The woods were quiet, low clouds, no wind. The kind of winter day where everything seems paused, dormant. Except that two small birds jumped and flittered on the edge of the woods, pecking at the seed-heads still showing above the snow, their business the only movement in the surrounds.
Juncos, I thought, watching them lightly walking over the snow, pulling at the plants. But the behavior seemed wrong, the beaks not right. Not juncos. Mentally recording their characteristics – dark brown head and back, rusty red upper breast, creamy belly, white wing bar – I scrolled through my memory of local birds, and came up with nothing.
The pair lifted from the snow, flying to a branch not far from where I stood. The red neck-breast was clear, the bird an unfamiliar beauty.
Returning home, I scrolled through the Mt.Gov Montana Field Guide . Brambling. The photo on the website is an exact match for the birds I saw quietly picking at the seeds in the nearby forest. Bramblings are a “rare visitor to North America from Eurasia” and “an accidental visitor in winter” in Montana, with only 8 recorded sightings in the state. Bramblings.
When I saw the birds, I’d been immersed in thought, musing over Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard, considering Matthiessen’s struggles to move into a more mindful life, a lightness of being in this world. How his awareness of the beauty in the extraordinary and the mundane increased during his time in the high mountains.
With which I looked up to see not juncos, but a bird absolutely unknown to me in all the decades that I’ve walked these woods.
I went back the next day, camera in hand. As if that will work, I thought. And of course, the birds were gone, only their delicate tracks meandering around the dead plants to show they had ever existed. So I have no conclusive proof I saw Bramblings, and won’t report my sighting. Doesn’t matter though.
Bramblings. Quite a wonder, that.