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A Spring Birthday

Margaret once described the progression of the seasons this way: “the quiet anticipation of winter, the joyous activity of spring, the restful fulfillment of summer, and the hopeful acceptance of autumn.” We can share with Margaret some of what brought her joy in the weeks leading up to her birthday and celebrate her special day, April 17, and then carry on, season after season, anticipating and noticing all that Nature brings. To begin, if you happen to awaken in the early hours, before the sky lightens, open a window and listen for the dawn chorus of birds. That urgent calling out of bird to bird will set you up for coursing of energy that rushes through all beings in this season of bursting of new life.

A few weeks before her birthday, Margaret would have looked for her favorite flower, the trillium, appearing in clumps in the dappled shade of mixed forests. Its clear-white three-petal flower rises on a stalk above bright green heart shaped leaves that grow in whorls of three, a flag announcing that spring has truly arrived. It’s not the earliest flower—skunk cabbage heralds the season in its own vibrant way, Indian plum puts forth its small flowers and other bushes and vines unfurl their bright pink—but finding trilliums in bloom puts a stamp on spring, a feeling of relief. “We made it!” Trilliums are rare so seeing them reappear we can exhale and renew our sense that however precarious, wonders do still happen.

Trilliums!

To celebrate Margaret—and follow in her footsteps—I went for a walk with dear friends who are familiar with her storied life and who also revel in finding spring flowers and noting all the new growth and the appearance of old favorites. We went to a local park that follows the steeply descending course of the Deschutes River through a series of falls as it rushes toward Budd Inlet and Puget Sound. The park has been closed for months to refurbish its trails and add new features so it was with great anticipation and a sense of discovery that we took to the path that threaded the high banks of the river. The froth and surge of water, the glint of the sun and sparkle of scattered drops as water met rocky outcroppings added to the festivity of our outing.

The Deschutes froths over the rocks sending spray into the trees and freshening the moss and ferns that green its banks
Where the river relaxes into slower moving pools that become Capitol Lake

We were richly rewarded!

We could see these lilies growing on the bank a ways below where we stood on the path. My friends thought they were probably white fawn lilies, but we could not get close enough to see them in detail to be certain. Just glad to see them!
Look closely and you’ll see a native Pacific Bleeding Heart, less showy than the cultivated ones from a garden center but delicate and sweet
False Solomon’s Seal
Perhaps a native crab apple? Again, we saw it from a distance down the bank and could not be certain
I don’t remember! But I’ll be searching through my guide, The Plants of the Pacific Northwest by the go-to authorities, Pojar and MacKinnon! So much to learn!
Everybody was out enjoying the beautiful spring day!

At the end of our excursion we found a spot and set up our chairs—still socially distant but close enough for real conversation without the aid of technology—and enjoyed sharing our reflections with some cake with a salute to Margaret. We calculated that it has been 136 years since her birth in the old house that overlooked that same river around a few bends from where we sat. So much has changed—the house is long gone and the river itself has been impounded behind a dam to create Capitol Lake—and yet so much remains. The same spring flowers still bloom and delight. Her story still resonates and her teachings still matter: Don’t pick the trilliums! Let them flower and fade back into the earth so they can gather strength to return again, spring eternal.

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A Day for Honoring Trees

A row of Douglas-firs against the sky. Margaret described such a line of firs as “engraved on her memory” from her childhood that sustained her, especially when she lived in New York City, so far from her Northwestern home

The narrator in Willa Cather’s novel, My Antonia, upon arriving in Nebraska from an eastern state, looked upon this place with wonder. As he “peered over the side of the wagon” that was carrying him to his new home, he felt, “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” In daylight the next day, it was the same: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I…As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as water is the sea.” There were no trees.

