Friday, February 11, 2011

Waiting for the "firsts"

It's about this time of year that the winter season starts to feel like a waiting game -- as in, I'm waiting for it to be over! (One benefit of living in central Illinois instead of my more scenic native Michigan is that at least the snowy season wraps up about a month earlier). This year I had such a good time in January working on my Year List and alternating that with "tiny twitches" to different counties that I kinda forgot that I hate winter for a while. But then when the Mother Lode of Snow hit last week, it rendered walking anywhere such a chore that I am starting to feel quite cooped up (we don't get hit like that often enough here to make snowshoes worth the while -- if I were in the Upper Peninsula like Sunwiggy they'd be a must!), and more than ready to see the end of it. Let's just say that I make it a personal policy never to make big decisions in February -- my state of mind just can't be trusted!

I am in luck, for the weather is supposed to warm up slowly over the next few days and hopefully melt some of this blasted snow! In the meantime, with or without the snow, some of my favorite first sightings are just around the corner!

Many people anticipate the first American robin of the season with joy. But as I have commented several times over the past few months, I can't really wait for the robins to "return" since they never went away.

I just saw one this morning, in fact, flying across the parking lot as I pulled into my work place.

The list of "firsts" that I wait for is partly influenced by my favorite species, and partly a reflection of those birds which are iconic of a season or a memory or a splice in time when I truly noticed them.

They include, the red-winged blackbird, male and female shown below:

I love the red-winged blackbird for many reasons: his confident "conk-a-ree!" call that carries over fields and marshes, his cocky attitude, his habit of flashing those red epaulettes on his wings so that they seem like a flash of pure color. The blackbird is a fellow who has no doubt about his place in the grand scheme of things--and that place is quite high! In addition, this was one of the first species I learned to identify as a child, and I always thought of my dad when I saw one, because he was in the Navy and their red and yellow wing patches reminded me of the red and yellow ribbons on the Navy dress uniforms. And furthermore, they are one of the first species to return--last year I saw my "first" on February 28. Just around the corner!

After that, my next "first" that I wait for are probably swallows. I adore swallows, doesn't matter the kind (barn, bank, tree, cliff--if I saw other kinds here in central Illinois I'd love them too!) In fact, the second post I ever did for this blog involved swallows ("The day of the swallows"), as both physical creatures and metaphor.

I think that what I love about swallows is their grace and fluidity; they are true masters of the air, landing so infrequently that their feet are small and weak. And like the red-winged blackbird, they don't restrict their presence to only a few distant places--I can find them, in the right season, both out in the wilds of nature (such as they are in central Illinois) and very close to home, swooping over fields and ponds and lakes, filling the air with their chitterings. I don't have any childhood associations, but I know I am not alone in my love of them -- after all, the mission at San Juan Capistrano in California has a whole festival in honor of their return.

Last year I saw my first swallows (and they were tree swallows) on April 2.

Glancing through my Bird Journal from last year, I see several other candidates for my "firsts"-- the day that I noticed the American goldfinches become golden again (April 3), my first Eastern towhee (March 31), my first eastern Meadowlark (March 14). But I would have to say that the next one I am truly pining for is my first common yellowthroat of the season--not only one of my favorite species (they are so darn cute! That bold black mask across their tiny yellow faces!), but one that my mother, Sunwiggy, and I have in common -- when I think of yellowthroats, on some level, I am also conjuring up dozens of memories when these adorable creatures were sighted. And they will always be a symbol of my many wonderful birding trips with her (although not the next one, when we go to the Sax Zim bog in Minnesota next week -- will be shocked if a yellowthroat pops up there).
First sighting last year -- May 1.

Are there any species that you anticipate first sightings of each year? If so, which are they, and what makes them so special for you?


  1. What wonderful photos, especially of the swallow- love his feet! Up here in the UP, sighting a robin will be a treat. But the two birds I am looking forward to seeing again the most are the common yellowthroat, and- well, I'll be hearing more than seeing the veery! I hear that "veer,veer,veer" everywhere up here, and now I'll know who's saying it, thanks to El Crow. Redwing blackbirds are quite rare up here. And, yes, sigh, you'll get Spring 4 months before me! Mom

  2. I think you mean 4 weeks, Sunwiggy. Unless U.P. winters are even worse than I thought. :-)

  3. Fabulous images. I love the swallow, too, with that clean, gorgeous background, but they're all fantastic. Any image that captures the red shoulders on a RWB is a fave of mine, and those tracks are priceless.