to resist. Honestly. But the sun’s magnetic pull was too strong.

Surely I could still do some work, albeit of a different nature. Finding a piece of cardboard and some clothespins, I fashioned a clipboard, inserted a piece of paper, grabbed a pencil and slung binoculars around my neck. I walked along our country road, intent on mapping the bird nests I had first noticed back in February.

My usually brisk walking pace slowed to a crawl as I peered at the trees on either side of the road. Whenever I spotted a nest, I marked down the type of tree that housed it (a guess on my part, more often than not), approximately how high from the ground the nest was placed, and a few notes on size and construction. Twiggy nests straddled the forks of trees; small hanging baskets woven out of dry leaves hung from branches; nests perched on low branches stretched out over the roadside ditches, and in one grove of trees, several nests were placed high up in the tree canopy. I also included the unique identifying number of the nearest hydro pole as a reference point.

A section of my nest-spotting map

Cars drove past, probably wondering what this white-haired, middle-aged woman was doing, standing by the side of the road, staring through binoculars at the naked trees. I paid them no mind. In fact, I felt like an eight-year-old again, exulting over the discovery of nest after nest. In the one kilometre stretch I surveyed, the count added up to 24 roadside nests.

Minutes stretched into hours. For me, time had stopped. Repeatedly, an electric charge of joy shot through my body, a visceral reminder that I had, indeed, made the right decision to leave my indoor desk for the outdoor wonders.

As I walked, stopped, looked and mapped, the opening section of “From the Book of Time” out of Mary Oliver’s book-length poem, The Leaf and the Cloud rose to mind. The real work, she tells us, is paying attention to the natural world. Oh, boy. Am I in trouble. As the nest owners gradually return, there’s a good chance I will yet again – and often — fling myself outdoors to snoop and revel. The indoor work will just have to wait.

From the Book of Time (1)

I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk.
But it’s spring,

and the thrush is in the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass.

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.

~ Mary Oliver



  1. janice

    May 1, 2019

    dear Mary Lou, I can just picture you, neck craned upward, eyes on the bare branches, your pleasure as you locate each soon-to-be-filled nest. And how could you not think of Mary Oliver and her exquisite attention to the natural world. ‘Maybe the world, without us, / is the real poem.’ Yes, I am sure you and she are right.
    love Jan

  2. Wendy Sarno

    May 2, 2019

    Mary Lou, what superb work. “And what else” I ask with Mary “should you have been doing?” I love the field work of a poet/naturalist, the meticulous observing and the delight. Don’t you know Mary would entirely approve? And so many nests! My goodness. Thank you.

  3. Mary Lou van Schaik

    May 2, 2019

    Dear Jan and Wendy – thank you for exulting with me! Yes, I could definitely feel Mary Oliver’s encouraging smile.

  4. nicole langis

    May 23, 2019

    Wonderful read Mary Lou. Thank you. I could visualize as you journeyed through nature.

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