Late afternoon. Close, black clouds with patches of blue between wander across the sky. When the blue comes, so does the sun, lighting up the vast underneath of the clouds and hitting the ground at a flashing slant. The ground seems to glow from beneath. The peepers, after a few days of reliably above freezing weather and some soaking rain (which filled up the wheelbarrow and the goat/pony water bucket and deepened the paddock mud), have been singing through the afternoon, joining the clacking wood frogs. In some weeks, once we have warm afternoons, the toads will begin to trill, which may be my most favorite of all the spring sounds. There is a place on Montgomery Road heading towards Westfield where the most amazing frog sound (of all time!) can be heard. It is tropical sounding, with zipps and whistles, wheedles, and squeaks, rasps and chirps. On either side of the road, the marsh stretches out, crisscrossed by slow rivulets. I have recorded this cacophony over the past two years and would love to share it with someone who might be as stunned as I. What mysteries these amphibians are, what must it be like to grow legs and arms, lose the ability to breathe beneath the water, and fill one’s newly inflated lungs with oxygen (is there ecstasy involved? discomfort? pain? excitement? Is it itchy, growing legs)? Bullfrog tadpoles live for years as such before they grow appendages and lose their gills, hop about at the margins of the ponds and guard their home territories. As “adults” they set up groups called leks that remind me of exclusive male clubs from the Victorian era). I particularly love the 1 to 2 year-old bullfrog tadpoles. They remind me of grazing cattle with their wide set eyes, and taciturn, slow-moving herds. They congregate in the sunny shallows of a southward facing bank on a warm day in May, munching on immersed field grass… But now, in April, it is all about mating, and getting to the water. Singing love songs, splashing, clambering around in the flooded meadow. To be stalked by the herons who wander the field like thoughtful poets. Or by the blue belted kingfisher who flies sharp eyed, trilling up and down the brook. I should work right now, but the sun has come again, the little blue Scilla, are all glittery on the lawn. There are a few snowdrops left, and only one crocus I can see that is still blooming. Spotted trout lily leaves crowd the paths through the woods, making it difficult to step. Spring beauties are opening and the tiny yellow wood violets are in bloom. This morning just before dawn I listened through an open window to the first bird song of the day: the screech of a phoebe. The air came into the room in cool fresh drifts. Far away a woodpecker drummed a love song. A flock of geese barked in the distance. A Carolina wren warbled her watery notes.
Sunlight is just beginning to creep down the western ridge., the day is bright at 7, the sky is free of clouds, save the few dark pink puffs of them, sailing along my southern horizon.
A small flock of juncos flits around the lilacs and explores the porch. We used to call them snowbirds since they seem to arrive before a snow. I’ve always imagined them flying in from some vast polar tundra, prescient harbingers, warning of rough weather. I like their creamy vests and 2 bright white tail feathers. The way they are always in a bunch.
A male cardinal is picking small somethings from the azalea right below my window. There is a pair of them. The female has flown up and is watching him from a lilac tree. She flutters back and forth from her tree to his bush. They sit together for a moment then fly off in opposite directions, he into the grape vine above the porch, she off towards the barn.
The bluejays have now arrived in force, cacophonous cries can be heard even from within this closed up house, they are jiggling branches, zooming everywhere. A chickadee makes her way along a lower branch of the maple next to the house The cardinal is back in the azalea, now exploring the ground along the house where the snow has melted.
All at once they are gone.
I’ve seen this before, many times: a fleeting convocation of birds. There may be a formal name for this sort of motley and various bird gathering that can melt away as fast as it forms. Sometimes one happens upon it. Like last summer when I was crossing the foot bridge across Fuller Brook and stopped to watch, (was stopped by!), an astounding gathering of warblers (warblers dress up in many colors, the black and white warblers are stupendous and dapper, and there are muted and bright olives and yellows, and blush pinks). Added to this mix was a flock of cedar waxwings. They (the birds) zipped and zoomed past and around me as if I didn’t exist. I could hear their sound of their wings as they passed within inches of my head. It would not have surprised me if one or several had paused to perch upon my head or shoulders, they were that close and familiar. Some were taking baths in shallow pools at the edge of the brook, others feeding on berries and insects, there was lots of socializing, conversation and song. I felt as if I had entered a fairy ring and was watching dancing frogs. Elves sitting on toadstools playing fiddles. It was that astounding.
Why these congregations happen interests me very little. I can imagine lots of mechanistic reasons for them to occur. I once watched the most diverse group of songbirds mobbing a screech owl, the cause of the gathering in this case was obvious. The owl sat within the apple tree cavity, eyes shut fast, still as stone. It was spring and the tree was filled with pale pink bloom, flowers and branches quivering, alive with little birds. I remember the morning well, I was late to work, but stood stock still, feasting on the sight. In general, I seem content to let mysteries sit unsolved or reveal themselves as they will. The difference between myself and ethologists such as Franz de Waal.
[How much better to watch a bud unfold than to pry it open? Just now I am reading some Descartes, (possibly the person most responsible for both the way “science” is defined and executed, and the way in which humans mentally and physically approach the world.)]
Today will be bright and there will be melting going on. Yesterday Zora, Baby, Mama, Laure and I tramped through the snow, across the field, along the brook, over the bridge, and into the woods. We sank and stumbled through the crusty melt. It was a struggle for the goats as well. At one point Mama began to complain in the quiet moaning way she has, so I headed back with them. Below the apple trees there had been some digging going on and an unearthing of rotten fruit. Rabbit, and deer, and bear (!) tracks were everywhere, great big piles of bear shit filled with apples! I wondered about whether this early emergence from hibernation was a concern, but mostly thought about the bear, and her particular life, the process of this huge beast finding some safe place to settle into such a long, deep and mysterious sleep. I believe that she must have dreamed, her brain running through past experiences, tracing the maps of her mind as dreams will do.
As bears hibernate, their hearts slow to as little as 4 beats per minute. They experience a profound sinus arrhythmia: when they breathe in, their heart stops. But during this period of winter stupor, they also experience periods of wakefulness, their heart rate may speed up to almost 200 beats per minute. When the sows give birth in the darkest part of the winter, they will awaken a little, but once their cubs are safely nursing, the mother sinks into the most profound part of her hibernation. The resulting stillness lessens the risk of her rolling on her cubs.
The brook ice is melting fast, water is rushing over the beaver dams. The beavers have made smooth paths with their tails. The paths have become deep troughs as the snow pack shrinks. They remind me of those worn in the soft stone of the New Mexico mesas by thousands…millions of Anasazi feet. At one spot along the stream there is an otter slide. With luck, someday, I will come across an otter sledding and slipping into the water.
The alder catkins are blooming. Somewhere I bet the bright yellow flowers of the witch hazels are unfurling. And outside, just now, I can hear the spring song of a titmouse.