New Neighbors

This afternoon, the air is soft and warm. A cool breeze is blowing off the lake, where rows of waves shimmer and sparkle in the sunlight. The sound of water slapping gently against the rocks mixes with the high-pitched chirpings of goldfinches and pine siskins. A kingfisher rattles along the shore, and a white-breasted nuthatch calls from the woods.

Earlier today, I puttered around the yard, raking up twigs and pinecones, but now I am seated on a rock, enjoying the sun and watching our new neighbors. Around me, bright green ferns are unfurling, and tender new leaves are sprouting. There are wildflowers: dark red trillium at the edge of the woods; and in the lawn are deep purple violets, tiny white violets, dainty bluets, bright yellow dandelions, blue forget-me-nots, and Canada mayflowers. Everything is new, and fresh.

I first noticed our new neighbors one day last week. I was standing at the kitchen sink looking out the window and saw a bird fly under the screened porch on the north side of our house. Our house is built on a slope, so that end of the porch is about four feet above ground. Soon, the bird flew out again, perched on a low branch of the red oak tree, and looked directly at me. It was an Eastern phoebe, a member of a large diverse family known as tyrant flycatchers, fairly drab sparrow-sized birds who often sit on a conspicuous perch, then dart out to catch a flying insect in the air. Several North American flycatchers look very much alike, brownish-gray above, and mostly whitish underneath with a soft olive wash on the sides and breast, but phoebe is easily recognized because it is the only flycatcher that flicks his tail in a characteristic downward motion when perched. The phoebe seemed to be aware that I was watching, and over the next few days whenever I was near the window, he or she, remained perched and did not fly under the porch. I suspected they were building a nest under there, and wanted to keep the location a secret.

The phoebes under the porch are not our only new neighbors. Another couple has built a nest high under the eave on the back of our cottage. I first discovered it more than a week ago, when I had stepped into the cottage to see if everything there was still in good shape after the winter, and happened to notice dried mud spattered on the outside of the bedroom window. As I was peering out at the mess, a bird flew out from under the eave, perched about fifteen feet away, looked at me through the window, and wagged its tail up and down. It was a phoebe. I sat down, intending to watch for a few minutes, but phoebe seemed to be unsettled by my sudden appearance, even though a glass window separated us. He or she fluttered back and forth, unwilling to return to whatever was hidden under the eave, so I left the cottage and left the bird in peace. A few days later, I decided to see if there was a nest there, so walked around the back of the cottage and tried to see up under the eave. Phoebe burst out from that spot, and perched on a branch, looking agitated. I took a quick peek just long enough to see that there was, indeed, a nest stuck to the narrow ledge at the top of the window.

For several years, phoebes nested on a narrow window ledge a few inches from the top of the cottage’s screen door. It was a typical phoebe nest, a deep cup of mud mixed with plant fiber, secured to a flat surface under a protective overhang. Every time someone opened the screen door, Mama Phoebe fled from the nest in alarm. She finally got used to us, though, and as long as we did not look directly at her she stayed put.

Maybe these new neighbors will become accustomed to us, and we will once again be able to go about our daily business without upsetting them. Until then, I pretend to look away, and try to keep a discreet distance. There will be time in the autumn, after their young ones have all grown up and left home, to take a good look at their nests.

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