Time Lapse

A couple of days ago I set up my wildlife camera next to the bird feeders to record who all showed up over the course of a day. I’ve only been paying attention to birds in any kind of focused way for the past two years, and I would not call myself an avid birder. My interest in them started when I decided I wanted to take a bird photograph every day for a 100 days of fill-in-the-creative-endeavor project, and while I still enjoy trying to get decent photos of them, I’m not that committed to that either. I follow a local online birding group and I see a lot of amazing photos there, and a lot of people excitedly adding to their life lists (the poor painted bunting who showed up in the DC suburbs seemed to have more photographers than all the current and former British royal family combined). I admire the enthusiasm but I don’t fully understand it. I do get pretty excited when I see a bird I’ve never seen and can actually identify, but maybe next year I’ll forget and get just as excited again.

I had the bird feeder camera set up for about ten hours to try to catch multiple feeding cycles. Most of the 1,354 photos are just that – repeat cycles of the same visitors, including a cardinal couple, a red bellied woodpecker couple, a blue jay, a mockingbird (it could be more than one – they come one at a time and I can’t tell them apart), a bluebird or two, a few brown headed cowbirds, a vast parade of house finches (with an occasional purple finch to remind me I am terrible at finch identification), goldfinches, little chipping sparrows, and one very fat and sassy squirrel. The photos I like best are the ones that make me laugh: the squirrel moving from one feeder to another, several bird blurs coming and going at once, a goldfinch in the middle of a 180 as he realized he didn’t want to mess with the mockingbird and he could come back later.

It turns out to be watching the regular birds doing regular bird things that interests me most. An eastern kingbird in his little tuxedo perched on the fence looking so refined, and then full-on assaulting a robin, appearing to say “I said GOOD DAY, sir!” to the back end of the departing robin. The way the female cardinal always shows up first, whether at the feeder or a tree, and then is joined by her mate – in contrast to the red bellied woodpeckers, who take entirely separate turns at the feeders, and always the male first. Many of the birds I’m seeing now I saw all winter. I’ve been watching the male goldfinches shift from a dull sort of olive color in winter to their bright yellow breeding plumage. The chickadees who buzz impatiently at me from the nearby sugar maple while I fill the feeders may well be the same ones who have been buzzing at me all winter, though their red breasted nuthatch and pine warbler associates who were bold enough to perch right on the stands while I added seed seem to have moved on.

The green herons have made their first spring appearance. They are following their usual pattern: first I see one flying north from the reservoir next door, perhaps to one of the other nearby ponds. Then I start seeing them flying over our property to or from the water – that’s the phase we are in now. Soon those flights will include carrying sticks to build their highly hypothetical looking nests, which I believe are constructed of eleven twigs and some wishful thinking, but they always do the trick. Last year when they built a nest in the weeping cherry right outside our bedroom window and I found one of the eggs after it hatched, I was amazed how small it was, and that it didn’t just slip right through the twigs. Green heron baby watch may be my favorite season, and it’s coming soon.

The barn swallows returned in April, as they always do. The consistency of birds is another thing I love, and barn swallows seem to be among the most punctual. We have had barn swallow mud nests in all of our run-in sheds for years, but I haven’t seen any evidence they are inhabited. I don’t know if swallows reuse nests; they may just be out and about doing their swallow activities all day. Far and away my favorite thing about mowing is having the swallows fly low and fast around me, eating the bugs that are scared up by the tractor. It’s a little wet to mow right now, but I had to mow the dog yard so as to not lose the actual dogs in the tall grass, and I had swallow companions the whole time. They were one of the first birds I paid attention to, in my early twenties when I didn’t have attention for much but the fact that I seemed to be losing my mind. Luckily I was working on a 95 acre farm at the time and there was a lot of mowing to do. I sat on the tractor for hours, sifting through depression and trauma and confusion and grief, all of which lightened with the swoop and swish of the barn swallows. For me, barn swallows are the dolphins of the air. They always make me smile, with their tiny rust colored breasts and bright eyes and sparkling wings filling my heart and reminding me to look up.

In the two years since I started my current bird journey I have also had bouts of depression and trauma and confusion and grief and feeling like I’m losing my mind. Most of it has been less extreme than in my early twenties – life in general was just more extreme when I was in my early twenties. But some things have gotten bigger, or harder, and the grief keeps adding up.

