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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.

out of the dark

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February is here. January is gone. Today is yesterday’s tomorrow. Or is it tomorrow’s yesterday? I’ll have to see what one of my former students says. He seems to have a knack for quantum physics and conceptions for temporal space. But more than anything, this post is about now. And then. And what’s to come.

It feels like there is a break in the universe. The wind chill advisory is scheduled to be lifted today at noon. The temperatures have rapidly warmed from -17.6 degrees at 6am to a balmy -7.6 at 9am. Yesterday was the 100th day of school for my son. This morning, there was an excitement in the air as we walked into the school. Playful laughter abounded in the staff and students. Its an exacerbated feeling of a Friday. Excitement and hope. That we’ve made it through the worst. That brighter days are coming still.

Adding to the excitement is a frenzy of snow flakes dancing in the sky. Yes! Its warm enough to snow! Even the chickens were anxious to frolic out of the confines of their winter coop. After all, after -20 degree temperatures, near zero feels pretty darn good.

It is suitable that February is a short month, as it follows one of the longest and darkest months known to the northern stretches of the globe. Its a month of bittersweetness. In the month ahead, we have the Sully’s Hill Winter Festival, Oakley’s 3rd birthday, the 1st year anniversary of my father’s death, Valentine’s day, and a wine tasting event. We have inevitably more days of negative temperatures and bitter windchills. But we now have snowshoes! They arrived yesterday. We’ll dream about our garden and admire the rich garden flavors imbued in our homemade raspberry jam, medium salsa, and yellow tomato juice. We’ll continue to count the eggs that our chickens lay with growing anticipation for the explosion of omelets and quiches in the spring. We’ll get to those winter projects like building shelving in the basement, curing beef and pork to make bresola, salamis, bacons, and pastramis, and sorting through the duck feathers to find the most beautiful ones for art projects. We’ll continue to anticipate the days the robins will flood into our yard and strip the crabapples from the branches of the tree. We’ll continue to be grateful for the increasing about of sunlight. We’ll continue to look back, knowing that we made it through early winter and all that is left now is late winter, then mud, then green and glorious spring. DSCN8124

Today I am embracing this influx of energy and delight. I’m not sure what exactly the day holds. I have a deadline on Monday to submit documents for a grant review. I have some documents to draft for the opening of the Upstage Gallery at New Rockford’s coffee house, I have laundry (of course). But I also have a puppy to train, a shipment of jewelry supplies coming in, some letters to write, beautiful pheasant feathers to sort, and whatever other inspirations might come. DSCN8125

Today, I am going to ride those inspirations and see where they take me.

I expect driving those inspirations will be the presence of Lisa Hannigan’s “Knots” in my day’s soundtrack.