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Creeping into the New Year

Bill Meredith

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
               …Carl Sandburg

(Feb, 2012) 2012 is only 6.284% gone as I write this, but already it is shaping up as a complicated year. Last fall we had a substantial snow in the last week of October, and I thought maybe that foretold a hard winter, but so far it hasn’t happened. Other parts of the country have had winter storms, but here in Emmitsburg it’s been relatively mild. The effect of global warming is evident; this year the average temperature for the midwinter low has gone up a degree above what it has been for the past several decades. We’ve had numerous days when it was seasonably cold, but they were scattered between warm spells. The cold days seemed to come mainly when I wanted to go out birding.

On the whole, birds have been few and far between; my yard has been like the place in Lewis Carroll’s poem, where the Walrus and the Carpenter found "No birds were flying overhead; there were no birds to fly." That seems to be the case hereabouts; several people have asked me why birds are not coming to their feeders. Last January I was seeing 18 or 20 species each day from my kitchen window; this year, often there are only 8 or 10. There are a few juncos, cardinals and chickadees, but white-throated sparrows and blue jays, normally abundant, are rare. There is one tantalizing exception; I was surprised early in January to see a brown creeper, a tiny gray-brown bird that normally stays in forests, on our plum tree. It would start at the bottom of the tree and creep up the trunk like a little feathered mouse, picking insects from cracks in the bark with a curved, wren-like beak, and stopping to sample the suet feeder; when it got to the top of the tree it would flutter back down to ground level and start over. I had seen only one in the yard since we moved here, but this one seems to like it here and has come back several times.

The temperature stood at 12 degrees when I left the house last week for the January field trip of the Audubon Society. We went to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, a beautiful area on South Mountain some 40 miles north of here. In the early 1800s it was the site of a busy iron furnace, but it is now a mixed evergreen and hardwood forest, and we expected to find a good selection of winter birds there. However, after searching more than two hours, we found only seven species, and all of them were common residents. So, like the bear in the old song, we decided to go over the mountain and see what we could see.

The trip leader consulted the Audubon website on his iPhone, and it suggested an area just north of Shippensburg. We followed the GPS to the recommended site, and found about a dozen cars parked along the road by a field of winter wheat. Standing among the cars were an assortment of ornithological-looking folk who were peering through several thousands of dollars-worth of telescopes, binoculars and high-powered cameras. They seemed to be looking at a white plastic bag in the field about 250 yards away. I didn’t want to seem like I thought they were weird, so I joined in and focused my binoculars on the white object, and it transformed into a snowy owl.

Until a few years ago, snowy owls were known mainly to birders and ecologists. They are very large owls, pure white in the adult stage, and they live in the tundra regions around the North Pole, where they feed on hamster-like rodents called lemmings. Every four years or so, the lemming population crashes, and the owls find themselves with nothing to eat, so they wander south in search of substitute foods such as field mice. 2012 is a "lemming year," and newspapers from Boston to Washington, D. C. have featured articles about sightings of snowy owls. More people are noticing them this year because of the Harry Potter movies; Harry’s pet owl, Hedwig, belonged to this species. I had seen only one before. So quality trumped quantity, and our trip turned out to be a moderately frabjous day.

It snowed that night, and when I got up the next morning it was beautiful. At least I thought it was, though I admit I tend to take things like that at face value. My wife, who is more of the analytical type, was not so sure. She pointed out that the snow had not stuck to the trees, so all of their structural flaws were exposed and exaggerated against the white background, and she explained that beauty exists as a point on a scale which runs from absolutely gorgeous to unspeakably hideous, and furthermore it cannot be quantified because it is in the eye of the beholder, so it is really a rather useless concept. This set me back a bit because I wasn’t aware that she knew things like that, so I went out to get the paper. It was quiet, like new snow always is; the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, the sky was pink, and there was a light mist rising from the snow. I went back in and told my wife that the snow must have crept in on little cat’s feet last night, like the fog in Sandburg’s poem. She replied that this wasn’t so; she could hear snow plows off in the other end of town, and if I had put my hearing aid in when I got up I wouldn’t be wandering around spouting such hopelessly romantic twallop.

It wasn’t a very promising start for the day, but things got better. Apparently it had rained during the night, and a crust of ice had formed over the new snow. The birds were not able to find breakfast anywhere else, so they came in to my feeders, and by the time I had finished breakfast and the morning Sudoku puzzle, I had counted 23 species through the kitchen window. Most of them were common types that should have been there all the time, but among them was a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which seldom comes into the yard.

Later, while I was shoveling snow off the driveway, my friend, Claire, came by. She will be four soon, and remembers snow from last year, so she knows there are certain traditions that must be followed with it. It was too crusty to make a snowman, but she had made snow angels and was now eating a chunk of it. I asked her what it tasted like; she replied, "Bananas." Her language skills are developing nicely; she laughed at the pun when I asked her if snow on Halloween would taste like boo-berries, and then informed me that Halloween snow would taste like pumpkins. A few birds to watch and a child to talk to will never fail to get a bad day back on track.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith