Monday, December 21, 2009

Extreme birding!

I went on my first ever Christmas bird count this weekend. Until recently I had no idea that in the weeks around Christmas teams of birders here split up and take districts and count how many birds they see. The data is compiled, and so there is a record of the number and species of birds rising or falling over time in the face of rampant overdevelopment, climate pressures, and conservation efforts. Sounds sane and reasonable -- if you lived in northeast America all your life, and snow and ice and wind that feels like countless microscopic razor blades is normal to you. Christmas for me was always cold roast chicken, a trip to the fish market for prawns, and collapsing under the shade of a tree in the backyard. In contrast, the Christmas bird count in New Haven county meant getting up at 3 a.m. and standing in below-freezing conditions by the side of lonely roads skirting dairy farms and fields and frozen swamps, listening for screech owls call their spooky calls.

Screech owls don't screech. (There seems to be a great tradition of naming birds seemingly just to make identification as counterintuitive as possible.) Screech owls in fact make a whinnying sound like a ghost horse. We went from one dark, quiet place no human has any business being in during the predawn hours to another and another, until the sun came up. The true cold descended just before dawn. I checked later, and it turned out that the "feels like" temperature -- taking wind chill and all that into account -- was minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 21 degrees Celsius.

Okay, sorry, but that's not birding any more. It's some kind of lunacy. Thing is, I discovered it's one of the most fun things I can imagine doing. The quietness and clarity. The surrealness of being out of step with ordinary life, like that feeling you get when you have to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night -- you're not tucked up in bed like everyone else but have stepped away into some other time and space. The world looks so different at that hour: Later that day we went through the same fields and wooded areas, and I had the jarring sensation that the predawn visit was a dream. Time got bent out of shape, and it seemed that we had done that days or weeks before, or in another lifetime. Those little owls were no longer active, and instead we counted comforting daytime birds -- geese, ducks, gulls, robins, sparrows, bluebirds.

Perhaps the most beautiful bird of the day was the Snow Bunting . . . at the dump. Birders don't get distracted by ugly or hostile environments. It's all about the birds. I love that level of focus. But I don't have it. I tend to get distracted and suddenly realize I've wandered away from the group, looking at trees or streams or clouds -- or in the case of the dump, a deer skeleton and the fur it left behind, melting into the ground in a rough deer shape. In a desolate cabbage farm -- the farmers had failed to harvest, and their vegetables were snap frozen in the ground -- there were frozen puddles in tire tracks that looked almost like fossils.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fall fell

The burning trees of early autumn are just a dim memory. I got a shock when I looked at my last posting and saw all those gorgeous colors. Was that really my park? The bright flurry was stunningly short lived. There were searingly blue skies, air that crackled with the smell of dry leaves, and the ground was thick with squirrels burying acorns. Swarms of tiny birds descended in a frenzy of eating before millions of wing beats took them to warmth and sun; I filled pages of my notebook with lists of species. Then in the swing of a pendulum, all was gone. Now the trees are gray twig fingers stretching up into a glowering sky, and to spot a bird is a special treat.

The tree that I spent every day looking at and willing to turn color lost all its leaves in one sharp day. A storm came, and the buttery leaves were gone. I have been walking past it every day lately and not even noticing that it's there. (Sorry, tree.)

This was it on October 27th and then October 28th.

The leaves are gone, but the colder weather has its own beauty. And it never seems to stop the Canada geese . . .