Monday, March 14, 2011

Signs of spring

There are many little hints that spring is on its way, despite gray days and variable temperatures (yesterday was back down in the 30s again)--each one noticed, then anticipated, as I have begun to spend more time outdoors: the moment the ice begins to thaw on the water. The first time I hear a cardinal singing, What cheer! The day the red-winged blackbirds arrive. And one that I only see at Funk's Grove, the day the buckets go up on the maple trees to collect syrup. This is done each year in late winter, and since I know that spring is just around the corner when I see them, they always bring a smile to my face. (And what could be better than local maple syrup?)

Yesterday the weather was gray and gloomy again, and after the excitement of my River Valley Day on Saturday, I thought that any trip I made closer to home was bound to be disappointing, and so I planned to spend the day inside reading stories by Algernon Blackwood ("The Willows" gets my vote for creepiest story of all time).

But, I couldn't do it. By lunchtime I was literally squirming with pent up energy and the desire to go outside. And I realized I hadn't seen those maple syrup buckets yet this year, and I would be disappointed if I missed them. I don't know why, it's just turned into one of those little rituals for me.

So off I went to Funk's Grove/Sugar Grove Nature Center here in McLean county. Though considering the time of day, I told myself not to get too disappointed if I didn't see many birds.

The visitor's center was closed, as it usually is on Sunday, and almost no one was around. I checked out the birds flocking to the feeders--house sparrows, goldfinches, house finches, starlings, grackles, American tree sparrows, a red-bellied woodpecker, a white-breasted nuthatch, a couple Eurasian tree sparrows (they are foul weather friends and will soon take off for wherever they go for the other three seasons), dark-eyed juncos, and red-winged blackbirds. In the shrubs and trees not far off were also brown-headed cowbirds and song sparrows.

I really didn't expect the day to get much better than that as I headed off into the woods. I had my mind set on the area off the beaten path that I described on my post from late January, "An Introspective Weekend, Part One," where the bank forms a sort of bluff overlooking Timber Creek, with tall sycamores dotting the bank, their silvery bark almost shining against the gray day. I just had such a nice experience there, leading to a feeling of such peace -- and a wonderful sighting of a red-tailed hawk and a belted kingfisher -- that I really wanted to go back.

Just one hitch: though not large in any absolute sense, the woods back behind the creek are very tangly and confusing, and I have gotten frustratingly turned around there more than once. There isn't a trail, and in January I found my way back because of my tracks in the snow. With no snow on the ground today, I wasn't sure how easy it would be. Just remembering one time, when I got totally turned around, scratched by brambles, stung by nettles (not that I was in danger of a "nettle attack" yesterday), and finally popped out of the woods to walk back along the railroad tracks--jumping aside down the slope when the train rattled by, almost made me change my mind.

But, I kept thinking of how lovely it was by the creek. On the way, I caught a glimpse of a barred owl flying away from me, then perching in the treetops, which was really cool...highlight of the day, I thought.

I left the trail, crossed the creek, and scrambled up the ridge that leads to the woodsy area, and walked in as straight a line as I could, trying to look for truly distinguishing features. (I have learned that landmarks like, "that big tree" are never really that helpful--on the way back, it's all big trees!)

Before too long, I came to a barbed wire fence, marking the edge of the park, and gazed out into a field beyond. A robin bopped along in the grasses. In the distance, I could see the highway, and looking to the left, the railroad track. I knew I did not want to walk towards the tracks (oh no! Not again!), so turned to the right and followed the fence until I came to the other boundary of the park, the University of Illinois research area that made me think of mutants (why else have so many "no trespassing" signs? What sort of "research" are they doing there?), so I followed that boundary until I came to--the bluff overlooking Timber Creek! Voila! I now had a mental map of the whole area--the early French explorers had nothing on me! Of course, once the summer foliage is out, I'll probably get lost again, but for now, my moment of glory....

I saw a red-tailed hawk perching on a tree overlooking the creek, and wondered if it was the same one I saw in January. I could hear the water gurgling and it was very peaceful. And once again, I had one of those transcendent experiences that make me the nature addict that I am.

I'll try not to get too "woo-woo" on you. I always roll my eyes when people sound too New Age, even though I'm fairly open-minded. But this is what I felt:

It was so peaceful and lovely by the creek, I was spontaneously moved to offer up--not exactly a prayer, not quite a meditation. Just a feeling of gratitude for this spot of earth and the fact that I could visit it, and my humble intention to just appreciate it, to harm nothing. I didn't even really articulate any words, just the thought that I had come to see birds and hoped that I could somehow -- in words this sounds so lame -- be friends with the land.

No sooner had I semi-articulated the thought, but a belted kingfisher went barreling down the creek, making its rattling cry. I jumped, and then smiled, thinking what a great coincidence that was. Then some nuthatches and chickadees flew in. As I walked back towards the trail, I heard rustling in the leaves, and found an eastern towhee, my first sighting of of the year, scratching for his supper. Very sweet!

Then I saw three great blue herons flying past, which made me inspect the sycamore more closely--and sure enough, the upper branches were filled with their huge nests. I had found a rookery! By now I was grinning ear to ear at seeing so many old favorites, but after I crossed the creek and headed back on the trail, the birds just kept getting better.

A cacophony of crows announced the arrival of a flock--and they were harassing a great horned owl (two species of owl in one day is always something to blog about!) I got a wonderful view of the poor harried creature as it perched for a few minutes, hoping that the crows would leave it alone, before they all took flight again. Then, for some reason I can't quite fathom, a Cooper's hawk flew after them, crying sharply, Kik! Kik! Kik! Was it defending its territory? Also trying to drive the owl away? Just getting in on the fun? Who knows?

I had barely calmed down from all this, when I saw a huge flock of large birds flying overhead. At first I thought, Canada geese--but when I raised my binoculars--I saw it was a flock of American white pelicans, at least fifty of them. Yes, pelicans. No, I couldn't believe it either. In fact -- I swear, I am not making a word of this up -- the flock split into two directly over my head, and they wheeled around right above me for a few minutes, so close that I could see the bumps on their bills and hear the sounds of their wings beating against the air. They must have been on their way to Evergreen Lake (hope they didn't get whacked by the windmills), but I never in a million years would have expected to see them. And all I could feel was: gratitude, awe, amazement. How lucky we are to live in a world that has pelicans! How lucky I was to see them!

As I headed for the prairie, I saw a fox sparrow and a nice flock of song sparrows, and then I left the woods, and I thought, "That's it. It's over now." And so it was.

Almost all cultures have a tradition of sacred sites, animistic spirits, or spots of power. I have always thought there was something special about the area by Timber Creek. Of course, what I "feel" means nothing in any objective sense. It might just be the fact that this spot is especially scenic or somehow conducive to a reflective state. It might be a simply a matter of, after forming my intention to see, I began to pay attention--and there the birds were. That is fine too. I firmly believe that bird-watching, or any sort of active nature study, is valuable because it teaches us how to pay attention, to look at what is right before us, right now. And if there is one thing that our culture needs to learn, it is that.

Are there any spots in nature that make you feel more alive and aware? Have you ever had a spiritual experience in nature? What makes you grateful?

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful post! Three-fourths of the birds you saw would have been "year" birds for me; I am definitely coming to visit you next March! Would 2 weeks be too long a visit? I am grateful to have discovered birding; even wildflowers and trees never got me out into the wilds the way birds do. When the warblers are up here nesting, everyday I can go out feels like Christmas! Mom