EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
As the world spins into spring-time and only a few hidden, sun-shy piles of snow persist, each day is a revelation. The nights may still be cool, but the days wallow in warmth. Hillsides are awash with a faint blush of buds; willow trees drape slender yellow branchlets over streams and fields. Bare, tangled branches of shrubs and bushes have just a hint of color; dark, green daffodil blades spike the brown lawns and gardens.
A family of barred owls has woken me these past three nights: Sometimes, with a simple high-pitched, "whoooo, whoooo;" sometimes, with the full, "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you." One morning, it sounds as if the young were cackling and giggling amongst themselves. This weird riot of screechy noises halts completely when an older and wiser owl calls "whooooooo.’’ Then nothing is heard until a glimmer of light appears in the east.
That first hint of light brings a welcome of bird song so lacking through this long winter. Robins sing just before the dawn, but soon are joined by redwings, cardinals, purple and goldfinches, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches. Scores of juncos join the feeder birds albeit on the ground and in the bushes, trilling to one another as they prepare to head north. From behind the barn, a solitary song sparrow serenades an unseen mistress.
One morning my small pond is completely frozen, the next day it is a’roil with wood frogs, eyes just above the surface as they "clackety-clack’’ to one another. The next day, the roar of the wood frogs is joined with the "peep-peeeep-peep’’ of backup singers -- the spring peepers. The annual amphibian spring break begins!
Curious, I took a bucket of frog eggs from the next small pond down the road 20 years ago and dumped them into our pond. The frogs thrived and over the years, when I take my morning walk, I find other ponds virtually silent that once were as noisy with frog revels as ours is in early spring. Moral of the story: Never invite a fish or heron across that muddy sill.
Every morning walk is a revelation -- more and more birds are in the woods and fields, insects hatch and take to the sky. The ground thaws and emits a wonderful loamy aroma. Greening weeds poke through the ground cover. And woodpeckers thrum coded messages to one another all day long.
The resident red-bellied woodpecker shifts from his winter shriek to the more mellow and sweet "quirr’’ in hopes of luring an attractive birdette into his nest. Pileated woodpeckers, more often heard than seen, leave evidence of food gathering in many a tree along the road. Flickers, a early spring migrant, join the robins probing for insects on the lawn.
Sapsuckers, another of the early migrants, nasally squeal "neeeah, neeeah’’ to one another. At times, it sounds as if a small child were jumping up and down on a wheezy, kewpie doll. These sapsuckers, usually two, but often three, dance up and down the trunks of dead trees looking like that toy where a bird pecks and slides its way down a stick.
The first of the flycatchers, the phoebes, arrives along the road on April 3 calling weakly at first, tuckered out as if he had been flying all night. A week later I find eight phoebes calling near eight houses along my road. A chicken in every pot and a phoebe at every house. Is that what we were promised?
The fifth of April brings the arrival of the wood ducks, ever ready for a fancy dressed ball, him with his gaudy green, rust, yellow, black and blue with white and red accessory bits here and there, her with her Egyptian eyeliner. On the ninth, a tree swallow swoops in, sailing over the lake searching for insects before resting and preening on the electric wire near the resident starlings.
By April 12, the migration is well underway. From the grassy swath along the gas line, I hear the first-of-the-year field sparrow. Uh-oh, look who else has shown up here: Mr. Sparrowhawk! Finally this sharp-winged predator is back, hopefully to nest again after a three-year hiatus.
On that same day I find a trio of ring-necked ducks dipping and diving in the swampy pond. They are not 15 feet from me -- still I cannot see the titular ring around the neck. The white ring around the bill is quite obvious as is the white outline where the bill meets the head. The named ring around the neck is really only visible if you have the bird in hand. The nomenclature police must have been asleep. Go figure!
Last but not least on this beautiful spring day, Danny spots an osprey gliding across the lake, then perching on a dead tree waiting and watching -- and chirping. Interesting that this eagle-like bird’s call is really just a very loud, ascending series of chirps. "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant." -- Anne Bradstreet.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.