Potential evergreen trees! Three different kinds of cones, part of the infinite variety of making the next generation of trees

This is the windswept landscape that depressed the spirits of another incoming settler, this one from well-wooded Michigan, J. Sterling Morton, in 1855. He recalled he “…could not but be oppressed by the sense of treelessness…No forest was visible on either side, as far as the eye could reach, and only here and there, along the banks of small creeks and in deep ravines, would a few fire-spared trees be found. Even these were mostly maimed, scarred and deformed by surges of flame which had swept down upon them from the burning prairies during nearly every fall of their precarious lives. Thus everywhere the waves of rich land stretched bare of shade to the horizon.” Morton ignored the derision of his neighbors and set out to rectify the situation; he planted trees: American chestnuts, Osage orange trees, black walnuts and orchards of fruit trees. And then he preached the saving grace of trees wherever he could to everyone, listening or not.

In 1872, Morton promoted his idea of a new American holiday celebrating trees; he called it Arbor Day. He declared, “All other anniversaries look backward; they speak of men and events past. But Arbor Day looks forward; it is devoted to the happiness and prosperity of the future.” Gradually, others, in one state after another, took up the cause and added pageantry and poetry to the annual ceremonial tree planting. And now we have a national Arbor Day, April 30, but also state and city sponsored Arbor Days as various climate zones allow—Washington State’s is held on April 14 while Alaska waits until the third Monday in May to assure any newly planted tree has a good chance of survival. In any case, any day is a good day to celebrate trees.

A row of survivors, cedar trees on the grounds of the old State Capital Museum

Here in the Northwest we are blessed with trees. The moisture-laden winds sailing in from the Pacific Ocean confronting the Olympics and Cascade mountains pour their wealth of life-bringing water on the land and the land responds with Douglas-fir, cedars, Big-leaf maples and sinuous Pacific madrone, to name just a few of the tangle of forest specimen. One of the giants, Western Hemlock, was named our Washington State tree in 1947. If you have time and opportunity, you might plan an expedition to visit one of the great trees native to this land in celebration of Arbor Day. But for many of us, smaller street and garden trees are our more familiar companions and justly deserve our affection and care. It would be a lonelier, more barren world, bereft of many birds, with less color and interest, without our street trees, garden trees, and trees in local parks for we city dwellers. Wherever trees grow and brighten our days, Arbor Day is a good reminder to give thanks for such beings in our world.

A Douglas-fir and a cedar tree as old companions keeping good company
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Learning by Degrees, Without Degrees

Margaret was always careful not to claim she was a scientist. She worked closely with many professionals, especially those engaged in mycological studies. They often turned to her for help in both finding fungal species and identifying obscure mushrooms. She was a recognized expert….and yet….not a scientist. She had no college degree or position in any institution.

Many “amateurs,” especially women, were in the same position: very knowledgeable and respected, sometimes recognized but more often working behind the scenes, nameless. They helped their husbands* or brothers or worked diligently holding together various botanical organizations, editing journals, keeping the membership lists, the work that must be done that supported the forward march of science.

Start small and build piece by piece. So with puzzles (like this wonderful example of botanical specimens) try to learn the basics.

Earlier, scientific work was not as rigidly organized as it became and there were fewer barriers between serious students of the various branches of what became science and those who, say, loved flowers or ferns or gathering shells on the beaches. Many early Victorians had amazing collections and knew the names of all their prizes, and some went on to further study; the line between collectors and “real” botanizers was quite permeable. Botany was a common and popular subject in schools or could be learned independently through the many books and journals meant for anyone to peruse. There were clubs with open memberships and societies and public talks and exhibitions. Margaret was raised in just such a fluid and accessible setting and worked her whole life to keep those doors open for others.

It’s all in the details

Margaret learned her botany in school and in the family garden and on walks in the countryside. And then she took it further, bought a microscope, and really studied her subject and shared her findings widely with her many friends and neighbors who were also keen to explore the natural world. Everyone studied at least some botany in school and so had a grounding in the subject and a foundation for more learning. That seems to be no longer the case.

the shapes of the leaves, the branching pattern, the exact colors of the flowers

I’ve been reading more about botany now, inspired by Margaret, but it’s slow going. I flounder; I don’t have a system for remembering all the new vocabulary and definitions. I even bought a textbook but it is very dry reading! And it feels remote from actual plants somehow. Maybe I’m not going about this the right way; maybe I should get more acquainted with the plants in my own garden first: really look at them and learn the shapes of their leaves, the times they flower, the seeds they produce, everything there is to see. And then apply the terminology the textbook insists upon.

