Embracing the Silence: A Winter's Tale of Birdwatching
There is something to be said about the off-season — the stretch between October and March, when many of America’s sweethearts have flown South for the winter, and snow covers the wild grasses and late-summer chicory blooms across Colorado’s Front Range. And I’ve no doubt it’s been said before. Something something patience, something something ‘
But there is something to be said for the act of returning, in an almost obsessive way, to the same spots, the same trails, again and again during the freezing winter months. And I will say it now, having done essentially this for the past few months: it is very much worthwhile.
The Local Hotties
In a journal entry in early November, I decided that my task this season was to “get to know the local hotties.” By this I meant — I believe I meant — the birds that stayed in my area year-round. The dependable, the constants, the bedrock. The chickadees, nuthatches, thrushes, jays, magpies, bushtits, red-winged black birds, juncos, spotted towhees, northern flickers, finches, hawks, sparrows, geese, woodpeckers. The ravens, the crows, the starlings, and yes, even the pigeons. Especially the pigeons. This season I wanted to take long looks at every bird I saw — to find something new about them each time, something previously missed. “They’re all interesting,” I added, reassuring myself as I stared down the calendar at the coming weeks of cold and dark, “if you’re interested.”
The Same Three Spots
And so I found myself returning to the same three spots, over and over again. The first, a trail of sodden switchbacks which began among desolate scrub and rose up into a forest of pines and junipers in the foothills. Another, an uphill trail which took me high into a quiet, shaded canyon. The third, the chilly ponds of a wetland, with heavy tractors abandoned nearby. Every day I wasn’t at work, or in school, or fretting about work and school, I was out there, trudging through mud, ears burning, breath fogging, looking for the locals. And I found them, without fail, at nearly every turn.
The Perks of Visiting Regularly
Visiting the same environment over and over certainly has its perks. Waiting long enough in one particular spot in the canyon would almost guarentee catching the half dozen red-breasted nuthatches who maraud regularly through the pines, chatting absurdly, announcing their presence to the entire forest like a garrulous flying clown car. One can linger for twenty minutes with neck craned up at a perfectly still townsend’s solitaire, unbothered by the deep freeze, the narrow white circle around its eye catching the noon sun. Sounds travel uninterrupted. Trails are largely abandoned. On many an afternoon, the chirr-ups of robins swung like bells in the twiggy scrub. Red-winged blackbirds trilled and wheezed and fluffed up their shoulders, flicking their black tails, defending limited territory by the frozen pond. At dawn, mountain and black capped chickadees flitted from tree to tree, announcing proudly to one another that they had survived another night in the cold. And at sunset, ravens disappeared one by one west into the Flat Irons like children following a piper, while red-tailed hawks sat unmoving in barren trees, breathing. In the deep, hostile silences of the season, the rhythms of the birds sounded steadily on — a nearly inaudible tapping of beak against branch, the shriek of the stellar’s jay, european starlings alighting on a telephone wire at dusk. And I sunk into this rhythm easily enough, turning my thoughts over and over, unspeaking, for hours.
The Final Weeks of Winter
Visiting them regularly this season has felt in many ways like visiting friends — albiet friends who do not know me, cannot speak, and are fully engaged in a brutal and deadly struggle of survival against the elements. What can I say? Truthfully this season found me lonely and enthusiastic — a sometimes dangerous combination. Thankfully this did not result in me joining a cult, but instead shuffling across barren expanses in crisp silence, empty fields, frozen pond edges.
Spring approaches. In a few weeks, the frost will yield to the budding of new leaves. Territories will be reclaimed. Clutches lain. Males will erupt into rich colors. Chicks will be born and most will die, out of sight. In these final weeks of winter, though, I am glad for the time I’ve gotten to spend with the locals, a flightless interloper in the woods, holding my breath at the beating of wings.