For the Birds Radio Program: Awkward Season
We think of the year as having four seasons, but really there are many more than just four. This is the awkward season when one morning snow may be falling on singing robins, and by afternoon we’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt and eating ice cream while watching eagles perched atop ice floes in the lake. It no longer feels like winter but is certainly not what we idealize as spring. Bohemian Waxwings and redpolls linger even as goldfinches molt into brilliant yellow feathers. We may spot a Snowy Owl hunkered down on a fence post while listening to Barred Owls in the throes of courtship. The landscape is as barren and gray as November, but somehow hope is astir in the land.
If the season is in the midst of an identity crisis, the players that define seasons certainly are not—they know exactly who and what they are. We may think of robins as a sign of spring, but every robin alive right now has lived through at least four seasons, and been a bird for each of them. During last summer’s abundance, robins feasted on juicy berries and juicier worms. As apples and more berries ripened and the first frosts made worms less accessible, robins switched to a vegetarian diet. Whether they toughed out the winter in north country or retreated to the south, they stuck mostly to fruits and berries throughout the winter. Now they’re hungering for animal protein once again, and generally moving north with the sun and the 37 degree isotherm, but whether they’re facing a gentle spring rain or being pelted with ice, they know full well they’re not going to see any sign of spring by looking in a mirror.
Canada Geese are flying in again, but they are as much a bird of the in-between season as robins are. Like robins, they follow the 37-degree isotherm, that zone where nights may be frozen winter and days gentle spring, or the reverse. With the current overpopulation of geese, one might think that we’d take their spring arrival with a certain detachment and even resignation, but hearing that wild alive honking in the sky, our soul surges as fully as it did decades ago when geese flying over and through cities were much rarer. Whether the geese feel a surge of joy looking down upon us is more doubtful.
Driving through north country, I spy a robin perched on a big sooty snow pile. A small flock of snow buntings flutter like snowflakes on a brown field, and Ring-billed Gulls circle overhead in a burst of foolish optimism, searching for picnickers and French fries. A couple of grackles fly past, perhaps wondering which of them had the bright idea to fly north ahead of the others. A kestrel on a wire fluffs out to keep warm in the biting wind. During the course of the day, the sky has alternated between heart stirring blue and heartbreaking gray. Right now it’s very gray, but crossing the St. Louis River, we spy two Tundra Swans winging past the dark clouds, birds at home in this netherworld, headed for a world of permafrost in the land of the midnight sun. Their glistening white plumage seems even more beautiful when set in stark relief against a dark sky. Tundra Swans pass through here weeks before warblers and wildflowers and hummingbirds return, and even though we’re impatient for that later, warmer, more spring-like spring, any moment when swans fly overhead is a good one to be alive.