The next morning, early again, I heard the familiar sound of a rusty hinge squeaking back and forth, back and forth: sound of crow, or raven. I listened to them both at Cornell's Macaulay Library and decided that these island birds are crows.
The day after that I watched them down along the shore line, flying up into the trees, perched at the top of a spruce, or in the vast tangle of bayberry that skirts the rocks by the old cellar. I got the binoculars and counted six on the ground.
The next day I watched six, followed by a seventh, flying together, heading northward above the island forest. Only one was calling, and that with a pattern and rhythm of sound and intervals.
They seem to stay together. Then I counted seventeen crows in the air, flapping fast across a bright blue sky. We found many more than that last summer, in a spruce forest near the island's southern edge. Maybe now, in late January, the lengthening of the days gives them new fervour for all that lies beyond their nesting grounds.
Later in the morning I sat for an hour or so on top of the picnic table to look and listen. Bird sound surrounded me: from behind my left shoulder, in the spruce forest, I could hear the soft twitter of some boreal song bird. In the foreground from left to right and back again, along the shore, the crows were staking their claims, sometimes intensely. Beyond the crows, in the placid cove, several loons drifted and dived and called out.
And to my right, somewhere past the bayberry bushes or from within the dead forest, I heard the hooting of an owl, I thought. At first I heard it without hearing it. Then I became aware of the sound. I did not think it possible, but there it was, on this cold sunny still January day.
I went inside and sent urgent owl questions flapping into the cloud. Through the air the answers flew down and lighted in the living room: I was listening to a mourning dove, not an owl. It's a common mistake, I was assured. How mysterious that I can call up the sound of a bird from decades ago and thousands of miles away, the distant ancestor of the dove that's cooing down in the bayberry bush, and hear its song immediately, clearly, still among us.
There's an ancient musical composition of some sort going on out there, what with the introduction and repetition of notes and the weaving of seemingly disparate themes in a seemingly random manner. Right now, I'd say, it's faint. It's only January after all, and the musicians are still tuning up.
Images from Birds of Nova Scotia, at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.