Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. “There’s a unicorn in the garden,” he said. “Eating roses.” She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him…”The unicorn is a mythical beast,” she said…
from “The Unicorn in the Garden” by James Thurber
The morning of May 13, 2016, I photographed a bird I’d never seen here before, as it sat and sang from the top of the ponderosa pine just off the north deck. Its singing had woken me up: a long, loud, and varied series of notes. It was a Curve-billed Thrasher. They are natives of the southwest, particularly West Texas and New Mexico, and when I uploaded the sighting to eBird, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online birder database, the site wouldn’t believe me. It wasn’t among the suggested possibilities. And when I insisted, its response was the machine equivalent of “Hmmm…are you sure?” and then it made a notation on the entry that this was a state that had recently legalized recreational marijuana.
But there was no doubt it was Toxostoma curvirostre. A little out of range, perhaps (northern Colorado still doesn’t show up on the range map), but not unique. There are a number of sightings in the Pawnee National Grasslands (that’s where they grow the marijuana? asked eBird), along the I-25 corridor in CO, and even one up around Chugwater, Wyoming (“A little town with a big heart and no marijuana”). So, we’re an outlier, but not a liar.
A year earlier, but in March, there appeared a Dusky Grouse under one of the black pines. A sleek smoky-gray male, like a Brâncuși sculpture. Now, we are in its range, but it’s unusual. It was there one moment and then gone, and I don’t expect to see it or another like it again. Twelve months ago, as though it was nervously intuiting the coming Thanksgiving, a lone wild turkey wandered down the hill along the edge of the ravine. We hear them, and if you were to hike in Lory State Park on the Westridge Trail, you would see them quite often, but they rarely visit.
Brâncuși, a pioneering modernist, attempted to separate “the essential from the ephemeral” in his work. But sometimes the ephemeral is the essential. We hold a special place in our hearts for birds we will see rarely, or no more than once. Strange birds. The ones who appear serendipitously — and rather than simply confirm how predictable and mundane our lives otherwise are, they do the opposite: they wake us up, loudly and sweetly, to the possibility of surprise.