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Spring Joy, Spring Sadness

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Everything's happening now. It's all been held back by the unseasonable cold in February and early March. We had our first spring peepers on March 14--almost a month late. The trees are barely budding, and the water maples are only just beginning to flower. I feel as if I've been cheated completely out of February's delicious brink-of-spring season. So I go out now, and collect masses of signs of spring with every glance around me. The first spring beauty buds are already coloring up.It's 7 pm Thursday evening. I'm in the studio, and I glance up into the leaden sky and an eastern meadowlark flies over, its wings stuttering, identifiable at hundreds of yards. The same thing happened this afternoon; I glanced up from my work and saw a pair of ring-necked ducks winging over. Again, a naked-eye ID--a short, compact Aythya duck with whitish belly. By the process of elimination, there weren't a lot of other possibilities. Because I wanted to ground-truth it, I leapt into the car and drove to the nearest pond. The surface was smooth; the ducks had moved on. But Bill had seen a drake ring-necked on that pond this morning, so circumstantial evidence points to ring-necked.

When it's warm, I have to walk. I decided to check all the bluebird boxes to make sure they were clean and ready for spring nest-building. Durned if a downy woodpecker didn't decide to renovate my Carolina chickadee box, chipping the inside front panel away to the thickness of a potato chip, enlarging the hole while he was at it. Stinkpot. A couple of long, grayish body feathers in the soft bed of chips confirmed the culprit. Truly, though, nothing else could have gotten in the 1" hole to do that, nor would any other bird in that size class have the beak to accomplish it.

This is what I don't want to find when I open a bluebird box. Aw, hell. Two female bluebirds, dead. It would be a mystery if I weren't able to tell from the evidence just what happened. It got really cold in February while we were in Guatemala. And it looks like a bunch of bluebirds, maybe six or eight, piled into this box for warmth. They regurgitated a whole lot of sumac seeds, and defecated. It piled up on the bottom of the box. And the two females underneath the pile of birds got ground down into the droppings and regurgitated stuff, and it got really cold. And their tails and wings froze into the mass of stuff in the bottom of the box. Days went by, and it never went above freezing. And these poor little girls starved there. I had wondered why they were missing from the suet dough crowd. Now I knew.

Even though it was in the upper 60's, I had to put some effort into freeing their tails and wings from the congealed detritus on the bottom of the box. Small wonder they'd been trapped there. There was nothing left of them; they'd burned everything they had trying to survive. In 25 years of managing bluebirds, I've seen this happen twice. The other time was during a huge snowstorm in 1995. The power was out for five long days. I was out in the driveway with a mallet, pounding some coffee beans in a tube sock, trying to grind them up fine enough to make coffee. Because our grinder was becalmed, no power to run it. This is desperation in its purest form. (And, incidentally, it's when I decided to quit coffee altogether).

Bill was sledding with the kids. They were all lying in the snow in a pig pile when he heard a scrabbling sound from our plastic martin gourds. He came in and got me, saying, "There's something stuck in one of the martin gourds!" We ran over and lowered the gourds and there were two male bluebirds frozen into the junk on the bottom of the gourds. We brought them inside and thawed them out and fed them mealworms for a day and a night until they were ready to release. That same afternoon we saw two male bluebirds with dirty, bent tails eating suet dough on the front porch. Sweet! You win some, you lose some. Sometimes you're there to help, and sometimes you just can't be.

After so many years of tending bluebirds, I can't take it too hard. I just clean the box out, apologize, and walk on. But I was feeling a bit low when I got to the overlook. Chetty made me feel better, sitting beside me and checking the old dead shagbark for squirrels. The spring haze over Goss' Fork was lovely, softening everything like a boudoir shot. And then a pair of bluebirds materialized out of nowhere, the male warbling and wing-waving. We'll make more this year. Promise.OK. Thank you.

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