Look Up, Look Down, Be Silent


Thousands passed daily, unaware.

They were busy. Busy with life, busy on their cell phones, senses plugged by earbuds or constant chatter, white noise, windows up, closed off, busy. Their loss.

How could they not notice the unfolding of a reality show above them, the inspiration of which I have not experienced in a long time. If ever there was something uplifting it was the daily episode of Life in the Nest of the Mississippi Kite.

For several days in late July, a flock of bird watchers gathered each evening by the side of a busy road near my house. The first night, I thought they were lining up to watch the moon. Odd, I pondered, that that they would perch so close to a busy thoroughfare.

Jo Alwood, Bird Movies by Jo

Jo Alwood, Bird Movies by Jo

Well, I am curious ever. I stopped by the second night to see what all the fuss was about. Turns out there was a female Mississippi Kite who’d built her nest in a tall, sweet gum tree in a front yard, precariously close to the street and just above some power lines. Until I stopped to inquire, I had never heard of a Mississippi Kite. It’s a hawk, about 12-15 inches beak to tail. They have a wing span of about three feet and I had seen and admired them, soaring high, above the canopy of mature trees in our neighborhood. They don’t call Webster Groves “Tree City, USA” for nothing. I’m in to trees. I’m also in to birds. I have binoculars and the Peterson’s Guide on my back porch.

Doug Hommert, Bird Photographer

Doug Hommert, Bird Photographer

But these folks, these folks were pros. Although some journals assert that “nesting kites easily tolerate extensive human activity,” the St. Louis birders were a little more wary of the baby hawk hovering somewhat precariously over four lanes of traffic. Do these momma birds all of a sudden have to drop their eggs, the way we duck into bathrooms at the airport? Bad judgement notwithstanding, baby bird was hatched and local birders went on high alert.

Juvenile Mississippi Kite  Photo by Douglas Hommert

Juvenile Mississippi Kite Photo by Douglas Hommert

For days they gathered, my new friends Jo and Doug, waiting for a glimpse of the bed-headed stranger, hoping to spot his tousled crown poking up over the twigs long enough to snap a pic. I was lucky enough to be watching through the giant camera lens when the momma or daddy swooped down with a snack. They’re progressive that way, these kites, equal opportunity parents who take turns with the kids. Watching them circle and soar, keeping an eye on their baby, was inspiring. Chatting up their envious fan club on the sidewalk was enlightening and fun. The juvenile kites only nest for about 30 days, and every night when I’d turn the corner to go check on the baby, I expected the birders to be gone.

But it was me who had to fly, gathering my brood from California, New York, Kansas and Missouri for a rare family reunion on the North Carolina coast. It was comforting and familiar — the requisite flip-flopped beach treks, swimming in the ocean, power washing sand from every conceivable crevice, cocktails on the porch come evenin’ time, board games and uproarious laughter until the wee hours of the morning, after long, sun drenched days. This is the good stuff.

But there is a sacred place on the north end of this barrier island that I enjoy in solitude. Beyond the drone of the hotel mega-condenser cooling off the patrons at the bar, far enough away from the huffing, puffing joggers, their running shoes slapping the pavement, the high-pitched angry noise from the leaf blowers on the backs of the lawn crew, there is a pristine, quiet, salt-marsh bird sanctuary, protected and managed by the North Carolina Audubon Society. I ride my bike there each time I visit Wrightsville Beach to pay my respects.

Salt-march nesting bird sanctuary, Wrightsville Beach, NC

Salt-marsh nesting bird sanctuary, Wrightsville Beach, NC

Maybe I’m looking for permanence. Maybe I’m seeking reassurance of some kind. Or perhaps, for just one moment, I need to be still. I humbly submit to a pace not set by me, a tiny patch of earth and sea where life, life, life is going on all around me and nary a creature gives a flip about the human in their house. Seabirds fly. Skimmers run and scoop their food, as the barely detectable ebb and flow of the backwater on the marshy sands, recedes enough to reveal some supper. Herons are unhurried. Not so much the crabs, who duck in holes, then pop back out, sunning on thin strands of sand, flexing their claws, like comic book muscle men, their shells opalesque, glinting in the sun. They go about their business, these creatures, unconcerned by the lifetimes of experience constantly clanking in my noggin. But this is a healing place, if I let it. Thousands of days, millions of thoughts, doubts, elation, joy, fear, ecstasy and remorse can escape, if I am willing. Airborne, pain or preoccupation, gives way to peace. Fleeting. I understand this. My salt-march hosts care not one whit.

Home from the coast, the nest is empty. My bird has flown. It clutches my heart, my eyes well with tears. “God speed, be safe, long life,” I whisper.

I am back to reality at a time when the world feels so weary — teenagers shot in the streets, airplanes full of people brought down by missiles, drones exacting their deadly toll as dull-eyed militarists and so-called leaders drone on. I look to the sky. Silent now, save for a prayer in my heart and on my lips for that baby bird’s survival. Ours too.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Jean–I’m glad you became one of the kite-watchers, because I’ve heard the term, but never knew it’s a kind of hawk.

    Have you ever written poetry, or considered yourself a poet? Some of these lines just sing, among them–“sunning on thin strands of sand, flexing their claws, like comic book muscle men, their shells opalesque, glinting in the sun.” I imagine if you sat quietly, and mentally went back to the bird sanctuary, you could create a poem–full of images and rich sensory details.

    I’m glad you and your family had a great time together…

    • Hey Sioux,

      Poet and don’t know it? Not sure. I did actually start out writing free verse at 14….does that count? Thanks for your wonderful support and friendship. You’re not so shabby a writer yourself.

  2. connie dunavin says:

    Hello Jean, what a lovely story. Of a little bird, loved by so many! What sweet, simple things can remind us of life, of living, how do the innocent survive (?) and yet some do survive in this mixed up world. How the human condition is weary now, news is bad in any direction we look, and the world seems to be spinning out from the gravitational pull…. that’s to keep us grounded. Its like the moment in the end of ‘that’ movie when little, big hearted Scout looks at her Atticus and says; It would be like someone killing the mockingbird…..seems lately, its as if someone did.
    Yes, lets pray for this world, our neighbors, and our foes. For peace will come.
    xoxo, your friend,

  3. Jo Alwood says:

    Jean, I enjoyed your knack for turning a phrase (bed-headed stranger, crabs flexing their claws like comic book musclemen) and your conclusion. It was a pleasure meeting you on that hot sidewalk.

    • Hi Jo,

      Maybe it’s the writer in us, or dreamers, or simply taking the time to capture and appreciate something beautiful, but I would just have to say that birds of a feather you know….

      I’m glad somebody noticed the play on words with bed-headed stranger. Throw back to my CW days. I enjoyed meeting you as well and look forward to catching up some time.

  4. I really enjoyed your writing.I live in Ga. now and Have a 2 yr.old 72lb. Stafford-shire terrier.”Coco”.My writings have mostly been about the Urban Jungle Opposed to the Natural Jungle.As of now I have a few birds nesting on one of the Pillars of my home,they chirp as soon as I get to bed about 11pm at night.Their there,rain or shine,rain storm.I have no idea what kind of birds they are …but their TOUGH!.Their a Maltese gray and I think a rust colored body…or all gray..cant quite see..kinda high up not big at all a bit larger than a sparrow. They just chirp once and continue that until I an asleep.In any event I am embarking on a road trip with my dog soon with my Dog.Thank you for the inspiration.

  5. Suzanne MacPherson says:

    Good morning Jean,

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. It brought me close to being in the marsh and took away some of the boredom that comes from working at a desk 8.5 hours a day. Thank you.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      This morning I was driving to my client’s office for a meeting. Had the radio off, as all the news right now is so overwhelmingly sad, I just couldn’t allow myself to absorb any more tragedy. The crickets in the tall grass next to a long line of cars waiting for their turn to move ahead 50 feet, were singing loud and proud. So loud, I could even hear them with the window up. I powered down the window and actively listened. Those dang ol’ crickets made my morning — a beat, a reminder, a grounding in the truest sense of the planet, for now, going on. Thanks for this. Peace. We need it.