The Dawn Chorus

Songbirds around the world are in decline, making their songs more bittersweet every year.
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The Dawn Chorus - Spring 2020, Illustration by Glenn Wolff.
The Dawn Chorus – Spring 2020, Illustration by Glenn Wolff.

Morels usually start popping in early April around here, but the big white ones don’t show up until about the first of May. You can find them hidden in the high grass along roadsides or standing proud around the trunks of ash and apple trees. Some years, we find them in our backyard, which seems like a benediction. Once, my sons and I collected an onion-sack full behind John and Peggy’s house next door. They live most of the year in London and don’t mind if we forage on their property.

Morels are just one of our spring rituals. Mayflies are hatching. Trout are feeding. Flocks of warblers are passing through. The challenge is deciding what to do — fish, forage or look for birds? It’s the fox-in-the-henhouse dilemma. If you’re like me (and the fox), your impulse is to grab all the chickens at once. And why not?

As the great Kinky Friedman said, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

That first day of May, I woke at daylight to birdsong fluting from the treetops. The dawn chorus! Songbirds around the world are in decline, making their songs more bittersweet every year. The blame is the dark side Anthropocene: a warming planet, habitat destruction, misuse of pesticides and herbicides. Those of us who don’t want to live in a world without birdsong are trying to stay hopeful.

After breakfast, I packed a sandwich and drove to a secret creek I visit every now and then. At the bridge, I hiked through a cedar swamp dense enough to discourage all but the most determined bipeds until I came to a stretch of creek latticed with fallen cedars. I rigged my spinning rod with a hook and split shot, baited it with a garden worm and crawled on hands and knees to get into position.

Carefully, I lowered the bait into a plunge pool the size of a bucket. Instantly, I felt a rap-rap-rap and hoisted an 8-inch brook trout from the water. It was jade-colored and spotted with rubies. I had promised Gail I would bring trout home for dinner but, as usual, couldn’t bring myself to kill such a beautiful creature. I cradled it in my hand in the creek until it gave a kick and darted away.

Next, I drove to one of my favorite mushroom woods, hung my binoculars around my neck and set out through the trees. I found no mushrooms that morning but saw a yellow-throated vireo, my first, and heard the year’s first brown thrasher practicing its variations of, “Look at me, I’m a pretty bird.” I stood for an hour in a stand of pines and watched astonished as groups of mixed warblers passed through in pulses, a dozen or two at a time, hopping and fluttering from branch to branch, always traveling north. They moved too quickly to be easily identified, but I saw yellow-rumps and palms, a few yellows, a black-and-white, and a black-throated green.

And so, the day went.

It’s January as I write this, and I’m at my desk being responsible when what I really want to do is run from the house and drive south until I meet spring head-on. Then I’ll turn around and surf it north 15 miles a day. Evenings, I’ll set up camp beneath trees dripping with songbirds, build a campfire, cook a simple dinner and sleep beneath the stars. And every morning, I’ll wake to the dawn chorus.


Writer Jerry Dennis and artist Glenn Wolff do most of their birding, foraging and fishing in the Traverse City area. Their collaborative work can be seen at bigmaplepress.com.

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