The schoolteacher, new to the island from the up-country metropolis of Lexington Township, burst into my kitchen back in early April, all excited: "You've got woodcocks!"Eva Murray lives on Matinicus Island, where she arrived in 1987 as the teacher for the one-room school and expected to stay for one year.
I suppose we might. We've got "the greep bird," anyway.
Before everybody's beloved peepers begin their annual post-mud-season chorus, bringing us outside of an evening to listen on the doorsteps, grinning like idiots, and even before the crocus and the chionodoxa emerge, the robins show up, or the lobstermen come home from R.V. Nation all on fire to set out their traps ahead of the other guys…before the other signs of spring, we hear the peculiar, singular "greep" in the twilight, the sound of the woodcock.
I have never seen the woodcock. Supposedly if you were to stumble onto one in the field, you'd get an immediate face-full of woodcock, as it launches itself straight up into the air, a sort of a bird explosion. All I know is we have always called it "the greep bird." I have only heard its odd, repetitive croak, and I can only take it on faith that there is a woodcock somewhere. Sometimes he "greeps" for hours, it seems, with an inflexible timing that borders on the torture of water dripping in the sink.
My home is in the middle of the island, which for harbor gossip and maritime daydreaming may as well be Kansas. The scenery out my big picture window is not the twinkling ocean. Neither is it the spruce woods back-lit with the colors of sunset to the west, nor my attempt at cultivated flowers to the south, nor the lichen-painted ledge-pile to the east of the house which actually makes for a rather interesting view.
Instead, I face an overgrown field, the fenced-in area where I used to indulge a Malamute dog, and beyond that, the dirt road, a couple of neighbor's dooryards complete with fish totes and bait boxes, and a large, completely horizontal spruce tree, the result of a recent storm.
However today, as I write, I wouldn't trade this view of the brown fields to the north of my house for any cute little rugosa-bordered seascape. I saw the snow owl.
Every couple of years, there are a few sightings of a snowy white owl on Matinicus Island. This starkly beautiful creature is native to northern Canada but occasionally ventures this far south, hopefully to eat wharf rats and other marauding four-leggers. With no land carnivores except feral cats on the island, the raptors can have all the mice and rats they want. Matinicus Island is on the migratory flight path of so many birds, that we hear there is nowhere a better spot for bird-watching (yes, I know they don't call it that any more,) and other rare birds are not unknown to the island, but to see the snow owl is an honor and a privilege. It is almost as if the silent white owl decides from time to time to let somebody get a quick peek at its elegance, like a movie star or a fairy-tale unicorn, before moving on and becoming invisible again.
The intensely white bird, which flew slowly and deliberately across the road from field to spruce wood, just had to be the owl. I tried convincing myself that it must be something else, but nothing else fit the description. It would have been lovely to see it up close, but that is a lot to ask of a legend.
We did have a long-eared owl up close a few weeks ago, when one perched on a dead stick out behind my kitchen window and stayed a few hours. The weather was fairly nasty; he (?) just sat there while the wind ruffled his feathers, turning slowly to look at us as we tried to get closer.
I've seen my husband run barefoot down the road in the snow to try and get a picture of an owl, so this relaxed visitation was a big deal in my household, an auspicious occasion.
The ruby-crowned kinglets are enjoying the dog's fence, which keeps the cats on the other side, and I have seen bluebirds and cardinals out this window recently, and the neighbor called to say she'd had an indigo bunting. As for birds, I am an unschooled observer, childishly partial to the bright-colored ones. I confess to knowing very little about birds, don't know their calls, or what each one likes to eat (except that robins eat worms and orioles eat oranges,) but a flash of brilliant color tearing from fencepost to apple tree excites me even in my ignorance. You just can't help it, especially after a long winter. I count it a good year if I've laid eyes on a scarlet tanager.
The eagles are no longer a surprise, though. There have been bald eagles nesting around here somewhere for quite a while, but we know better than to try and find the nest. Actually, most people who know (or think they know) where the nest might be will not admit to it, for fear of bringing the wrong sort of attention to the eagles (and to their unwitting landlords.) Pairs of eagles fly overhead while we wait for our groceries at the airstrip, while we hang out the laundry, repair lobster traps, file the chainsaw, walk to the post office. The fact that there are eagles here is, of course, a big secret.