“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Albert Einstein

Last month my husband and I spent a week doing a photo shoot on the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge.  It has been an annual tradition for us to celebrate Valentine’s Day by taking pictures of the birds we love.  This refuge lies on the boarder between Oregon and California and has been described as “the heartbeat of the Pacific Flyway”.  

Due to Covid and my recent broken foot episode, we missed our traditon for three years in a row. However, in total we made 17 trips to this beloved refuge. The main draw for us was the abundance of waterfowl, the swans and the snow geese flyups. On later trips we enjoyed, coyote, bobcat and always an abundance of deer. Prior to heading south last month, we heard that the refuge had been experiencing water shortages above and beyond even the normal on-going challenges, so we certainly anticipated lower than normal bird numbers.

We didn’t have a clue.

We were not prepared for the devastating conditions that met us. Death and dust were the descriptors that kept entering my mind. It was a dismal experience to see this once thriving refuge, dry and bereft of the avian life that depends on this layover for rest and recuperation on migratory journeys each season. No deer, no bobcats. To our eyes, most wildlife seemed to have either died or left the area due to botulism and lack of water. Our hearts sank with sadness.


We moved around the refuge desperate to find water and signs of life. There was very little. We seached the internet and talked to local Fish and Wildlife personnel in an attempt to understand what was going on. All of this research pointed to very little hope for this, once gaudy with wildlife, protected land.

Our photographic story for this trip was clearly becoming one of death and drought. Then, in what seemed like a flash, something changed. I felt a familiar smile on my face return. Rather than seeing nothing but the failure of a flyway occuring, I saw life again. Thriving, beautiful life.

Red-winged black birds. Amidst the dust and devastation we found this one, ubiquitous species of birds, flourishing like we’d never seen prior on this refuge. Maybe they’d always been there in these numbers and just took a back seat to all of the other creatures on our previous visits. But on this trip, for me, they were small but mighty miracles. Together as flocks, they were huge blasts of power flying gracefully across the land. Once we discovered them, I couldn’t wait to get out there each day to follow them around and capture their glory.

My resilience kicked in. Actually, these little birds jumpstarted it for me. Without negating the presence of loss and sadness, my eyes and heart opened up and made room for the life that was present. Those small birds were a beautiful balm that soothed my sadness. Dust fell to the backdrop. Not forgotton, but for now, in the background.

What sprung to mind was a favorite quote from an Emily Dickinson poem:

“Hope is the thing with feathers- That perches in the soul”.

Finding these black birds, seemingly everywhere, instilled hope within my spirit, as nature often does.

As I focused on the blackbirds and this small, yet not insignificant, conservation story, in the backdrop of my mind, with the dust and the drought, ran the narrative of the devastation in Ukraine. After shooting on the refuge, we returned to the hotel each evening to view the news of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. Between the blackbirds, the dust and the invasion, there was an ongoing emotional ping pong occuring in my heart and mind.

When I returned home to my computer in Portland to write this blog, the focus of my story shifted once again. Negative news from Ukraine increased and with it my hope for a our world waivered. I reviewed and stared at my images from Klamath for hours on end. Finally, I saw the story. It was still a story of hope, instilled by birds, during times of fear, sadness and devastation. But, once again, nature and photography were my teachers and my world view widened. The tiny birds were rising up to show me something more. A story of survival on another level entirely.

Within these black bird images I saw the rawness of fight or flight. I saw the innate instinct of staying strong, together to defend territory. I saw the symbiotic relationship between hope and survival.  I sensed fear and bravery in every movement and breath. There was clearly strength and solidarity in numbers and the determination to survive in the midst of predators everywhere.  But most importantly, I felt something settling in with my despair and sadness. It was hope, returning home to my heart.

Thank you, dear Ukrainians, for being as red-winged blackbirds in my aching heart, instilling hope for me in humanity.

Red-Winged Blackbird

By R. Glenn Disney

My hands are loosed from chains
The field awaits my presence today
A while longer, the sun’s heat remains
The toil, my bones in pain do pay

I stretch my arms, present my hands
Another night in bound condition
And dream of oasis in welcome lands
That cools my skin and reverse attrition

My heart leaps with sudden sound
The wake up noise of the morning guard
The dream is vanished, my hands unbound
Again the heat, again the the stone yard

A small relief as my muscles surrender
The tenth stone positioned to the master’s word
Glancing upward I see a hawk’s flight plunder
Chased away by a smaller bird

Oh, what may I know as I study the sky?
May I smile, take courage, and death do defy?
Why is the red-winged blackbird so brave?
Has the hawk been bewitched, has he lost his fight?
To whom is my worth, what makes me a slave?
My racing thoughts or chains in the night?

Now ends the day, here are my limbs
Again to be bound as the light dims
But new hope unfolds as I see with my eyes
The heart of the small bird rise

To do what it must in spite of the foe
It darts at the hawk, reclaiming it’s meadow

And so fear reigns no more, nor will I behave
As if I believe that I am a slave
Fear not the chains, nor my master’s stone cart
I’ll ponder the small bird, it’s fighting heart

For he is no slave whose mind is his own
Though his body be bound, his work to be shown
The hawk’s courage rests only in the shadow cast
I was free and am free and freedom will last


Please feel free to comment and share. I always love to hear from you.

Take care and take heart! ~Susan

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