They Came with the Cold: On Patience, Bird Feeders, and New Beginnings

Juncos Dawn Huczek on Flicr

Junco courtesy of Dawn Huczek on Flickr

It hasn’t been a banner month for our bird feeders. Maybe they don’t enjoy the “wild bird” mix I put out. Maybe that disabled hawk we saw downed on our neighbor’s lawn – who we still spot, flying low, from time to time – has taken up residence and is scaring the smaller birds away. I worried that the local bird population had declined steeply, but others assure me that their feeders have been quite active!

How often did my mother tell me, growing up, that patience is a virtue?

It’s hard to be patient when time seems to be at such a premium. I peek out the back window when I hurry into the cold pantry for a scoop of Buddy’s kibble, or when I walk through the dining room. Nobody at the feeder. Well, not until lately.

A few days ago, when the temperature hovered close to 0, they crept in. A pair of woodpeckers lingered at the suet. They were moving so very slowly, and sometimes not at all for long stretches. They looked more like wax figurines than living beings, and I guessed they were likely in (or approaching) torpor.  Birds use torpor – “a state of slowed body functions” – to conserve energy and heat.

rose hips snow Hisgett

Chilled rose hips courtesy of Tony Hisgett on Flickr

The woodpeckers – Downy variety, I think –  are back today, and moving in normal fashion. It’s a (comparatively) balmy 10 degrees. The Downies are outnumbered by the Dark-eyed Juncos, though. I count seven juncos. When they are not at the feeder they congregate in the bare rosa rugosa bushes lining the deck. Will this be the year that I finally make my own rose hip tea or jelly, when the hips come back into bloom? It seems a good New Year’s resolution, and I think I’ve got at least 5 months to gear up for it!

In the shorter term, there’s so much to aspire to when the calendar flips over to 2018. I want to put more slips in the gratitude jar, inspired by my sister’s heartfelt book.  It’s not that I didn’t find moments to be grateful for in 2017—it’s that I don’t always stop to mark them. (And, yes, that is a literal and a figurative statement! The jar’s slips make tangible what my mind and spirit have taken in.) I want, no, NEED–more time in a state of awareness and contemplation and gratitude. More stopping and noticing and peering and pondering.  More letting the best parts of this world wash over me; less occupying my space and time with the superficial. I’ve even downloaded an app to track and limit my screen time—I’d like to say I use the blue screen to access moments of great meaning, but too often I am flitting about, grazing on what amounts to junk food for my brain and spirit.

Jar

Gratitude jar, with Gavin’s art in the background. To be read on New Year’s morning!

I had a few lovely micro-moments of observation and contemplation in recent days. They have made me hungry for more. The birds, who refuse to accommodate my schedule, are at last showing up with regularity. They dive in and forage the ground below the feeder. They stand in the snow in small clusters, so quiet at mealtime when I know that they could sing for their suppers quite operatically. They are worth every faithful stop at the windowpane, even if I don’t always find them when I hope to.

Branches in snow David Burns Flickr.jpg

Snow-laden branches courtesy of  David Burn on Flickr

Last night, Buddy required a nocturnal walk. My walks have been woefully brief due to a foot problem, and I miss my outside adventures so much. But I can still make mini-circuits around the yard (with apologies to the podiatrist). Last night’s circuit had me admiring how the snow adorned each horizontal limb of the cottonwood, and how the moon lit the yard in such a stirring and immersive way. I called Gavin outside to see it. Today I read a freshly minted poem by Amy Nawrocki that conveyed how I felt when I looked up at the night sky.

Wishing you peace, well-attended bird feeders, and many reverent moonlit walks in 2018.

PS: For some good reading on day-lit walks, check out these fine haibuns about the New England Trail.

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At Our Gloved Fingertips: March Microexpeditions

 

The other morning, when Gavin needed a ride to school, we were unusually ahead of schedule. This was miraculous in and of itself, but it got more miraculous. We took a little loop through Ivoryton, to kill time. Those 5 minutes entailed rapt looks through the windshield at the pale, full, setting moon; the burning orange of the rising sun through the trees; and a fox (they really are quick!) running across Warsaw Street. He was so fast as to be a bit of a blur; I might have thought he was a lovely, low-slung hallucination if Gavin hadn’t seen him, too. Already, we both felt better about our impending work and school days.

 

fox flickr.jpg

Courtesy of krissvdh on Flickr

This preview boded well for my pre-work walk. I again found myself at Pratt Cove, one of my favorite Deep River places, and was glad I had extra layers on. The sun was higher already, now more yellow and pale. I was amused by the mistranslation that my phone made as I recorded verbal notes. When I uttered “Pratt Cove,” the phone “heard” “crack of,” and, yes it was dawn. But the sun felt far away. My fingers tingled in the cold.

