The Gray Finches
There is a small valley located about 30 miles north of Remington National Park which is crossed by an unnamed stream, a seasonal distributary of the White Horn River. Pictures of this valley are hard to find online, not because it is remote or unexplored but because it isn’t sightly or important in any geological or ecological way. The trees which grow off the slopes, in patchy groves, are the same variety of blue pine, and the hills are neither sharp nor tall nor rolling but identical and empty. The bottom of the valley is studded by uneven granite outcrops and wooly bunchgrass.
In the evenings, the shape of the hills do not make a display of the sun. It is there above the clouds and then it is swallowed by the hilltops. With no variation of hues the light is only a honeyed yellow, never orange or red. When the rays hit the trees they are similarly swallowed by the black pine needles, and several hours before the sun sets the valley is mostly covered in shadows.
It was surprising to the Academy of Ornithologists, then, when their 1997 Surrey Award recipient, Dr. Firch, used his grant money to restore an abandoned cabin in the valley. “It is here,” he wrote to a colleague, “that I believe the Armendy Bellbird makes its only stop on its northern migration to the state border.”
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By the end of his first week stationed there, Dr. Firch had walked the length of the stream twice. He had found the two best vantage points from which to search for the birds: a pair of easily scalable boulders by the riverbend and a clearing of trees on the northern hills. At each site he left a weatherproof Pelican case with fire starters, a flashlight and two AA batteries for his binoculars. From late April through mid May he spent most of the daytime camped at either spot, watching the grosbeaks and thrushes fly straight through the valley. Sometimes, tired from looking all day, he’d camp out through the night. Although the nearest town was a hundred miles away, the lack of life in the valley made him feel safe, and he fell asleep quickly without the fear of being ambushed or left alone.
Beginning in 2001 Dr. Firch began spending most of the year in the cabin, returning to the city only for a couple of months in the winter, when the highway that crossed Remington National Park was not maintained by snow plow crews. During those months he usually published a couple of papers about the flightpaths of birds on small academic journals, which he compiled effortlessly from old notes and research. His daughter would sometimes visit on the weekends and buy him lunch. Then, when it was safe to do so, he made the seven hour drive back to the valley, parked his Jeep behind the cabin, climbed out onto the grass, opened the hood of the car, left a few mouse traps and mothballs by the engine, and covered the vehicle in a black plastic canvas.
But each time he returned he remembered crossing the valley for the first time. Twenty years before, on their way to the White Horn, his team had stopped to rest by the stream — muddy and black in the May sun. A thin film of water flowed over the opposite bank and Dr. Firch — following an intuition and separating from the group — walked upstream until he reached a thicket of bayberries. About a hundred yards from where he stood, the water pooled at the riverbend, and several dozen blue feathers and wings moved wildly against the mud and water.
There had been only a few sightings of the Armendy Bellbird touching ground on the Eastern Coast, and none had been confirmed. Dr. Firch and others in the Academy had known of a scientist who, obsessed with finding an answer to their flightpath, earned a pilot’s licence and spent his retirement savings on an airplane. One spring morning he tried following the birds in a repurposed, black-painted Piper with a silenced motor. Several hours after he took off from Port Sheron in a careful, steady chase, the birds touched ground on the town square of Hobbeston on the Wichosen Plains. When the pilot landed, he made his way from the airport to the town to find the residents gathered in the streets: they had never seen the birds before, with their blue colored throats and silver mantles, perched on the powerlines like black beads on an abacus.
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A month or so before he left the cabin, early in the night, Dr. Firch sat on the inflatable couch in the cabin’s second room opposite the window. He had been staring through the glass for a while when he noticed lights at the furthest visible part of the valley, about three miles away by the boulders. Like the faint streetlights of suburbs, they were scattered but close together. The stream looked as if it was crossed by a bascule bridge with warning signs of different colors moving up and down over the water, the other lights were divided by dark intersecting lines—country roads and highways where no cars could be seen moving. He looked towards the small city, welled in the night, thinking that if he moved it would disappear like a dream. But the lights remained, even when he walked away, the reflections of the lightbulb by his bed scattered on the window’s broken glass.
Dr. Firch made himself a cup of tea and sipped it on the edge of his bed, but the sight of the city made him uncomfortable. A strange idea came to him: that the happiness which had accompanied him for most of his life belonged only to his body, a reflex to brave a planet that was mostly dead, like the granite hills — mossed over by a thin crust of life between the rocks and the darkness. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember feelings that would keep the discomfort at bay, but he couldn’t help but wonder whether we had not developed laughter and contentment and even sexual pleasure just as the bellbirds developed lighter bones when they moved inland from the sea — when they no longer needed to dive into the water but stay aloft through long distances.
Unable to sleep, he left his bed to finish a letter in response to an inquiry from the Department of the Interior, which had asked what he was doing living on public land.
“I thought I had seen a small flock of rare birds by this stream twenty years ago,” he wrote, “but they flew away before I could confirm my sighting.
“Now, I haven’t seen a single bellbird since I arrived. The hills are only dotted by small gray finches, which are here every season, and seem to sleep all day on the pine tops.”