Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Winter Solstice Keeps Us Looking Forward
December 29, 2023
By Steve Grinley
The winter solstice was a week ago and though winter is before us, we can at least now look forward to the days getting progressively longer. In celebration, I thought that I should repeat a solstice day story written many years ago by my friend and fellow birder, whom we lost this past year, Doug Chickering:
“Lois Cooper and I birded our way into the Winter Solstice, another one of those quiet inevitable markers of our years. The pallid sun makes its lowest journey across the sky; seemingly always in our eyes, or spreading a glare across the ice and the waters of Plum Island. It was actually a beautiful, deep winter day. A hesitant wind drifted in from the Northwest; clean, dry and cold – not biting, but touched enough with its arctic origin as to slowly penetrate even the hearty winter coats; draining away the body’s warmth and eventually bringing on shivers. Extremely high, vapid clouds filtered the blue from the sky and the feeble heat from the sun.
“There was enough energy in the sun to begin to melt the frost from the dirt road that stretches south from Hellcat, but not enough to soften the snow and ice that remained in the fields and at the roads edge. We came across no exceptional birds. The highlight of the day being a nice peregrine falcon perched on a crest of snow on the far side of the Pans. It’s menacing presence keeping the large flock of nearby starlings annoyed and restless as they attempted to feed at the side of the road.
“I must admit that I cannot help but admire the birds of winter; especially the little guys. Even though I know that it is technically inaccurate to ascribe human qualities to them; that they are only reacting to their surroundings in an instinctive timeless manner, yet I cannot help but regard them as being nearly heroic. Their persistence, courage and luck in the face of the stark, uncompromising cruelty of deep winter is inspiring. There is something particularly noble of a tiny chickadee, a redpoll, or American tree sparrow puffed up against the crackling cold, foraging and calling to one another; obviously determined to prevail until the spring.
“Off Emerson Rocks we had a nice sampling of winter ducks: common eider, common goldeneye, oldsquaw [long-tailed ducks], black scoter, and white-winged scoter. Also, there were several common loons, a few horned grebes, and a pair of Bonaparte’s gulls flying in from off the sea. We had nothing noteworthy, other than the Peregrine, although on Saturday we saw the screech owl in its tree on Route 1A in Rowley, and Friday afternoon we did find the northern shrike in the treetops on the ocean side at the extreme south end of the Town Marker Field.
“Parts of the winter to come, I look forward to. I hope snowy owls will arrive at Plum Island again, along with other owls. We’ll be looking for alcids at Andrews Point, and maybe some more winter finches. New Year’s Day will renew the lists and there’s the Christmas Bird Count…that Lois and I enjoy immensely. There will also be winter times that will not be so welcome. Stormy days, bad driving, the inevitable winter spill on an icy sidewalk; shoveling snow and the pervasive, endless cold. Still, starting now, the days will be getting longer and we will be heading in the general direction of warblers.”
Doug’s admiration of the stamina of winter birds serves as a reminder for us to keep our feeders filled during these coming months. Birds will be coming to feeders in numbers, so keeping food and open water available for them is most important. Doug also reminds us to keep looking forward to a better year ahead!
I wish you all a Happy New Year filled with many fabulous birds!