Every year, winter has a standing reservation for arrival on Dec. 21. The funny thing about winter is the fact that it rarely keeps this reservation.
Sometimes it arrives early, sometimes it arrives late, and other times (as recent years have shown) it doesn’t seem to appear at all.
This year, winter arrived a little early and nature rolled out the white carpet for it. There was no fanfare that I could detect, but it was obvious to anyone with eyes that winter had turned up during the night.
When I woke that morning, the sky was the dark, uniform gray that indicates an active storm. The morning had a cold, secretive feeling that is wonderful in the winter. I sat down at my writing table, took note of the temperature (24 degrees) and put seed out for the birds.
My December (bird) list was well underway with 23 species, but the record of 31 species seemed quite far away. Over the past few years, I have become more and more focused on these bird lists of mine. There are always more birds to see, and my desire to add another species to my monthly list is a self-perpetuating thing. I want to see more, I end up seeing more, which inevitably makes me want to see even more.
The fun part — also the maddening par — is that eventually you see all the species that are available to be seen, and eventually, you set a record that cannot be broken.
Well, be that as it may, I have still managed to hold onto the simple enjoyment of watching the birds. This is where my “winter mode” saves me from some of the frustration that might come with simple listing.
Every morning that I am at home, I make a cup of coffee, take up my position at thewindow and start keeping track not only of which species I see, but also how many of each species I see.
The problem is, I am stuck with a certain bias that is difficult to resolve. My kitchen window only looks in one direction — out onto a deck that is elevated about 8 feet above the ground.
Sometimes, I have to remember to look out different windows, but even then there is a bias. There is a lot that I cannot see, and this even holds true if I’m outside. I can only be in one place at one time and I can’t tell what’s happening on the other side of the house.
So, from time to time, I force myself to take up a different position. One of the species I need for my December list is a pine siskin, and there is about a zero percent chance that I’ll see one if I sit at my normal spot. Siskins like thistle seed, which I make sure to offer, but the feeder hangs next to a different window.
Another species I need for my list is the eastern bluebird. This is a species that I rarely see during the winter, but if I spend time outside, I often hear them as they fly around the landscape. It’s only once in a great while that a bluebird lands on the railing of my porch, and I’ve never managed to get one to take any interest in the food that I have out on those very rare occasions.
I’d love it if the local bluebirds would make a habit of coming for some favorite little tidbit that I could put out for them.
About an hour after I woke up, there was a rather breathtaking moment when the sun broke through the heavy, gray clouds. I was so intoxicated by the beauty of the landscape, I felt compelled to take some photos. I grabbed my camera, stepped out onto the deck and before I could take even one photo, I realized that I was not alone. Just down the hill from the back of the house, looking quite cautious, was a group of three male turkeys.
This was huge!
Winter turkeys are rare, and I wouldn’t realize until later that I’d never recorded a wild turkey in December. It actually took me a moment to remember that I had a camera in my hand, and I took a couple quick shots for the record. The problem was that I had a wide-angle landscape lens on my camera when I really needed the big telephoto that was, at that moment, sitting on my desk on the other side of the wind — mocking me.
Quickly and quietly as possible, I popped into the house and changed lenses. When I returned 30 seconds later the birds were still there. Three magnificent toms, as male turkeys are known. Eachhad a “beard” that hung from his breast, and the contrast between bird and snow really allowed those beards to be visible.
There was only 60 seconds between my first photo and last photo of the three toms, but I managed to get a couple nice shots. More important was the fact that I added a heretofore unseen bird to myDecember list.
As long as the rest of last year’s species cooperate, I can set a new record this year. Most importantly, however, was the fact that I got to see three wonderful birds that popped out of hiding and posed before melting back into the forest.
It was a wonderful way to start the season, and winter certainly gave me quite a welcoming gift.
Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for
the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently
teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go
to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.