Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Winter Sights and Sounds Are Still With Us
February 09, 2019
By Steve Grinley

     Despite the fleeting teases of warmer weather, we are continually reminded that we are still in the grasp of a New England winter. Though we may encounter a few early redwings or cowbirds, the juncos and other winter birds are still among us. Doug Chickering of Groveland described the sounds of the season, as he heard them, on a cold, wintery mid-February morning some ten years ago and I share them again with you today:

     “The days are noticeably longer and the early migrants have begun to take their positions in the trees. I have to believe that spring is approaching but early this morning, just at dawn it was clearly still winter. Like everyone I yearn for the spring; for the Warblers, the Vireo’s and Empi’ds and for the warm weather. However, cold and barren as it might be a winter’s dawn on Plum Island remains a time; a time to cherish

     “This morning still deeply encased in the bitter February cold (it was 16 degrees when I stepped from my car), while the new sun spread a scarlet luminescence across the cloud scattered sky, I walked the road that separated the new pines from the Town Marker field, listening intently for the low hoots of a Great Horned Owl. Nancy Landry had heard them calling before dawn two days ago. I didn’t hear them calling each to each but I became aware of the other sounds.

     “When the air is still, when the day is new and the freeze makes the air and landscape brittle the sounds around you are subtle but sets your hearing to a new level of awareness. The soft rustle of some tiny rodent in the leave litter at the edge of the road, the high chip of a chickadee far out of sight in the pines; the rumble of the sea beyond the tree line and the ghostly mournful groan of the red and white whistle buoy that marks the entrance of the Merrimack River. A sound that comes from miles away, but in the muffled quiet of a winter’s dawn is clearly audible; low, slightly musical and hauntingly mysterious.

     “Later in the morning, at the Wardens the island was empty of people and almost empty of noise. I could still hear the distant buoy but the new sound, that of the ice became predominant. Plum Island sound is largely open but the Plum Island River is frozen solid and as it moves under the pressure of the tides it rends the quiet day with crackling and sends shimmers of a thunderous, near musical tone roiling up and down the river in quavering waves, like the sounds of a old stereo demo record. a note that is clear and eerie.

     “Within this background of winter sounds the birding was sparse but satisfying. The birds of the season remain. A male Harrier at Hellcat; a young Snowy Owl in the dunes between Parking Lot one and two being pursued, more or less, by a photographer.

     “There were White-winged Crossbills at the New Pines, Redpolls at Hellcat, a Shrike perched at the top of a twig near the Wardens and the usual crowd in the ocean; winter ducks, two varieties of Loon, and a distant blur of a feeding frenzy with Gulls and who knows what else just at the horizons broken boundary. There were Sanderlings scurrying at the edge of the oncoming tide and a pair of Horned Grebes so close to shore that I could have stepped out and touched them. There were also a sign that the season was changing. Three Red-winged Blackbirds at treetop in the Town Marker Field.

     “Although I wish for the warming of spring I suspect that at the first Mosquito’s bite I will think fondly of this chilled morning and regard it with some favor.”

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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