Clellie Lynch: Last gasp of winter
"Some winters, taking leave,
Deal us a last, hard blow,
Salting the ground like Carthage
Before they go....
...The storm if I am right
Will not be wholly over
Till green fields, here and there,
Turn white with clover,
And through chill air
the puffs of milkweed hover."
"A Storm in April, Richard Wilbur"
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.>> Mighty March slips in with a breath of fresh air bringing with it dark flocks of swirling blackbirds and grackles. Wiry willow branches, now quite yellow, sway in the breeze. Reddish buds tint the hillsides as the lawns, spiky with wild garlic, turn a vibrant green. Short-stemmed coltsfoot dot the roadsides with golden coins, while purple crocuses unfold amid the blooming daffodils. After such a mild winter, spring has sprung early this year.
Wood frogs, easily identified by that black flowing patch behind the eye, awaken and hiphop down the hillsides. The frog parade traverses the leaf litter and crisscrosses the lawn. Then one after another, the goggle-eyed amphibians plop into the ice-free pond. Stand by the pond and watch. The floating pairs of eyes totally ignore you as they search for that ideal partner. The days and nights are alive with the sound of hundreds of these wooing, frenzied frogs. Spring peepers soon join in.
Birds are moving too. While the Canada geese high up in the sky skein north, flickers appear on the lawn among the rabble of robins. A lone great blue heron wings its way to a nearby swamp. Bluebirds suss out the boxes in the field. The occasional fox sparrow scrabbles at first in the undergrowth and then under the feeder joining the ever-expanding flock of juncos.
But wait! Come the first weekend in April, that cruel and fickle month, the promised spring showers turn to snow. It snows, and then, snows some more. A March-mighty wind blows in from the arctic sending up billows of snow clouds as it scours the frozen landscape. Then to add insult to injury, it starts snowing again. All day long!
Gone are the green lawns; buried are the coltsfoot and crocus blossoms. Daffodils lie face down in the snow. The odd pieces of lawn furniture lured out of the barn by those 60-degree days are covered with marshmallows of snow. The holly tree is Christmas perfect with every branch artistically mottled in white. Spring is no longer center stage; she is huddling in the green room waiting once again for her cue.
Hungry birds that have no desire to head back south abound even though naturally-available food is hidden by that chilly white blanket. Insects have either met their maker or have burrowed back inside logs, under leaves or into the still warm ground. So we fill the feeders to overflowing and soon the birds appear...more birds than have come to the feeder all spring.
Goldfinches and purple finches, redwings and grackles, bluejays, cardinals and mourning doves, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice! Hundreds of juncos and a solitary song sparrow. The feeders are an airport of activity. Birds zooming in, perhaps nudging others out of the way, then dashing back to the bushes and trees, calmly waiting for another opening.
Every perch of the tube feeders is taken. The round wire balls fit up to eight finches each. Then in flies a grackle that can certainly get a grip and push its beak through the mesh. The smaller birds flee, but only to await their turn. The resident chickadees, titmice and nuthatches politely fly in to maneuver into any small space.
The goldfinches, maybe 40 or so now, are an alchemist's dream as they change from their dull, drab winter plumage into golden beauties. Up close, each bird is different. Some have yellow patches on the head. Others have brilliant yellow splotches on the back. Yet another may have a golden cheek and tinted throat. Soon though you will not be able to tell one from another.
Three pairs of purple finches mingle with the goldfinches. How much larger are these birds than their yellowish cousins! The blackbirds and grackles descend together often feeding on the ground with the mourning doves and the 60 or 70 juncos. Blue jays may disrupt the entire process, but they never linger long after eating. Cardinals are always the first to appear in the morning and the last at night.
The winter trot of turkeys comes and goes. Some hours there are only one or two posing, posturing and pecking away by the feeders. Other times 25 or 30 enormous birds mill about paying more attention to one another than to the scattered seeds. Red and blue-headed males fan their tails as they noisily try to best the competition. More often than not, though, these displaying guys try to impress and hustle the females that totally ignore them.
The juncos, sometimes called snowbirds, prefer to ground feed as does the lone song sparrow. I occasionally observe two or three juncos on the platforms or hanging feeders during the snowstorm.
Watching this ceaseless show of activity is great, but it is April. I have no burning desire to see clover and milkweed as yet, but would love to feast my eyes on green lawns, unfurling leaves and my hundreds of daffodils staring at the sun.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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