Forest bathing is the practice of sitting quietly in the woods, relaxing in the presence of nature. Although humans have been doing that since the dawn of time, the Japanese are credited with raising it to a meditative art form in the 1980s.
I don’t do it that way, but I think I just invented forest showering this week — walking quietly in the woods, letting the sounds of nature wash down over me.
Easter Sunday was a windy day. Overnight, the breezes calmed under a waning moon. It was a perfect night for migration. I could hear the difference the next morning, so I opted for a pre-breakfast walk. The birds were noisy, and I was more mindful than usual about letting them tell their stories.
The eastern phoebes went first. There were two in my yard, calling vociferously. They knew and I knew that this could not last. They could not defend breeding territories this close together. Somebody was going to have to leave. The loser would be required to search for an unoccupied porch, farther down the road.
A red-bellied woodpecker called from my neighbor’s yard, sitting high in a tree, just above a singing tufted titmouse. Neither of these species lived in Maine when I was a boy. Tufted titmice were first found nesting in Massachusetts in 1959. New England’s first nesting red-bellied woodpecker was discovered in Connecticut in 1971.
The titmouse was singing for a mate, and it will nest near my yard. The woodpecker won’t. Their numbers are increasing, but they are still uncommon, and his calls were going unanswered. He traveled from tree to tree, half a mile down the road, before his departing calls became too faint to hear — a tale of unrequited love.
Hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers have been exuberantly vocal for the last month, calling and drumming at sunrise. Monday, they were joined by the first yellow-bellied sapsuckers of the season. Although they eat the same food and nest in the same trees, the four woodpecker species co-exist peacefully. Humans could learn from them.
The songs of black-capped chickadees joined the chorus. Three were singing their “hey sweetie” courtship songs near each other. I’m not very fluent in chickadee, but I know that both genders sing, and they can tell each other apart.
Chickadees who sing lower notes may have the breeding advantage, but I also know they will change pitch if ambient noise makes their songs hard to hear. Their familiar “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” often expresses alarm, and they weren’t doing that in my presence. They were telling me they didn’t see me as a threat.
Dark-eyed juncos gathered in small groups. They won’t stay. We both know that my yard has enough food, but not enough cover for nesting. The first ruby-crowned kinglet of the season flitted through the yard silently, just passing through. The first purple finch returned and commenced singing. He will stay.
I heard a distant loon. We’re both waiting for the ice to go out. There’s open water at the inlet and outlet of the lake, which explains why I could also hear Canada geese calling from the inlet, and why a belted kingfisher just flew by the outlet. We’re all impatiently waiting for winter to leave.
The number of blackbirds around the house is down by half. I think many have headed off to the marsh across the lake. Crows are increasing in number and noisiness, a sign they’re leaving their winter gathering spot in downtown Bangor and dispersing to their woodland nesting areas.
Song sparrows and American robins are everywhere. Both returned 10 days ago, and they’ve been wicked noisy ever since. They’re comfortable around people, and neither is paying me much attention as I walk by.
My forest shower took an odd turn as I returned home. A merlin called from the edge of the driveway. Merlins are small falcons that prey on smaller birds, yet the phoebe in my yard paid no attention, continuing to call as if no danger was near. The merlin knows the phoebe is too nimble to catch. The phoebe knows it, too. And thanks to this conversation, I now know it.
Take note, this forest shower had nothing to do with going to exotic places in search of unusual birds. It was all about spending quality time with the routinely normal birds around my home, quietly listening to the stories they could tell me. No expertise needed. Anybody can do it, starting today.