A juvenile Cooper's hawk in flight. Courtesy Greg Lavaty/Seattle Audubon Society.

Last week at Seattle Asian Art Museum, I found my eyes drawn away from the exquisite porcelain and snuff bottles and out the east windows to a magnificent old European Beech. The landmark tree—identified in Arthur Lee Jacobson’s book Trees of Seattle as “Mother of the Forest and symbol of prosperity”—stood haloed in a golden-rust circle of its own fallen leaves, aglow against the emerald grass, with its broad dark branches etched on the dense grey sky. At that moment it seemed more beautiful than anything humans could create. I knew I needed to get outside.  

I headed for the Montlake Fill, that 74-acre wetland adjacent the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture. A haven for wildlife and magnet for birders, the former garbage dump on the shore of Lake Washington is now a restoration-in-progress where, decades after the old landfill was covered in 1966, the ponds still bubble with methane and the paths ooze an oily slick. Yet some 247 bird species have been spotted there over the years, from the ever-present grandeur of bald eagles and blue herons, to occasional winter visits by trumpeter swans and snowy owls, to the tiniest migrating black swifts and rufous hummingbirds. I’m no bird expert, but lately it’s been a thrill to glimpse a Cooper’s hawk on the hunt and enjoy the diversity of waterfowl that winter-over, with their quirky rituals and gorgeous iridescent plumage. Seattle Audubon volunteers will have eyes wide open on December 29, as they go from dawn to dusk cataloging anything with "feathers and a pulse" across Seattle in the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Setting off along the Loop Trail, I immediately spotted one of the most familiar year-round denizens—Seattle’s maven of birding and impassioned chronicler of life at the Fill, Constance Sidles. Seated on her campstool in her floppy old blue hat, she held court as passing birders stopped to pay homage. Our conversation segued from her recent book of essays Second Nature—prompted by her almost daily birding forays here—to philosophy, Egyptology and art exhibitions. It turned out that while I, who spend my time looking at art, had been craving the natural world, Sidles, the nature writer, had been hankering for culture. We need balance in our lives.

This time of year can be trying. Crammed with all the fun of holiday concerts, plays, exhibits and parties, these December days bring feel-good stories of year-end good deeds. Yet at the same time we are showered with news of shootings, disasters, political bickering and distant wars. At the brink of the winter solstice, with darkness so heavy all around, it helps to reconnect with the natural order of things. No matter how muted the sunlight or how cold and wet the air is right now, we know tide is about to turn.

Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area)
Park at the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st St.
Directions and trail maps available at http://depts.washington.edu/uwbg/visit/directions.shtml
For more on neighborhood bird walks, visit seattleaudubon.org