As so often, I ask myself, “What would Margaret do?” She’s make sure it was fun, an adventure, that I do know!

This was fun! Every piece got me closer to seeing the big picture.

A fascinating woman of this type was Elizabeth Gertrude Knight Britton (1857-1934). As a young woman, she was already an accomplished botanist and bryologist (the study of mosses) as a charter member of the illustrious Torrey Botanical Club. She wrote hundreds of scientific papers, was curator of the moss collection and editor of the club journal. After she married fellow club member, Nathaniel Britton, she worked tirelessly with her husband to found and staff the New York Botanical Garden where she again created a renowned collection of mosses. They were energetic collectors of plants who traveled extensively to find new specimens; wherever he went, so did she. Later, she became concerned with the plight of wild flowers and founded the Wild Flower Preservation Society in 1902 to educate the public and create reserves for the vanishing beauties. And yet she is little known today. A brief biography can be found here:

https://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/libr/finding_guide/egbweb.asp.html

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Drama of the Day

According to my Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, given in his customary staccato language, the Bald eagle: “….with its white head and white tail is all field mark. Bill of adult yellow. Immature has dusky head and tail, dark bill. It shows whitish in the wing-linings and often on the breast….” (emphasis in text) He adds that the “voice is a harsh, creaking cackle, kleek-kik-ik-ik-ik-ik or a lower kak-kak-kak.” That at least is very descriptive: harsh and creaking!

We—the small cluster of neighborhood walkers all masked and distanced—were certainly halted with our gaze pulled skyward by that call which shattered the peace of the afternoon. There, not too high for viewing but ducking in and out of view behind some tall Douglas firs, were two eagles circling and calling and gliding in this and then that direction, but always crisscrossing and making a huge racket. Were they courting? Were they male and female or two males challenging each other? Did the females have the same field marks, the white head, especially? We were tentative in our speculations.

Peterson’s system, which revolutionized field identification of birds when he first published in 1934, focuses on identifying “marks” you can see at a glance, to distinguish one species from another closely related one.

Once back home I could peruse my handy field guide. Peterson doesn’t come out and say in so many words, but in his case the absence of comment indicates that the mature males and females share the same markings. Peterson gave me the basics but I still had questions. I then turned to the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as an additional trusted source. I learned that females can weigh as much as two to four pounds more than the males and have a wingspan half a foot longer, but that would have been difficult to measure from where we had stood transfixed. More locally, the website of Seattle Audubon indicated that yes, now would be courting season as the time for egg-laying is generally late winter to early spring. So it seemed likely that these were a male and female pair of eagles.

The female lays two eggs in her nest of sticks high up in a conifer tree, but slightly sheltered by the trunk and some branches, not at the top where it would be vulnerable to crows and other dangers. Unless separated by mishap, eagles mate for life when they are four-to-six years old. As they can live as much as forty years, that’s a long relationship!

The mated pair care for their young together, taking turns in the nest until hatching, which happens about 36 days after laying. One parent stays with the young while the other hunts, again taking turns. It takes a long time for such large birds to mature. It is ten to twelve weeks before the chicks can fly and two to three months before they can defend themselves and venture out from the watchful scrutiny of their parents’ sharp yellow eyes!

We will keep a lookout for the pair on our weekly walks. Seeing eagles adds a buzz of excitement and a welcome distraction to our Covid-limited world. Outside our daily human-centered preoccupations it’s a tremendous lift to remember there are eagles, great seven-foot wings scribing trails through the sky, waking us up to lives lived in quite other realms.

The snow from our recent storm is melting and plants like these daffodils are emerging to assert–again–that spring really is coming. The eagles announced it, too, in their own way. Ready for what comes next!

Here are links to the sites I mention:

http://birdweb.org/birdweb/bird/bald_eagle

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bald_Eagle/lifehistory

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A Release from Gloom into Light

We are now a month into the new year; yesterday was the Celtic celebration of Spring, Imbolc, a feast of burgeoning light, new growth and healing. Hold that thought as cold and snow pounds swathes of the country and here in the Northwest the sky was dark and brooding all day yesterday as rain poured out of the clouds as if it meant to cover the entire earth. Today, however, at least this morning, we are having a reprieve from the incessant rain. I was able to take a walk without having to huddle under an umbrella….easier to see and count new wonders!

