THE BIRD IS PERCHED atop the spire of a towering Norfolk pine.
Normally I wouldn’t raise my binoculars. But there is something odd about this bird, something suggesting a departure from the neighborhood’s cast of usual suspects. The head and body are too big and stout for a dove or a shrike or a mockingbird, the silhouette too small and slim for a red-shouldered hawk.
I glass the bird and my hunch is rewarded. The slaty back, the streaked breast, the big head and can-opener beak—the profile of a merlin, North America’s reigning pocket rocket of the falcon family. And for me, an early Christmas gift from the far North.
Now heading into my fourth winter in these balmy evergreen environs of southwest Florida, I cherish whatever subtle changes the seasons may bring. Or most of them, anyway. The human snowbirds begin arriving in November from their summering grounds in Michigan, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ontario, fleeing the land of the frosted windshield and four-layer wardrobes. Theirs is a migration whose arrival in these parts is marked by thickening traffic and lengthening lines and an elevated pitch to the usual drone of human commerce.
But the native flocks bring a more joyous vibe to winter. The grackles and fish crows smother the pines and palms in great cacophonous flocks, lifting off to a thunder of wings. The egrets and ibises and wood storks gather on the banks of the canal behind the house like a pygmy forest of snow-white Christmas trees. This is also the time of year when the resident pair of bald eagles gets down to business, chirping from the treetops and adding even more sticks to their Volkswagen-sized nest, and performing their tumbling, talon-locking courtship spirals with a grace to match any pas de deux of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.
And then, there’s the merlin. She—She? The sexing of distant merlins is a bit iffy for an amateur like me, but I stand by my guess—she has appeared every winter in our neighborhood since I’ve been watching. Hers is a precious, fleeting presence. I can count on one hand the number of sightings I will have this winter before she leaves again for her breeding grounds in the Canadian tundra or taiga. And that in itself is part of the allure. The novelty of her appearance is always an excitement, like finding a fifty-dollar bill on the side of the road. (Though honestly, I’d take the bird over the bill.)
The stories she could tell, of her journey from the high latitudes. Touring the continent at a thousand feet, she has sailed among an aerial river of fellow raptors, southward over the Appalachian ridges of Pennsylvania, or maybe the coastal dunes of New Jersey, en route to her winter home here just a quick glide from the Gulf of Mexico. Some of her fellow merlins will continue as far as South America.
I STAND THERE IMAGINING her incredible journey, my binoculars trained at the top of the tree, when the owner of the villa he suspects I am casing approaches and asks if there’s something he can help me with.
He cranes his neck skyward, following my gaze, and sees nothing.
“May I ask what you’re looking at?”
I lower my binoculars to see who is asking, and realize I am standing obliviously in the middle of the road.
SUNDAY MORNINGS ARE RESERVED for the weekly ramble, which embarks from my doorstep sometime before dawn, and inscribes a four-hour circuit in whatever direction my feet happen to wander. The ramble is not to be confused with any high-minded pursuit of excellence or practical utility. There are no ground rules but to banish for this sacred block of time all toxic thoughts of fascist coups, coronaviruses, melting icecaps, sadistic slaughterhouses, or the mindless bulldozing of nature’s most sacred cathedrals. There is no regimen but to breathe deeply and feel the ground through the feet, no purpose but to reacquaint with the local biota and ogle the new visitors who have come from who knows where. It’s a time to get up close, to peek into flowers, poke into scat, speak with an owl, track a coyote, mourn a road-killed toad, charm a snake; but also then to back off and widen the eyes to the horizons, to take it all in. It’s a time reserved to just wander, with no expectations but the promise of surprise around any corner and the indelible memories that nature inevitably bestows upon those who bother to check in.
It sounds a tad bit touchy-feely, now that I read it. But that’s my cynical indoor self, my Friday-at-the-deadline-desk-self, doing the gritching. Come Sunday morning, it’s nature-nerd time.
And on that point, serious science has my back. It turns out my Sunday ramble comes with many benefits. It heightens those senses otherwise dulled and pixelated by a steady diet of digital screen time. It combats myopia, and obesity. It gets you out in the sun for your daily fix of Vitamin D. It sharpens the mind and memory. It instills a sense of awe. It quiets the heart, boosts spirits, averts disease, spurs creativity, calms anxieties. The ramble cures ills and fosters serenities like no indoor amusement or concrete cityscape ever can. The ramble even engenders a sense of kindness and camaraderie, as I can lately attest.
ONCE THE SUSPICIOUS HOMEOWNER realizes that I am harmless, if a bit daffy, he actually takes an interest in whatever it is I am gawking at. When he finally sees the merlin perched atop the pine, he is amazed. He is amazed to learn that it is a falcon. And that it hunts birds on the wing, in athletic, aerobatic pursuit. And that it has likely come all the way from Canada, from even farther than he has.
“Wow, right in my back yard!” the man says.
As we speak, something catches our merlin’s eye and off she goes, rocketing over the horizon.
The man thanks me for introducing him to the merlin. And then, instead of going back inside, he says goodbye, thanks me again, and sets out walking, on what I’d like to imagine is the first of his many Sunday rambles to come.
For a thorough rundown and fascinating read on the benefits of what I simply call the ramble, have a look into Florence Williams’ book, The Nature Fix.
For some real inspiration for getting yourself out there—from those who walk the walk in some rather obscenely wild and gorgeous locales—check out Travel For Wildlife, with great photographs and tales of adventure from my friends and fellow nature nuts, Cristina Garcia and Hal Brindley. (Hal just recently photographed the merlin whose image anchors this piece.) And while you’re there, check out Cristina and Hal’s clothing line at New Plumage, whose mission is to provide high quality, sustainably-produced clothing that helps birds.
If maybe you’re a teacher or a parent with children in need of some fun time in nature while still stuck inside, try my friend Cobra Caroline’s Kids Nature Shows. As for what to do once they’re out there, the Children & Nature Network has a million ideas.