Sunday, December 31, 2006

On the last day of 2006...Winter!

Winter finally blew in yesterday, not with a bang, and not exactly with a whimper, but with a modest two-inch snowfall and a chill deep enough to keep the ground white for a couple of days or so. Finally! The warm temperatures of the last month or two have been surprising, even among those of us sold on global warming long ago. I will admit that the warm November was enjoyable, but as it stayed mild well into December it started to seem strange, eerie and finally somewhat frightening, leading me to wonder if the anticipated global or regional climate change will happen not gradually over decades but in some crazy sudden ‘inversion’ that will instantly send our ecosystems spinning. Certainly, it has been an interesting month of birdwatching; from egrets to orioles, many birds have lingered that are normally long gone. I saw a great blue heron today flying across I-95.
So, the snowfall and the dry chill air feels most welcome. I like to think that the resident birds are enjoying it as well. I took a walk today at MassAudubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary and found that everywhere I turned, black-capped chickadees were buzzing about in a playful frenzy, picking their various ways through the winterscape, eking meals out from under leaf, between crevasses of bark, through clumps of snow, always keeping an eye out for a handout as well. They are tame here at Ipswich River, and they will land on your hand if you hold it out, whether it has food in it or not. So will the titmice.
It was sunny today, and other birds were active also, from a beautiful swamp sparrow foraging across the marsh boardwalks to a pair of soaring red-tailed hawks above the swallow field. Actually, my two best birds of the day virtually greeted me as I arrived at mid-morning: a vocal hairy woodpecker hopping along a tree on the edge of the parking lot, and just as I was making my way towards one of the back trails, a beautiful fox sparrow, my third of the year, and certainly a very beautiful bird, maybe (maybe) my favorite of the sparrows, if it isn't the grasshopper sparrow. Or the swamp sparrow.
I also brought along the Golden Guide to Trees today, thinking it would be useful, and enjoyable, to brush up on my tree identification skills which have gone largely dormant, and are more in tune with the Midwest selection anyway. I kept mostly to conifers today, for obvious reasons, and now I feel I know my way around Eastern White Pine, Eastern Hemlock and Eastern Red Cedar reasonably well. This ties in well with an excellent book I’m reading right now called Changes In the Land by William Cronin, which gives a fascinating history of the ecological changes that have occurred in the New England landscape from pre-colonial eras through the settling by Europeans.

It was nice, as usual, to get away from the noise and bustle of the city for a few hours, and the sound of snow crunching under my feet was a great bonus, expected but almost not expected in this strange Massachusetts winter. And a final prize: as I sit here writing this, I am hearing the low, nasal grunt of a fish crow, an uncommon species of crow distinct from the nearly-ubiquitous American crow, which gives me 205 bird species seen (or heard) in Massachusetts in 2006 (220 in North America, if you’re curious).

Now onto my New Year’s Even dinner, an indulgent splurge on a cheap but good cut of steak (chuck blade) and a California Petit Syrah, accompanied by mushrooms and bread.
Happy New Year!

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