Tom told me last week that the female phoebe was back again preparing its nest under the eaves of his house. So I began looking for the phoebe that makes her nest each year in the old root cellar along the path. And sure enough, she was there, on schedule. I have put the penlight and mirror into my backpack so that I can follow the progress of eggs and chicks. As of today, no eggs. A clutch of phoebe eggs is always a dicey thing, under threat from the incursions of cowbirds and curious humans like me.
But what a clumsy naturalist I am, satisfied with a few quick gulps of observation, compared to Darwin, who -- as described in Lyanda Lynn Haupt's new book, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent -- might wait for four hours on his knees in Brazilian mud for a glimpse of a sedge wren. Humility, she reminds us, derives from the same Indo-European root as humus -- dirt, ground, earth. As does human. On the South American continent Darwin was like a child suddenly released from an aseptic playpen and let roam. As his clothes collected mud and grime, he was transformed from a outdoorsy dilettante into a finished naturalist.