Puddles that aspire to be lakes

With Ireland in mind, my first impression was how very green the world was! This is the season to celebrate moss. As the rain saturates this plant it swells and stretches and grows; now is its chance to flourish and show off all its intricacies and complexities of growth. Having just read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s awe-inspiring book, Gathering Moss, I notice moss everywhere, bright brilliant green and shimmering with rain droplets. I will write more on moss later but for today it was the tapestry underlying and nearly overwhelming all I saw.

An even shaggier variety of moss mixed with lichen blanketing a maple tree branch

Poking up through last year’s fallen leaves, small bulbs were thrusting into light. The daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops are heralding springtime. And the hellebores are beginning to open in the race of early flowers to welcome the season. Forsythia throws its bright yellow spray to the sky with joyous abandon and soon the daphnia bushes will overwhelm passersby with their bracing scent. My honeysuckle vine is greening bud by opening bud.

Daffodils soon to open!
Crocus flowers looking for sunlight
Shy snowdrops amidst the new growth pushing up everywhere
Hellebores are some of my earliest bloomers, a gorgeous shot of color
My neighbor’s glorious forsythia!
A little more sunshine and this Daphnia will scent the air for yards around. I enjoy it every year.

Crows are everywhere—but remarkably camera-averse—investigating the new growth. My local squirrels are taking advantage of the momentary dry spell to taste the various buds on street trees.  I could hear our neighborhood eagle screaming its presence but could not locate which tree where it might be sheltering. Everyone was busy engaging with the moment of respite. Rain makes the Northwest but that blue sky after the downpour makes my heart sing!

Honeysuckle buds

P.S. Now that it’s February and I haven’t seen a pine siskin in weeks I put my feeders back up. However, if siskins do show up, I’ll take them down again. I hope my chickadees return. There was a lone Bushtit checking out the empty space the other day; maybe it will get the word out now, if it should return.

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Winter-in-Waiting

I had to look them up to be sure, but yes, these smallish, streaky-brown birds with flashes of bright yellow on tail and wing feathers that were flocking into my garden were Pine Siskins. I had not had them at my feeder for quite a while. They are lively!  While confirming their identity, I learned that they are a type of finch, albeit smaller with a finer pointed beak. They adore thistle seed or small seeds like millet and acrobatically hung off my clumps of untrimmed flower stalks gleaning seeds, saved for just such a purpose. They appeared voracious.

A little hard to see among the tangles but several are feeding greedily on seeds or perhaps small insects

Siskins are noted for their flocking behavior and for mobbing feeders. Some writers called them gregarious, while others shaded more to “aggressive” or “domineering.” Other feeder birds might agree. When Siskins move in, your chickadees and nuthatches are sidelined. But it seemed only momentary at my house. Siskins breezed in, partied, and left for new places; maybe I didn’t have their preferred foods. They can’t handle sunflower seeds still in the shell and are peckish about suet, my main offerings. I tried to capture them in photos but they swished around too rapidly to have more than blurry images.

They began, though, to show up on neighborhood postings and in anxious emails and message boards. All that close flocking and eating and general congregating—just like we humans used to do in pre-Covid times and now should not—can lead to tragedy. First there was excitement and wonder at the arrival of this northern bird from the conifer forests and mixed boreal woodlands of Canada, identified as an irruption from their normal migration pattern due to food shortages in their winter range. But it soon turned to dismay when more and more sick and dying birds were discovered at feeders and in gardens. The close flocking and feeding behavior that draws our attention facilitates the spread of salmonella bacteria that can contaminate feeders, birdbaths, and water dishes and be passed bird to bird. (Humans and pets can be impacted too. Wear gloves, wash your hands thoroughly and clean areas frequented by birds.)

