Signs of Spring

As a naturalist, I feel that I should love all parts of nature.

Mostly, I do.

There are two things I struggle with:

  1. Fear of animals that can kill me, and
  2. February.

I’m trying, I really am, but February is just the coldest, grayest, darkest, most desolate of months.  I think somebody put Valentine’s Day in February in an effort to cheer people up with fat little cupids and chocolate (epic fail).

But, joy to the world, this February hasn’t been so bad!  I even started seeing early signs of spring a week ago.  Here are a few to get your hopes up before the NRV gets pounded by it’s standard end-of-season, first weekend of March snow storm:

  • Robins!  A robin in a tree is a winter sighting, my mom says, but a robin on the lawn is a spring sighting.  I saw one in a tree yesterday, but one on my lawn several days ago.  Go figure.  I’m counting it as one in the early spring column.
American Robin II 3x4

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) that I photographed last year in Heritage Park.

  • Grackles!  The 40-foot yellow birch tree across the street was filled with a flock of at least 50 common grackles three days ago.  They’re one of the first songbirds to return in the springtime.  This flock may still be on its way further north, but I’m counting it!
Common Grackle

A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) photographed by Jacopo Werther and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • Crocuses blooming!  Okay, I know these aren’t wildflowers, but they are one of spring’s earliest bloomers, and they’re just so pretty!
IMG_0673

Hello, crocuses! These brave little blossoms are peaking up out of my messy-for-the-wildlife winter garden. Ain’t they grand???

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Flushing

No, not that kind of flushing!

What kind of nature writer do you think I am?

Sicko.

I’m talking about flushing birds out of their hiding places among the leafy branches and briar tangles.  Apparently, I’m great at it.  I found this out a few nights ago while taking an evening walk in Heritage Park.

Heritage Park is a former dairy farm, with wide meadows covering its hills, complete with old silos and broken down wooden outbuildings turning silver with age.  There’s a farm pond in the forested upland and the hills,roll down to a wetland floodplain on the side of Tom’s Creek.  In short, every bird habitat you could hope for, all with mown, traveled, or paved trails.

The park is a regular haunt for the local birding club, whose expert members can pick out migrating warblers (tiny, flitting sirens who tease with sweet songs and bright feathers and then disappear behind a single leaf among millions) across a valley, sometimes only by call.  Unfortunately, the birders tend to hit the park to look for birds by 8:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, a time I have permanently reserved each week to spend looking at the backs of my eyelids.

So there I was, on my own (truly – in over an hour, I only saw three other people in the park) and with camera in hand, ready to capture the parks’ natural wonders in the golden hour before dusk.

I failed utterly.

Otherwise, this post would be titled “Fantastic Photos of Heritage Park Birds” and would be filled with said pictures.

Instead, I hope to do the birds I saw a modicum of justice by describing them and finding pictures on line.

Turkey Vulture

A soaring turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms.  Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

A soaring turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms. Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

Vultures often ride the updrafts rising off of the hills in Heritage Park.  I love to visit this park with kids because it gives me an opportunity to teach them e difference between vultures and hawks (hawks rarely soar outside of migration season; they hunt by swooping or diving from a high perch or chasing smaller birds through the forest with stunningly acrobatic flight) and between turkey and black vultures:

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are slightly larger, have red heads like turkeys, and the entire length of their underwings is divided by color, white toward the tail and black toward the head.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are smaller, have black heads, underwings that are black to the wrist, but with white “hands” at the wingtip.  Black vultures also fly with their wings held flat, whereas turkey vultures’ wings are held at an upward angle.

What I saw on that evening was a turkey vulture, but not alone.  The vulture was being chased and harassed by two red-winged blackbirds protecting their nest from the giant soaring intruder.  The vulture seemed more annoyed than concerned, as if the blackbirds were mosquitos buzzing around its ears rather than a real a problem.  A vulture would rather have a nice, stinky carcass for dinner than a plain meal of eggs.

The whole group flew in by me not fifteen feet away, but quickly, and directly in front of the sun.  Had I been quick enough to stop watching and aim the camera, I would have caught a dark blur in a blinding white frame of evening sun.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Indigo Bunting

I had forgotten how blue, and how many blues, the male indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) can be.  They look like a tropical artist used their feathers to paint the ombré of the Caribbean Sea:  turquoise, electric blue, teal, royal, and, yes, indigo.  The birds spend their winters in the islands, Cuba, and Mexico and I can’t help but imagine a scene where the birds paint their own plumage, turning and dipping as they fly low above the warm sea waves, catching color on their wings and tails that spreads like summer tie dye.

The bunting was perched on a tall stalk of grass, and froze as I came around the corner.  I stopped moving immediately and stood to gaze for a few seconds, holding my breath.  I brought my camera up slowly in my right hand, and moved only my eyes to check my hand placement, and when I rolled my eyes back to the subject, the bird was gone.

A brown thrasher holding still.  My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds.  Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

A brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum) holding still. My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds. Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Thrasher

I still remember the first time I saw a brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum), nearly ten years ago now.  I was teaching an environmental summer camp in the Florida panhandle, driving a 15 passenger van full of kids, and the thrasher swooped out from the edge of the forest and back in through a tangle of vines.  I was so excited – a new bird!  (FYI, I kept the van on the road despite the excellent distraction – the campers survived.)

Brown thrashers are so wonderfully not some of the more common birds.  They are the size of a robin, but where the robin’s back is black, the thrasher’s is a rich, milk-chocolate-with-a-hint-of-red-chili-pepper (like a Mexican hot chocolate) brown.  Its tail is long and slender like the mockingbird’s, but curves downward ever so slightly, like a sardonically raised eyebrow.  Its beak is likewise slightly curved downward, like a Carolina wren’s.  As I write, I can’t help thinking that if these three birds were evolutionarily smashed together just right, the resulting Frankenbird would be our beloved brown thrasher.

On this particular evening in Heritage Park, the brown thrasher flew from one tree to another and I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a swoosh of that warm brown, the right size, a glimpse of streaked breast.  Not even a chance of a shot with the camera, but still that sweet, delighted feeling of “I saw my new bird again!”

The northern flicker will give you a "flicker", a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground.  Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) will give you a “flicker”, a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground. Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Flicker

Spotting woodpeckers has never been easy for me.  Well, actually, I can spot them, but the little wiseacres always spot me right back and promptly hop around to the far side of whatever tree they’re on so I can’t get a good look at them.  Even the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) – or it could be a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), or maybe I get both – that visits my suet feeder in the winter doesn’t stay long enough for positive identification.

But northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are different.  First of all, they’re big – 12 inches from top of the head to tip of the tail (compared to the downy’s diminutive eight inches).  Second, and even better, they feed on the ground a lot, using their beaks to dig for ants and beetles.

The flicker I flushed (ooh, that’s fun to say) had been feeding at the edge of the mown path on the hilltop meadow.  It flapped up to a tree on the other side of the path and, even in the low light of gathering dust, I saw the white patch just above its tail between wing beats.  It’s that white patch flashing that gave the bird it’s name “flicker”.

One of these days I’ll carry my best camera (I call her “Big Girl”) out to the park with me.  I’ll lug the tripod and the telephoto lens, too.  I’ll bring a chair and sit and be patient.

And, even then, I’ll still be distracted in all different directions by flits and flaps and flutters and flushes and photo opportunities missed.  Fortunately, I’m totally okay with that.