The Magic Hour

Late on this Thanksgiving Day, the neighborhood lay in unaccustomed quiet and peace, without the usual background sounds of traffic and yard machines. Under a calm blue sky and mellow sun, our own front yard lay quiet and still, apparently abandoned even by birds. At first I couldn’t hear or see a single one. A chilly northwest breeze shook down showers of water oak leaves. After several minutes, a Northern Cardinal flew to the hanging feeder, and sat there without eating, looking hunched and almost sullen. Another Cardinal peeped from somewhere in the shrubs. Suddenly, the bright, flamboyant song of a Carolina Wren broke out from a hedge of wax myrtles, and I noticed a silent Brown Thrasher perched in a small pecan tree across the street, warmly lit by the sun.

Gradually I began to hear the sibilant calls of several White Throated Sparrows, and the rustle and scratching of birds in dry leaves, hidden somewhere under the bushes. A Northern Flicker called a loud, sharp kleer! from somewhere high in the trees.

When I looked down, I found a White-throated Sparrow energetically kicking up leaves around some Lenten Roses near the porch. An Eastern Phoebe called tsup from high in the oaks, and stayed on a branch for several moments, preening. An Eastern Towhee called from a neighbor’s yard.

As the sun dropped below the line of trees along the horizon, the yard fell deeper into shadow and the air felt cooler and damp. With a startling rush of wings that I almost could feel, a Hermit Thrush flew to the birdbath only a few feet away, and sat on the rim. At first it sat with its brown back toward me, raising its ruddy tail and lowering it again. Then it turned around to face me fully, and looked very bright, with the dark spots on its breast and watchful face. Though I felt charmed to see it so close, I think it didn’t feel the same. It looked nervous, and hopped to the rim on the other side of the birdbath – and paused there again, posing perfectly for a long moment. Then it flew away, without bathing or even taking a drink. I felt guilty about that, not wanting to disturb the birds in their end-of-day routines.

Then I realized there were suddenly lots of White-throated Sparrows all around the yard, as if the fading light and end of day had animated them all and brought them out of the shadows. There were at least two dozen, maybe three, scattered around in the grass, in the leaves, in the mulch, under the shrubs, along the flagstone path, and some even coming out onto the sidewalk. They were searching for food, scratching up leaves, pecking at the ground and calling tseeet back and forth all the while.

Several pairs of them came together in funny, quick spats that looked like brief disputes – in which one or both flew or hopped straight up into the air with a snap, maybe contesting a choice spot. They were all very active, moving quickly and intent on foraging. Among all the sparrows, one quiet Brown Thrasher lurked around the bottom of some bushes, fending off a sparrow or two from its spot. A nearby Eastern Towhee called chur-whee. One White-throated Sparrow whistled a few sweet notes of a song.

The twilight faded swiftly, and as if a spell had broken, almost as suddenly as all the sparrows had appeared, they all began to disappear, melting away and falling quiet, with a last few peeps and chips and tseets coming from deep inside the darkened bushes as they settled in for the night.

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