Sick birds are said to be lethargic and appear tame—or at least indifferent to human approach. They have fluffed up feathers, perhaps swollen eyes and an unnatural stillness. Besides being careful about your own exposure, seeing birds in this condition signals that you need to take down your own feeders and dishes and clean everything with a mix of hot soapy water rinsed with bleach water. See here for  exact instructions: https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/help-protect-wild-birds-deadly-salmonellosis   And then retire your feeders for a week or more. Some advice recommends not putting out feeders again until sometime next month to be sure the Siskins have moved on and the danger has abated.

Normally, my seed feeder and suet feeder hand off this contraption tied to a pulley but now it just dangles, empty

It was a melancholy sight to see a line of Bushtits clinging to the dangling empty string from my feeder. Where were the goods? It’s been very quiet for days now. I rejoiced to see a few juncos scrambling around under the ferns and in drifts of old leaves the other day. And the hummingbirds are as territorial as ever; their feeder is entirely their own and not endangered. How I miss “my” birds! But I have to remember it’s not about me, but their health and lives. And take the long view.

A lone junco in a rain-drenched garden

To learn more about Pine Siskins in general and about the meaning of irruptions, see here: https://www.audubon.org/news/-pine-siskin-finch-irruption-fall-2020

And here, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more species information and a great map showing Siskin territory and what is impacting their normal range of habitation: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pine_Siskin/media-browser-overview/67276581

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A Fresh Start

The official New Year was days ago, I know, but it didn’t really feel like I had turned the page until this morning. Monday morning: a new list for the week, facing forward after the weekend, time to take stock. First, look out the window and notice that it has stopped raining! We’re in the middle of one of those weather “rivers” that pours water out of the sky and feels like a permanent geographical fixture; you can’t imagine how it will ever stop. But somehow the sky is less pulled down on the treetops and roofs and there is a visible smudge of light in the sky that must be the sun. No time to hesitate! Go outside!

Looking up, the first thing I see is an eagle slowly passing over the neighborhood, barely tipping its wings and intent on surveying the possibilities. And in the same frame of vision, I see a vivid-pink flash of a hummingbird. The definition of “bird” stretches almost to breaking point to encompass these two! Besides the cessation of rain, I am counting this twin sighting as my #1 Wonder of the Day.

And instantly know that instead of New Year’s resolutions—you know, lose those extra pounds, be more organized, and clean out a few drawers—I’m going to collect Wonders; make that a minimum of three a day. It’s a wake-up call from winter hibernation or Covid-induced fog. I feel better already.

There are several ways to discover Wonders. Some present themselves like the eagle and hummingbird. For my next Wonder I only had to follow my nose. We have a bush in our side yard that blooms in winter; if anyone can identify it, please do. It has the freshest sweet-but-not-too-sweet scent from tiny white flowers that just gladdens my heart on these dark days. I stand in front of it and breathe in the scent and feel that spring cannot be lost no matter what the date. I have Wonder #2.

You can almost smell the flowers by looking at them…..
The mystery bush that signals spring

And I have a theme: What other signs of early spring can I find? Soggy brown leaves litter the ground and bits of fallen branches from the windstorm nearly hide my next find. There is a tiny, slightly battered, but bravely pushing upward primrose whose pink catches me eye. It’s very modest but not at all prosaic. I’m counting it as #3 for the lift it gives my mood.

Easy to miss

I see green shoots pushing up here and there, probably the bluebells that will take over my garden later, but perhaps because they are so prolific they don’t quite feel like a bona fide Wonder to me today. Ah, but what’s this? Again a pink color draws me to peer more carefully in the clutter of last-year’s leaves. This seems incredibly early, but some of my strawberry plants are in flower! Very pink, indeed. Spring is more than a wish; it feels like a promise kept. Strawberry plants blooming in January is a Wonder, a bonus, #4. Everything is going to be okay.

The pink among the scattered leaves of fall.

Winter Colors

Sometimes when I go out for a stroll I walk for several blocks without noticing a thing. It’s a rather gray day today, quiet with barely a breeze; no one is about but a few squirrels that melt away as I approach along the sidewalk. My thoughts chase each other with more vigor than they exhibit….which may be why I am missing out on what is happening all around me. But there is drama!

The sky had its own drama of dark and light, all moody and heavy. I was not able to capture the eagles on camera but I have them firmly in my mind!

I happen to look up at the sky and there above me are two eagles wheeling and gyrating, tracing large patterns across the canvas of the sky. They circle and soar, together, each on an invisible path of air that looks aimless and lazy, yet no bird takes a chance to test their seeming indifference. The eagles’ outspread wings and stiff wedge of tail, the thrust of their beaks cutting through the afternoon sky, their presence wakes me up. I turn and turn trying to follow their flight. I wait to see if one or the other will suddenly plummet to the ground, great claws forward to scoop up some unlucky snack. Finally, they drift away, but the day has changed.

Though they left no lines in the sky, not so much as a puff of breath, I now see everything in a clearer light. Why, there is so much to note! Winter is having its way, whittling down the world to its core, stripping away the painterly lushness of summer and leaving us with charcoal etchings. Trees show off their bark, darkened by yesterday’s rain, and the strong upward lines of branches. Each one has its own habit of growth, each one a statement against the sky.

The discarded leaves litter the ground and collect where wind and chance have scattered them. Remnant bits of color against dark cement or the opaqueness of water make abstract Jackson Pollock-ish splatters. A few red or stark-white berries clinging to bushes are like splashes from a paintbrush, pure jolts in a brown-gray landscape.

The deep puddle held both this scatter of oak leaves and the light from the sky.
The flecks of yellow against gray cement with splotches of purple-brown made an arresting pattern.
The artistry of chance made lovely patterns of brown leaves against the green of lawn.

Best of all is the luminous moss! Plump with rain, vibrant and refreshed, this is its season. I touch its springy surface, make a wish, and go home in a better frame of mind.

Different kinds of moss springing up between rock sidewalks, decorated with tiny maple wings.
Moss fairly calling out to be petted!

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

I see frost on my neighbor’s roof and a skim of ice in the birdbath. We are hovering on the edge of winter.  My local birds are hoovering up suet as quickly as I refill the feeder, fueling up to withstand the cold. I keep an eye on the hummingbird feeder too as the liquid in it disappears in a wink.

Signs of the season: soon this glorious golden Ginkgo tree will be bare.

Will the hummers stay for winter? Who stays and who heads out for warmer climes?  I ask myself this question every year at this time so I’ve turned to my bookshelf for some guidance. I’ve been reading a thick and every-page fascinating book on migration by Scott Weidensaul, Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. The book opens with him staring out to sea—the Bering Sea—from a piece of shore he describes as: “this tendril of land is a global crossroads…a port of entry between Asia and America.” It is a place of arrival and leave-taking for thousands of migrating birds, a seasonal high drama that stars some of the most spectacular travelers of the bird world. He describes some of the birds that fly almost pole to pole, but Weidensaul also notes that some birds hardly bother. Even birds of the same species, take Dunlins for example, don’t all undertake similar journeys. He tells us that there are three different populations of Dunlins, each with a different strategy for coping with winter. It turns out, migration is not a simple all-up-and-out movement but involves a lot of back and forth and odd variations and choices.

Before I follow Weidensaul along all the possible lines of his map, I will just give you this point that he says underlies all the patterns birds follow: “Migration is, fundamentally, about food, not temperature; those birds that can continue to find enough to eat during the winter rarely migrate—why bother?—while those whose food supplies are seasonal must flee.” So, no pressure! Keep those feeders topped up!

A robin pausing to get a quick drink of water. All that calling makes a bird thirsty!

Part of my interest in this question of migration centers on one of our most common birds, the American robin. As a child growing up in Alberta where winter is a long and serious affair, seeing the first robin every spring was an annual quest and a triumph of hope over dreariness. But here in the Pacific Northwest, do robins migrate? Is theirs a case of “Why bother?” On a walk the other day, the air was full of robins, whizzing back and forth, calling, landing and taking off, clattering and nervous-seeming. They gathered, as if readying for a journey, but just as quickly dispersed as if on private business separate from their flock. What was going on?

It was impossible to catch a robin on the wing with my camera. I settled for just watching them zip around. But every once in a while they would congregate and land for a moment. Here are some outlined against the sky.

