Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Cross Quarter Birding
I would like to wish everyone a belated happy Groundhog's Day. Yes, I know that this post is coming a bit after the fact, even though my most faithful reader, my mother Sunwiggy, declares that Groundhog's Day is her favorite holiday.
"It can't be your favorite holiday," I told her. "That's just silly. It's not even a real thing!"
As it turns out, I was wrong. The beginning of February is, indeed, a real thing. But I actually kind of knew that already, from birding. Those who are aware of the seasons already know about the summer and winter solstices (longest and shortest days of the year) and vernal and autumn equinoxes (when the hours of daylight are just about even). At one point, just about everyone knew this kind of stuff, but since I recently told someone on the winter solstice, "Yeah, now the days will be getting longer!", and in response, she kind of squinted at me and asked, "Why?", I don't want to make any assumptions.
In addition to these four points of the year, there are four other days, mid-way between each: early February (between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox), early May (between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice), early August (between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox), and early November (between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice). I first ran across these many years ago as an undergrad, when I used to read about nature-based religions and then wander around in the park by my school wishing I could actually feel more spiritual out in nature. It was kind of frustrating, because I have always loved being outside, but I just couldn't make it more than that. And the four cross-quarters? To be honest, I didn't "get" those at all. They felt like random dates to me.
Fast forward a decade or two, put some binoculars around my neck, and make me too jaded to expect anything transcendent. In the early spring of 2009, I decided to bird every single weekend, instead of the occasional bird walks during migration that I used to limit myself to, because I wanted to get a feel for every subtle shift of the seasons in central Illinois. I wanted to conduct my own amateur naturalist workshop, with myself as sole participant. I'm not sure why I decided to do this, except that I had recently left one awful and challenging job only to accept another one, and I was feeling frustrated and discouraged and the one thing that always made me feel better was birding.
I noticed things, like the transition from June to July, when the birds sing less often. By the end of July, there's always that day when I go for my walk and am shocked that all the grackles and red-winged blackbirds seemed to have disappeared. I learned when and how to find lots of ducks. I learned that a day in late March is a great time to spot loons.
And on August 4, 2009, I noted in my bird journal: I could feel the season changing--the mix of birds, the bird songs, quite different even than a month ago. Did not hear a single dickcissel or blackbird. There were hundreds of swallows swooping overhead, the sound of their twitterings. Except for the aerial ballet of the swallows, everything felt very still.
Although I could pinpoint some objective signs -- the number of swallows, the lack of dickcissel song -- I really did mean that I could feel the season changing. There was something different going on. I could almost feel it seeping up from the earth into my bones.
October 31, 2009, I went to Moraine View on a chilly and sodden morning, and wrote: Was surprised to see a very ragged-looking meadowlark on my way into the park, and also a great egret.... Tons more rain this week, everything sodden. All the colorful leaves have fallen. It made me think of what I wrote in August, that in just a few days, I could feel the season turn.
Early February, 2010, I noted again: Once again, I think I feel the seasons changing. It is not just that it was a warm(ish), sunny day...something about the way the birds are acting...some preparatory thing is happening. Spring really is just a month away.
And, of course, the beginning of May needs no introduction. An explosion of warblers, the swift opening of each day into greenery and new life. May is the best time ever.
After making my note about February, it hit me: "Duh! It's the cross quarters! Early peoples considered these times of the year special because they are." A nice summary of the astronomical significance of these days can be read here, and a very humorous history of the tradition of Groundhog Day can be found on Cape May Blogger.
I was thinking all of this over during my birding trip last weekend. The birding itself was very blah -- February is such a blah month, groundhogs or no groundhogs, but I could console myself that I did notice some changes. The cardinals are singing again. The sky is rippled with flocks of migrating geese. It's the same mix of birds, but underneath it all, is movement. This is probably not the transcendent moment I was hoping for in my undergraduate days. But I do finally "get" it. There are seasons between the seasons. Everything is always in motion.