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A Nest of Robins: Watching and Waiting

The nest provides a lesson in the value of patience, and the chance to capture the perfect photo

By Jill Smolowe

The friend in my life who has traveled most widely, visiting some of the most remote and exotic natural habitats on the globe, is the same friend who has spent the most hours, camera in hand, waiting to capture the perfect shot. Her photos of ring tail lemurs, bathing rhinos and endangered sifakas (another variety of lemur) are spectacular.

A mother Robin feeding two babies. Next Avenue, Birds
The nest outside the writer's window  |  Credit: Jill Smolowe

My admiration for my friend's intrepid spirit is unbounded. But my understanding of her desire to hang out for hours, waiting to take a picture? Zero.

That is, until recently.

Each time I passed the window, I glanced out to see if the mama-in-waiting had budged.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I noticed a nest in a tree outside our bedroom window at our country house in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. We'd been so mesmerized by the busy pair of hummingbirds sucking up the sugar-and-water mix in the feeder on our front deck that we hadn't noticed the nest-building activity.

Supreme Patience

Beyond noting the elaborate design, neither of us paid the nest much mind. We know nothing about nest construction, so we hadn't a clue what sort of bird had put in the tenacious labor. Indeed, we're so nature-illiterate that I can't even tell you what sort of tree it's perched in. (Yeah, yeah, I tried the app that identifies trees. Got nowhere with it.)

Anyway, last weekend when Bob and I returned to the house, we saw a bird sitting in the nest. Even for those of us woefully unversed in the ABCs of the natural world, the red breast was a dead giveaway: a robin.

Each time I passed the window, I glanced out to see if the mama-in-waiting had budged. Nope. Supreme patience, that one.

When we returned this weekend (which is to say at midweek, our definition of "weekend" growing ever more liberal as the summer progresses), I went straight to the bedroom window to see how the mama was doing.

Instead, I was greeted by a delightful sight: four fuzzy gray heads poking just over the rim of the nest, four sets of beaks opened wide.

The Pace of the Drama Quickened

Unlike their mother, I had no patience. With a shrug, I left the bedroom to unload the car, put away food, open up windows. I returned to the bedroom just in time to catch mama depositing a wriggling worm into one of the pairs of beaks.

Hey, cool! This time I waited by the window, watching for the mother to return. Meanwhile, those four beaks remained open as the little ones kicked up a ruckus.

Over the next three days, the drama unfolded at what seemed like warp speed. By early Friday morning, those tiny balls of fuzz were not only four identifiable baby birds with focused black eyes and necks that cleared the top of the nest, but they were so large and restless that I began to worry that they might jostle one or another out of the nest.

Soon, two robins visited the nest to slip worms down their babies' eager throats. Surprised that a male was part of the feeding ritual, I Googled "robin" and learned that pairs of robins stay together through the birthing and fledgling season.

It appealed to me not only that the papa was helping with the round-the-clock feedings, but that, unlike too many humans, robins consider this division of labor "natural."

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Now, nothing could have budged me from that window. Grabbing my iPhone, I waited for the next feeding frenzy. Never mind that I'm a terrible photographer. Never mind that there was a full-length screen outside the window that was certain to further muddy what promised to be terrible shots. I wanted to capture this!

Capturing the Scene with My iPhone

At 8:22 a.m., I produced a sequence of shots that thrilled me. Parent landing and perching. Babies clawing the air with their beaks. Parent depositing food into one of those hungry mouths. Later, my guidebook to nature — Google— would inform me that the deliverer of the wiggling morsel was the father. (Black head. White outlines around the eyes. What? You didn't know?)

I was so excited to have gotten the shots that five minutes later I did something I rarely do anymore: I posted on Facebook. "Outside my bedroom window" I wrote, and affixed the two least fuzzy shots.

Kind friends and relatives responded enthusiastically, including a cousin who made my day with the comment, "#NationalGeographic. What a beautiful moment to witness and capture!" 

That spurred me to write my fearless traveling friend (who really does take photos worthy of National Geographic), "This morning, I caught a taste of the thrill you must feel while waiting and watching for the shot."

I watched the feathered tot hop along the branch and then settle on a higher perch. "Don't be afraid, baby," I cooed. "You've got this."

After that, I abandoned my iPhone and just watched … and watched … and watched.

Saturday morning, when we opened our bedroom curtains, one of the babies was perched on the edge of the nest, rustling its wings. As I crossed the hall to the bathroom, Bob yelled, "The first one just flew away."

Drat! After that, though I pretty much remained glued to the window, I missed the moment a second baby took off. When the mother next returned for a feeding, she lingered longer than usual on the rim, staring into the nest. I swear she looked forlorn. We didn't need a common language for me to understand what she was feeling.

The Literal Empty Nest

As the two remaining babies spread out to enjoy the roomier space, I talked to them. Never mind that they couldn't hear me through the window (and probably would have freaked out if they could). "Come on, baby," I cooed. "You can do it."

That afternoon, Bob and I went to a cocktail party where we learned that the host and hostess had just been blessed with their twelfth grandchild. Happy as I am for them, it was like salt in a wound. While I'd been cooing at the baby robins, the silent soundtrack in my head had been looping a familiar refrain: I am so ready to be a grandmother.  

This morning I caught a feeding, then watched a third baby exit the nest. For a few minutes, it perched on an adjacent branch. Then — be still my heart — it took flight. 

Over the next hour, the mother returned twice to feed the sole remaining fledgling. On the second trip, she gently jostled its beak with hers. Was that her signal it was time to move out?

After the mother flew away, the baby stood on the edge of the nest and flapped its wings. But its claws didn't budge. This went on for so long that I gave up and went to take a shower. When I returned, the baby was nestled in a clutch of leaves on a higher branch. "That's it, baby," I cooed. "Good job."

I watched the feathered tot hop along the branch and then settle on a higher perch. "Don't be afraid, baby," I cooed. "You've got this."

The next time I returned, the baby was gone. Though all that remains is a bare nest, my heart feels full. What a gift to have witnessed all of that.

After a grace period, I plan to remove the nest, in hopes that another pair of robins will nest in that spot next spring.

I also plan to take an online iPhone photography class. Now that I get the thrill of waiting and watching, it would be nice to be able to take a decent picture, should the perfect moment come along again.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com. Read More
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