As with my early barn swallows, all the birds I watch now help me through that grief, and all the other worries large and small. We have raptors here as well as song birds, so I get frequent reminders from the birds (or the remains of the birds) that nature can be brutal, but I also get the beauty. I get the ebb and flow of bird migrations, the transient joy of the exotic visitors passing through, the birds who stay, the birds who return again and again, the birds who build their improbable nests and raise their babies against slim odds to start the cycle all over again.

Harbingers

The tundra swans are here! This is our sixth year seeing them, and while I don’t know what caused them to add us to their migration path 15 years into our time here, I am always grateful. Uncharacteristically, they showed up during a period of bad weather this year. I have long suspected they know just how good they look against a bright blue sky, and in fact they seem put out by the gloomy, wet weather we’ve been having. Normally during their time here, they go to other bodies of water during the day and return to our reservoir at night, but they have mostly spent the rainy weekend grumbling along the edge of the ice on the reservoir and not flying at all.

We have enormous numbers of Canada geese who inhabit the reservoir year-round, and they are not fans of the swans, who are the only birds I know that make the geese look small. The first year or two the swans came here, the geese would circle and circle over the reservoir, sometimes returning to one of their daytime ponds for the night, and sometimes landing as far from the swans as possible. They spent the nights they were here grumbling about the tourists, while the swans made their own odd calls that I can best describe as what it would have sounded like if Mr. Rochester had also had mad geese locked in his attic. This year, as almost always, it was their voices that tipped me off to their arrival. They came after dark on Friday night, and when I took the dogs out for last pee, they all stopped in their tracks and looked at me like “What the hell, mom?” which seems a reasonable response to unexpected swans. The geese seem resigned now, but it will likely be a few more days before we see them actively mingling with the swans. It’s warming up and the ice is melting, which means more water space for everyone to keep to their own species.

The swans come by during the first half of March each year, but what they find when they arrive varies quite a bit. If the winter has been mild, or if it has warmed up already, the whole reservoir will be water. If it’s been a cold winter or if the cold is lingering later, most of it may be ice. They seem unfazed either way, sometimes gathering on the ice and sometimes paddling serenely through the water, no matter the temperature. The ground at this time of year is almost always terrible. This year we have had more snow than we have had for a few years, and it’s lingering in both slushy and icy swaths. The horse pastures are a muddy, manure-filled mess, and (as is true every year) look like they will never recover. Mud is the unifying theme – sucking off our boots, changing the colors of the horses, coming in the house on the dogs, making everything we can see a drab brown – not that different than the colors of the Canada goose, come to think of it. It matches my mood almost exactly.

My excitement about the swans is a mixture of the beauty of their bright white plumage in the sea of mud, the novelty of these very short-term visitors, and the indication that spring really is coming. The swans usually arrive before the first crocus blooms. The snowdrops are just getting started, so the crocuses and the Carolina bluebells won’t be far behind. I confess I don’t think very much about the first sign of the change of any season except winter into spring. Spring into summer just seems to happen. Summer into fall is heralded by the first change of leaf color – usually the deceptive beauty of a bright red poison ivy vine climbing a tree I should avoid – followed quickly by sadness and a sense of time passing too fast. Fall into winter is only rarely a snowy event around here, but snow is what I think of when I think of winter. This year the snow didn’t come until February, but it feels like it’s been snowing for all 17 weeks that February feels like it has lasted. It took very little time to go from “I can’t wait for it to snow!” to “Is it EVER going to stop snowing?” I had not realized quite how much of the magic of a good snowstorm is the shutting down of all regular activities. When so many regular activities are already shut down, it’s hard to notice much of a difference. Plus there’s no such thing as a snow day from work when everyone is already working from home.

My normal eagerness for signs of spring has an added frantic edge to it this year. I long for warmer weather, for green pastures instead of brown, for fresh vegetables from the garden, for sun on my skin. I also long for travel, for seeing and hugging my kids, for new experiences, for live music. I hate crowds, but right now I would dearly love the shared experience of singing along with a stadium full of people to songs we all know and love. I feel like this winter has lasted a full year, and like it’s never going to end. I’m not a believer that “back to normal” is a thing, partly because I’m not really a believer in “normal,” but also because I sincerely hope we have all learned some things about what we can keep doing and what we really have to change. In the midst of this ongoing and season-spanning year of the unknown, I’m grateful to the swans for reminding me that the seasons really do keep changing and that some things – good things, beautiful things – remain the same.