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Signs of Spring II

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Signs of Spring II

The signs of spring have been sparse here in North Dakota. It’s April. There is still snow on the ground. The daytime temperatures have just creeped above freezing, only to fall back below zero during the night. Each morning the walk to school is different with street glaciers changing their size and position and ice puddles glistening in the light, refusing to reveal their fragility by mere sight. But this morning was different. Not only has the crunch of the snow gotten louder, but the sound of the skies have changed– there are birds!
American robins are fluffed up big, but still present. DSCN9116Singing their delightful song that is easy to take for granted. They were moving slow through the trees, but nonetheless, they were here!


As were the Dark-Eyed Juncos- little grey birds with light bellies. Their little chipping call was a delight, sometimes interrupted by distant Canada Geese. The wind was cold without a doubt and the sun hid behind the clouds. But even now, as the temperatures warm and the sun shows its face, the bird songs continue to brighten my day and the day of others! My son is certainly enthused. He just took his toy truck outside, while chanting, “It’s Melting! It’s Melting!!”

Signs of Spring

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Signs of Spring

While waiting for spring, it does little good to keep an eye on the ground, waiting for the snow to melt. Keep an eye on the sky, and wait for the birds to come. The arrival or increase of activity of the smallest birds can tell us wonderful things about the world at large.

One reason I found North Dakota to be a potential homesite for raising a family was its great abundance of birds. On my first visit, I had never seen so many kinds of birds flying along the roadways.

For a long time I could only knew a few birds. I could tell a robin from a sparrow. And growing up near St. Louis, I certainly knew a cardinal when I saw one. But for nearly twenty years, I thought the sound of a mourning dove calling in my grandparents yard was an owl. It has taken me some time to get to know my feathered friends. But what a rewarding task it has been!

I took an ornithology class at the University of Wyoming in 2008. We had quizes on bird songs, and for our midterms and finals we had to identify the genus and species of a great number of specimens. If I was going to learn these creatures, I had to get out and see them. So I made an effort, and I got to know Meadowlarks, Northern Flickers, Swainson’s Hawks, Shrikes, Phalaropes, Avocets, and so on and so on.

Then, years down the road, I found myself the teacher, encouraging students to get familiar with a variety of birds. Waterfowl, songbirds, raptors, and the like.

Now, not having to learn about birds and not having to teach about birds, I have the opportunity to experience them on my own accord. And share a little of that celebration of seeing the signs of spring.

This morning on the way to taking my son to school, I hear Pine-siskins fleeting in the spruce trees nearby.

Pine Sisken. © Dave Wendelken, Lakewood, Virginia, December 2010 For more information visit

It was good to hear their activity. But this is their winter range.

Black-Capped Chickadee. © Bill Corwin, WA, January 2009. For more information, visit

As with the black-capped chickadees and the white-breasted nuthatches.


White-breasted Nuthatch. © Matt MacGillivray, Brighton, Ontario, Canada, April 2008. For more information visit

But true signs of spring came when I returned to the yard and heard a flittering of wings cascade through the beloved crabapple tree. Waxwings. DSCN8956Many, many waxwings, treating themselves to the dried crabapples still hanging from the fall. So obviously, it was time to get out the camera!

DSCN8947There are two different kinds of waxwings that come through our area. At first, I thought these must be Bohemian Waxwings. Named for their nomadic behavior and non-territorial behaviors. They winter in this area, and travel further north into Canada and into Alaska to spend their summers.

A sting of disappointment came. So they aren’t really migrating yet, but they are getting into large flocks…

After some time, the light brightened outside. The birds became more active. I took out the camera again, standing very still in the doorway of the sliding glass door.







These weren’t Bohemian Waxwings. Their underside was white! They were Cedar Waxwings.

Cedar Waxwing. Often found in flocks near fruiting trees in winter. © Byard Miller, NH, Marlborough, February 2008. For more information, visit

They spend their winters further south. If they are in North Dakota, that means they are migrating! They are some of the first migratory birds to pass through this area each spring. Their arrival says, “Spring is happening other places. We have a long way to go for the summer. We spend our summers throughout Canada, eating bugs and fruits. But we like to get a head start, before those American Robins, who like to eat the same fruit as we do. These crabapples were just the thing we needed for breakfast.”

Keep your eye out for these sleek and sassy birds. They’ll be likely to pass through quickly, on to the next fruit tree.

listening to the trees

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There are times, when I am trying to tell my children something wise, that a smidgen of myself truly hears what I am saying. The recent revolving phrase in our home has been, “Not listening turns simple tasks into big problems.” I’ve said it over and over again. Then this morning, as I returned home from taking my oldest son to school, I heard it again. I truly heard it. I heard it in the trees. I heard it in the songs of the chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. I should be listening too. “Not listening turns simple tasks into big problems.”

Black-capped chickadee

Listening to the birds is easy. They put their song out to the world. But it is on those late winter morning that they burst forth with fervor that we are reminded that each of them has a unique song to sing. If we are fortunate enough to know their songs, a whole world of possibility emerges. Over the upcoming months I will wait patiently to hear the song of the black-capped chickadee to change from a raspy “chic-a-dee-dee-dee-dee” to a crisp and brilliant “springs-here…springs-here.” It is a reminder that a symphony is yet to come as the robins, juncos, flickers, doves, and sparrows return to the north.

While part of my spirit might belong to the birds, my heart resides with the trees.


Sketches of some of my best friends.

Trees are some of my best friends. There are many that I know well, box elders, ashes, poplars, and oaks. There are some that I miss dearly, red buds, dogwoods, sweet gums, sycamores, and magnolias. Even from the furthest distance, I can still hear them. I can still know them. But perhaps they know me better. They bear witness to my being.

I missed these friends so dearly last spring that I took a solo train ride “back home” to the St. Louis area. I had come to the stark realization that I had been severely neglecting my creative inclinations. I took this trip to do a little soul searching, spend some time with my brother and sister, and listen to what the blossoming trees had to say.

Flowering dogwoods have so much wisdom imbued into those branches.

When I arrived in St. Louis, I could smell the blossoms in the air. It was a familiar perfume that overwhelmed the surrounding urban industries. I could smell the floral scent as I drove my dad’s car through the refineries of Wood River and East Alton. It was a comfort to know that something so strong welcomed me. The trees did look bigger. Grandma’s yard was much different than how I remembered. I knew that the apple trees I used to climb were long gone.

But the branches of other trees expanded out. There was less open space. Everything else felt smaller. Space is infinitely changing. Yet, mourning doves still occupy the edges of the yard. Squirrels are still fed and I am sure the horseradish still grows.

Everything is smaller. Except the trees.

Everything is smaller. Except the trees.

It seemed more like a process of recollection than recognition. Much like the processes young red bud branches undergo each spring as tiny delicate heart shaped leaves grow, nestled amid the perfectly intricate pink blossoms. eastern-redbud

With that recollection came a process of my own blossoming growth. I began to claim and maintain what was mine. I understood that the shades of colors that occupy my mind might not exist until I define them. In order to do that, I have to be willing to continue listening to the trees. 779154960_2767274445_0After all, that is where my heart is.

They continue to say,

Be strong. Be flexible. Grow. Be a refuge to others when you can. Reach for the sky. Prepare for the cold of winter. Celebrate the return of spring with running streams of sap and bursting buds of beauty. Embrace the warmth of summer and allow it to provide shade for others. Honor the turn of autumn with colorful confetti. Embrace what comes. Dance with the wind. Flourish within yourself. Don’t do. Just be. Continue to listen. Creation and existence is not without purpose, nor is it without love or pain. We have more to say.

rachel, in her natural habitat