Monday, March 18, 2013
Winter's hanging on for dear life this year. March has been consistently gray, dreary, damp, chilly, the days flecked with drizzle-mixed-with snow. Full of anticipation for the spring migrants, wildflowers, gentle sunshine, first new shoots of greenery that are just around the corner, I find it hard to be patient.
And yet, the season is good for long, solitary walks and contemplation, which was what I liked best about being in nature before I became a birder. When the birding is fabulous, when mixed flocks of warblers in their breeding plumage dazzle the mind, really all I think about is the birds. I don't even think about them, really; I just stare, wide-eyed. When new additions to my life and state lists are reported all around me, I tend to get a frenetic, ADD quality to my birding. I feel like a kinglet, zipping from branch to leaf and back again--and we know how hard it is to zoom in on a kinglet. This isn't bad. It's a lot of fun. But a long, quiet walk is good, too.
Especially at this time of year, when the longing for spring is so palpable, it can be hard to appreciate the austere beauty of the season. But as always, if I look even closer, it is there.
Last Saturday, when I headed out for the day, the landscape was blanketed by fog. I decided to walk the Houseboat Cove trail at Mascoutin rather than look for ducks, as scoping for water birds in a heavy fog is pretty much the definition of futility. That particular trail actually benefits from a bit of mist; despite a few impressive oaks, it's not really a scenic location, scrubby and tangled like much of the county, but the fog gave it a mysterious air. The area I called the "drowned trees" was especially atmospheric.
The vernal ponds are full, havens for wood ducks, and here and there, unexpectedly, I hear a new song. This weekend was the first time I ever heard the song of the American tree sparrow, for example, or the creaky hinge cry of a rusty blackbird, as it stared at me with its cunning yellow eye.
On the beach at Mascoutin, I saw a crow pick up a skinny silver fish and fly off with it dangling from its beak; and in one of the fields, a pair of coyote silently stalked the treeline. With all of this going on, I sometimes manage to forget my longing for warblers.
The month began on a good note, with a trip to Evergreen Lake to see my lifer white-winged scoters. The day was gray and rainy, making me irritable. On a sunny day, it's easy to feel that the world, or at least some of it -- the part containing birds, for example -- is an agreeable place, and my own spot in the order of things not objectionable.
But on a damp, cold late winter day, the expanses of vast cornfields under the slaty sky are ugly, and though a spot of gloomy weather cannot tarnish the joys of a life bird, I remained dissatisfied with my lot in life. I got a good look at the scoters, then, a few miles down the road, surprised a flock of wild turkey. After that, the cold rain slashed down in earnest, and I cancelled the rest of my plans for the day.
Still: white-winged scoters. I knew that by the end of the day, that's all I'd remember, and that I would always smile when I thought of them. These bird sightings aren't just check-marks on a list, but little pebbles of happiness scattered across my life, becoming as polished as diamonds as I take them out and roll them around, again and again, in my memory.
I owe a lot to birds. I was saved from a bad career choice by a flock of Canada geese, once, when I realized that I would rather watch them through the window than listen to a seminar on medical coding. Perhaps the world needs medical coders; of that, I have my doubts. But absolutely, the world needs Canada geese.
Friday afternoon, I wandered happily around the expanse of Friends Creek Park, noticing how in the month since I'd last been there, the birds have really come to life. In mid-February, it was stark, practically devoid of life. Now, the cardinals were whooping joyously from every treetop, the song sparrows were hopping across the grass, and robins in their multitude were doing whatever it is that robins do. I heard the robin's song for the first time last week, as I lay in bed in the strange time right around dawn. It took me a moment to remember what it was...then, of course, the robins. And I wondered how I ever could have forgotten.
As I wandered through the park, sensing birds all around me, many just glimpsed for a moment from the corner of my eye, I felt as if the woods were keeping things from me, a secret world of wonders that I could only glimpse, now and then, almost by accident. I felt like an alchemist from the days of yore, standing before a beaker of base metals refusing to turn to gold, pleading: Reveal your secrets to me!
But you can't grasp the numinous by force or by stealth. You have to earn it, by being persistent and humble, by coming back again and again. You have to want it more than you have ever wanted anything else in your life. What does this have to do with birding? A lot, actually.
I bird in different moods: sometimes as an OCD lister, obsessed with my species tally; sometimes more methodical, wanting to carefully observe and record my observations "for the scientists; and sometimes it feels spiritual. Transformative, like alchemy. Out in nature, day after day, I am turning the base metal of my nature into gold. And if I want to know the secrets of the woods, all I have to do is come back and observe, again and again and again.
All around me, robins were flapping, woodpeckers drumming, titmice crabbing. Out on the prairie, I saw an American woodcock shoot up from the grasses and fly away, seeing him outlined for a moment in profile, enormous beak and all. I felt blessed.
And I thought of the words of New York writer Jonathan Rosen, quoted on the documentary Birders: The Central Park Phenomenon. One can wonder why people bird or if birding can be compared to an addiction, as I have done myself on this blog. But for him, he explained his need to keep going back out there day after day as being as if he were a member of the flock, and he just really needed to be with them. When I watched that part, I thought, yes, that's exactly it. That's why I bird, too.
This evening, on my way home from work, I pulled to the side of the road by a wetland, hoping to catch a glimpse of my first blue-winged teal of the year.
No teal, but all around me were the exuberant signs of life and a new cycle beginning. Red-winged blackbirds called over and over. A flock of coots took off when they saw me, then slowly drifted back in my direction again. Song sparrows and American tree sparrows hopped over the grasses on the edge of the water, joined by black-capped chickadees flying back and forth, calling in excitement. A bluebird perched on the wire by the road; when I looked up again, it had been replaced by a robin. And off in the distance, the cry of a meadowlark sliced the air with its pure, clear tones. A tiny sliver of perfection in my day.
And all around me, the evening light, in a brief moment of clarity after days of clouds, seemed so gentle. The prairie sky seemed to beckon towards infinity. Seeing the birds' excitement, and the sudden softness of the sky, I realized that all this dreary month of March really is leading it up something special.
It's almost spring!