I pulled my turtleneck up, zipped my coat higher, and looked out at what I am pretty sure is a muskrat lodge, a modest, tan structure made of sticks. It doesn’t compare to the “mansions” that beavers can construct. No signs of life there, but it made me happy to think about the muskrat or muskrat family who might be keeping warm inside. I’ve been learning more about these creatures from Bob Arnebeck’s site.

muskrat love Val Marson flickr.jpg

Muskrat lodge with rooftop goose courtesy of Vail Marston on Flickr

I trekked up to another favorite haunt (pun intended): Fountain Hill Cemetery. No muskrats apparent in that pond either (have they left the Hill this winter?), but the noisiest creatures were out in full force. Crows cawed insistently and swooped about the place—it would have been impossible to ignore their presence. I got within 12 feet of a Pileated Woodpecker, who was busy doing some serious, high-decibel damage to a cedar. He saw me, but seemed conflicted about leaving his construction project until I inched even closer. I’d seen his characteristic rectangular holes many times, most of them on this poor tree, but this was my first time seeing him (the males do most of the excavating) in action here.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology told me that his holes, in addition to being nests for his own brood (the average clutch = 4/nest), provide “crucial shelter to many species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens.” I so admire Nature’s thoughtful sense of economy.

Pileated family mcLin Flickr

Pileated family courtesy of Henry T. McLin on Flickr

It wasn’t long before I had to be off to work, and the day there wasn’t nearly as colorful and fulfilling as my morning microexpeditions. Still, I’m grateful for my “bread and butter,” and thinking back on my moments in nature, often deliberately shoehorned into my workdays, is a gift that really does keep on giving. Excuse that cliché, but lately I want to chatter in happy hyperbole, using clichés with careless abandon, critics be damned. I blame it on spring fever, which continues to rise despite the current, inarguable, snow day that my husband and son continue to shovel away.

 

Acknowledgments: thank you to Tom and Gavin, who permitted me to stay in my pajamas and write this while they ventured out in full winter regalia

If You Fill It, They Will Come

On Thanksgiving Day I dug the bird feeder out of storage and filled it with a fresh mix of seeds. I relished the happy anticipation of visitors to the buffet.

I stopped feeding the birds when the spring came (with the exception of nectar for the hummingbirds—they get the royal treatment). I read that this is a good idea in something by Edwin Way Teale, I think. The premise is that they our avian friends have tons to eat without our help in the warmer months, and it’s best not to encourage too much dependence. But of course, berries, worms, and bugs are much harder to find when the temperature drops. Plus, I want to support the most stalwart of birds—those who stick around and don’t migrate South when the going gets tough. They grace my winter days.

I know some people who keep the feeder stocked all year. Either way, the winter makes birds more noticeable in many ways. We can see them more readily now that the trees are bare, and they may be more apt to come by for breakfast or supper when their natural supplies start to diminish.

Once the feeder was stocked, I waited for the birds to find it. It took a few hours before the word got out. My first visitor of the season was a nuthatch. Always, this bird’s feathers remind me of a grey coat I once had, with handsome black piping. And his/her habit of standing or walking upside down so effortlessly is one that helped me, as an amateur birder, help to identify this species. (My knowledge is not yet sophisticated enough to tell the genders apart, hence the “his/her”).

Not long after the nuthatch came titmice, sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and dark-eyed juncoes, and today I saw two mourning doves on the ground below the feeder. The downy woodpeckers have dominion over the suet cake, although I’ve seen the nuthatches pecking there, too. The same crowd as last winter, except no cardinals yet. I’ve seen them around; just not at the feeder, for some reason.

mourning dove flicker 2.jpg

Mourning Dove courtesy of Harold Neal on Flickr

I’m reminded with a little Internet research that more and more robins are overwintering here and not heading South. But they don’t tend to visit feeders—they don’t eat birdseed. Plus their behavior changes in wintertime and they flock more, working together to watch for danger and look for food.

Robins may have been my first birds, ever. I mean, the first birds I became aware of as a small child. I remember watching them pull worms with great vigor from our front lawn. Their presence thrilled me, as it does today. And they still mean spring for so many of us, because even those that have been here all along seem to “reappear” as the weather warms, hopping about on our softening lawns and starting to contemplate raising a family.

Hal Borland wrote that “birds are independence itself.” He explained: “they live uncluttered lives with no possessions to protect, no homes to maintain, no family responsibilities once the nesting season is ended…” Maybe that is part of their allure for me. I am not sure—all I know is that refilling the feeder also fills my heart, and then my heart is lifted by the visitors that come, again and again.

PS: In my case, there is so much more to learn. I am considering signing up for some of these courses–the most basic, about shape and color, are quite reasonable.