Spotty snow overnight had turned into light, cold rain during the afternoon and now the sun was quickly slipping behind Blue Mountain, replacing the thin, golden light of late winter with a misty gloom. It did not feel very much like spring, but the seasons were changing; just below our patio, a narrow, nameless creek had swelled with runoff, spilling into the woods and backyards it snakes through. I was out on the patio, taking stock of the rising waters and waiting for the first sound of spring; and then, after just a few moments of waiting, a buzzy, muffled “Beeeeep!” rose up from the floodplain. At my house, before the Spring Peepers or Wood Frogs begin calling, before the daffodils and magnolias begin to open their first, enterprising blooms, the American Woodcocks begin to sing and dance. Here was an irrefutable sign, spring migration was underway!

Creeping among piles of dead leaves and shrubs, these sandpiper-relatives are hard to find most of the year; but when they migrate–moving from the southern US into the Appalachians and northern tier forests–there are a few weeks when they wheel through the air on furiously beating wings and deliver their buzzy, beeping serenades. The phenomenon of migration brings species from as close as the Atlantic coast to as far away as Patagonia to our backyards, twice a year. Lengthening days bring on new plant growth, fueling an explosion of insect life and this is the draw–directly or indirectly–for most of our migrant species. Some stay with us through the summer, while others are just passage visitors, bound for more northerly locales. Every year, this same ebb and flow of bird-life is closely attended by birders, naturalists, and backyard enthusiasts of all stripes, captivating us, bringing joy and a sense of renewal. 

Many of us probably don’t need studies to know that being in nature is good for the soul, but there are plenty out there; a growing body of scientific research focused on bird-watching specifically, shows that observing birds in nature has a range of benefits from reducing stress and anxiety and blood pressure, to sharpening our concentration and attention to detail. There is something in us that yearns to be close to the natural world; there is something spiritual about being immersed in nature. And in our world, we can become closer to birds than we can to most other parts of the natural world; birds are more trusting than many wild critters, in that they actually live amongst us in the open. They migrate through and nest in our backyards; and we can bring them closer still, by hanging bird feeders and bird houses; planting trees and shrubs to provide shelter and food; and attracting native pollinators. We can observe birds more closely and with more ease than almost any other animals we share our world with. Seen in this light, it shouldn’t be surprising that faith traditions turn to birds as symbols of hope and renewal and peace; or that merely sitting outside in the presence of a singing bird can help clear our minds and still our troubled hearts. 

At a recent service, Hope Episcopal Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, blessed a collection of bird houses, hand-made by congregants and affirmed their intent to turn Hope into a place of refuge and healing, not just for people, but for nature, as well. In this act of stewardship was a recognition that we are part of a shared creation and need to act accordingly. And what’s more, they are not nearly done yet. Hope Episcopal recently learned that they have received a Small Watershed Grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, funding the development of a Master Plan for their property. This will also allow them to design practices that will address stormwater issues their buildings face and allow them to undertake further conservation landscaping. Here is a congregation protecting its watershed and property while creating a space of sanctuary for those wild creatures that bring us peace; how pure an expression of faith and joy!

Today, while writing this, the air is still cold and wet, the creek is once again swirling and splashing with brown floodwaters; it hasn’t yet spilled its banks today, but give it time. The woodcock chorus has passed through, but frogs and Red-winged Blackbirds and an early-arriving Eastern Phoebe have taken over the evening chorus; after a long absence, the local Green Heron has returned and for the first time since September, a Brown Thrasher has begun singing by my office window on still mornings. Though the members are ever changing, nature’s choir never falls silent, soothing and nurturing us throughout the year; let us remember to do our parts to heal and renew, in turn.

Mike Hudson


Outreach Coordinator (Lancaster, PA)