October 23, 2008
Red Crossbill drinking
Red Crossbill
There were three of them, forty yards down the mountainside in a small draw, partially obscured by terrain and foliage.  I had been watching them since they arrived in mid-afternoon, never once suspecting they might, in the end, come up toward the spring.  But they were coming now, single file in a slow processional, directly toward my position, and whether out of respect or embarrassment I could not now bring myself to alert them to my presence.

The leader, not ten yards from me as she came up a small rise in the trail, still had not the slightest idea I was there.  She was forty something, classic mahogany skin, long dark hair, and cheekbones to die for.  As a secret witness to their ceremony of soft chants and tossing of seeds, I had felt like a voyeur.  Now I watched every move on her face with curiosity and dread, fearing that when she discovered me it would startle them and ruin their ritual.

Down on my kneepads in total camouflage, I was just at the point where the trail curved around the spring.  Arriving at sunrise with camera and binoculars and knowing there was no other nearby water source, I had hoped all the neighborhood birds with their young of the year knew about this one.  I had not been disappointed.

A family of Steller's jays had come every hour to glean bugs from the horizontal rock surfaces, and red-shafted flickers, bracing themselves with stiff tail feathers on the vertical faces, had spent the whole day at the same task in their own separate niche.  Robins and nuthatches had come to drink, and the spotted Townsend's solitaire was the first juvenile of that species I had ever seen.  Yellow-rumped warblers were flycatching everywhere, and a western tanager family had worked through the foliage above me at regular intervals.

The catch of the day with the camera had been the young red crossbill drinking at the spring pond.  It was always a delight to observe these uncommon finches with their wonderful bills evolved specifically for prying open pine cones.  My chain of thoughts was evolving too, from the intricacies and "intelligence" of nature, to my celebration of it with my camera, to the ceremony of these three women, Navajo or Hopi, who were surely celebrating the same thing in their own way.

Five yards out now, she topped the rise.  Her gray eyes met my sunglasses, flickered slightly but never wavered, then dropped to the curve of the trail, her step never faltering, her expression unchanging.  The procession swept by, seemingly oblivious to my unexpected presence.  I exhaled and realized I was sweating profusely in the cool autumn evening.  I was overcome with relief and an odd sense of joy.

I spoke with them later at the trailhead, as nighttime fell.  They hoped they had not interfered with me.  They had known, before I and better than I, that we are all in this together, strangers from different cultures, the celebration of nature an ancient and unifying bond.