Robins, in my experience, don’t eat from feeders. My interest that day was from long affection for these handsome birds with their storybook bright red bellies and contrasting gray-black over-coats. And there was no ignoring their frantic movements and their piping voices. But the next day on my walk I didn’t see a single robin. Where had they gone? Did they finally make a group decision and fly away? Back home, I turned to my trusted source for all bird questions, the Cornell Lab for Ornithology website for answers to my query about robin migration behavior. They had this to say:

“One reason why they seem to disappear every winter is that their behavior changes. In winter robins form nomadic flocks, which can consist of hundreds to thousands of birds. Usually these flocks appear where there are plentiful fruits on trees and shrubs, such as crabapples, hawthorns, holly, juniper, and others.

When spring rolls around, these flocks split up. Suddenly we start seeing American Robins yanking worms out of our yards again, and it’s easy to assume they’ve “returned” from migration. But what we’re seeing is the switch from being nonterritorial in the winter time to aggressively defending a territory in advance of courting and raising chicks.”

The clue to the robins’ behavior was right in front of me: my neighbor’s venerable holly tree. Covered with delicious—I suppose—red berries. They had crowded along its branches, gorging and perhaps getting a little tipsy if any of the berries were fermenting as sometimes happens. It was a grand party! No worries about social distancing. Maybe they were off to find another smorgasbord somewhere else in the neighborhood the next day, but there are still berries for the taking so I imagine they will be back. Still a cheerful sight!

Bright Sights

I admit to being fatigued; I’m even tired of being tired. The family cat doesn’t want to hear about it. She has her own remedies so I am reminded to turn to my own sure-fire ways of finding a little balance and respite in “these times.” I look out my kitchen window.

Ways of dealing with the daily barrage of Covid news, anxiety-inducing headlines and cold weather…

The local sparrows (Will I ever figure out which sparrows are which? It doesn’t matter today.) and glossy-headed juncos are taking turns pecking at the seeds I’ve scattered for them. Chickadees are swooping on the hanging feeder and choosing just the right sunflower seed before dashing away again. A buzz of bush tits erupts out of the bushes, congregate on the suet feeder and just as quickly head for cover. A brilliant red-eyed towhee with its smart black and rusty red outfit shows up for a snack. There is a lot going on outside!

These are my beloved “regulars.” Not quite as often, nuthatches show up for a meal, and there is always a commotion when a flicker arrives. For such a large bird it is shy and easily scatters at the slightest movement my side of the window, so if I want to watch it I need to freeze in place or slowly step back a bit to be less visible. It’s comical watching it contort itself to cling onto the small feeder. I haven’t seen much of the downy woodpecker lately; I hope it comes back soon. And of course, jays show up and starlings, always with a big clatter of wings and whistles.

But sometimes I am lucky and see something unusual. I have a secretive Bewick’s wren that slips in and out of the heavy cover of the Camilla bush to poke around and occasionally sample the suet in the feeder. The white blaze over its eye and perky tail draw my attention but it doesn’t stay for long. And one recent day there was…hey, what is that? An almost-pink raspberry colored bird showed up, pecked and looked about and stayed long enough for me to find my bird guide and confirm that it was a purple finch. A new bird for me! We used to get the red house finches all the time, although they have disappeared from our area for unknown reasons, but I had never had one of these. (I don’t know why they are called “purple” but they are clearly not red.) So far, that was my one sighting. Maybe it was only passing through the neighborhood. But it made my day!

Hard to spot but always a thrill, a Bewick’s wren
A real stand-out: a purple finch!

Another bright light has stayed now for a couple of weeks, and my birding friend who knows this sort of thing assures me it may well stay for the season: a Townsend’s warbler. You can’t miss that flash of lemon yellow and black. It’s a tiny bird with a dainty sharp beak and bright eyes but when you see that color, you have to stop and search for it in the leaves. It’s in and out, flashing like a light bulb, hiding and then daring to try the feeder. I stand as still as possible for my reward of a glimpse. And I keep the feeder topped up! It may be the beginning of winter, but all color has not drained from the world. Hang on, be well. Look out the window.

Like sunshine on a cloudy day, a Townsend’s warbler