At first glance, all is barren. There is a certain quiet beauty to the sweep of white ice over the lake, especially in the sunshine, with the blue sky providing a bit of color and contrast. It's this sort of thing that I would miss if I moved to a place unvisited by winter.
But, as I look out across the lake at Sportsman's Park in Decatur, what I am not seeing is any sign of life.
For a moment, I am fooled by leaves scudding across the ice in the fierce breeze. There is one area of open water, in the corner of the gazebo, but it's barely larger than a duck puddle, and has attracted no puddle ducks. Earlier in the week, a flock of Canada geese had congregated on the ice, but today they are not in evidence.
It's my lunch break. The clock is ticking. The frustrating thing about lunch time birding is that I have no time to spare to take a few minutes and just soak everything in, or that's all I'll be doing. But it's certainly better than no birding at all.
The wind off the lake is unpleasant, despite the sunshine, and there aren't any birds there, so I decide to stroll along the line of trees heading away from the water. There are several species that I haven't seen yet in the New Year which are potential candidates to be found right now, in this park, and I mentally check them off: cedar waxwing, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, Eurasian collared dove, white crowned sparrow, pine siskin.
And there is always the chance of a complete surprise, a bird I hadn't even thought of, which has already happened twice this year at this straggly little area by the lake. A week ago, I found a northern mockingbird, and then last Friday, a red-shouldered hawk, the latter of which confirmed his identity by circling a few times over the water, causing the red shoulder patches on his wings to shimmer in the sunlight.
And last Friday, there was water, and in the water, lots of mallards and Canada geese. Higher temperatures over the weekend swiftly opened up the shallows along the shoreline, and a subsequent plunge of temperature caused them to ice back over just as swiftly. Noticing how much ice covers the lake on any given lunch break is not, perhaps, the most exciting past-time, but is nonetheless the highlight of my day.
Darkness is what I dislike most about this time of year. The sun rises shortly before I must leave for work, thus removing the possibility of any morning birding; and just as surely, it sets before I go home. Lately I have noticed a lingering wash of light on the edge of the horizon when I leave the office, a sign that we have passed the solstice and are edging back towards spring; but spring is merely hypothetical at this point. For the time being, we have darkness.
So this is it, this half hour by the lake. And it looks like admiring the ice might be all I do today, as a careful search in the branches has revealed nothing.
Winter's bareness has opened a makeshift path through the trees, and I pick my way along it, with a new goal in mind: can I find a single bird in this park, in the time I have allotted? Which bird will it be?
My feet crunch along noisily over the fallen leaves. The chances are getting better each minute that I will indeed break my record for fewest species seen and come back with a whopping zero. I don't really mind, though. I'm outside and moving around. I'm not stuck in a building, in a chair, in front of a computer, surrounded by endless ringing of the telephones.
More and more over the past few years, my dislike of office work has blossomed into a full-blown hatred. It seems so pointless and dreary and unnatural. In my defense, research is starting to show that it is also unhealthy. Being outside in nature reduces blood pressure and raises mood. Sitting down all day inside shortens your life span. But I didn't need a news bulletin to tell me that.
|Telephone Torment by Jean Du Buffet|
So this is my one chance for the whole day, and birds or no birds, I am going to soak up each minute.
Finally, I notice movement on a tree trunk. My first thought is, "nuthatch," but it turns out to be something even better, a brown creeper, one of my favorite species. I watch it creep up the tree for a minute or two, but, alas, the clock is ticking, so I stroll on.
A shadow of a bird flying overhead--I twist around quickly and catch a glimpse of a male northern cardinal. Two species. I heard a cacophonous honking, and see a half a dozen Canada geese flying along the treeline, down by the frozen lake. Up to three!
The makeshift trail peters out by the road, so I turn around and head back towards the lake. The unmistakable barking sound of a red-bellied woodpecker breaks the stillness, and I wait until I've gotten a good look at it.
I have frequently noticed that a single sighting often breaks the spell. After a long stretch without seeing anything, all of a sudden, birds will be everywhere. And so it is.
The area that I passed earlier without seeing so much as a feather is now crammed with cardinals, goldfinches, and white-throated sparrows scratching in the leaves. I glance at the time. Lunch break over. Six species total. Ice on the lake.