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March 17, 2011

Up On Hawthorn Hill: Looking for diversions

— It has been a long, psychically trying winter. I always feel more comfortable knowing that I am not alone, so when friends complain openly about cabin fever and wanting “to get the hell out of here” for a while I know exactly what they mean. We are planning a trip to Costa Rica in March, so in order to keep one’s head above the darkening inner clouds, it is necessary to look for diversions that have, as Wordsworth put it, a renovating virtue.

Luckily for me, Redpolls fit the bill. I suspect there are those who would find it hard to believe that a small finch sporting a red cap and black chin gorging itself on sunflower seeds qualifies as an antidote to late winter depression. A man has to grab at whatever lifeline swings his way.

Bird people like me get excited about these things. What makes Redpolls so unique, their beauty notwithstanding (you have to be a birder!), is their infrequent sorties this far southward from their Canadian breeding grounds.

Such visitations are known as irruptions, which occur ever few winters when food sources are stretched a bit too thin to adequately feed what is thought to be a periodic increase in the population.

Last week I counted approximately 65 Redpolls at our feeding station. I participate in Cornell’s annual Project Feeder Watch project, which involves sending in data approximately every five days.

I confess that I sort of gloated when I inserted that number in the data entry box and then hit the ‘submit’ button. I am not a numbers birder; those people are called, pejoratively, ‘tickers.’

But it sure felt good to not only contribute to a validation of a Redpoll irruption, but to feel honored that this flock at least picked us as their hosts for a few weeks. My poor wife has to now put up with frequent shouts of either, “Wow, look at all those Redpolls,” or “Where the hell are they?” I admit to taking it personally when they disappear for maddeningly long spates of time. They were here in full force this morning, so I am in a great mood − at least for now. Selfish as it seems, I want them to stick around until we head out in three weeks.

Then they have my blessings and can fly en masse back north to places like Alaska, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Manitoba. One of these days I might hitch a ride. Saskatchewan is on my short list.

Aside from avian excitements, I spent several hours this week getting ready to start this year’s vegetable seeds. I have a room set up in the basement solely dedicated to things botanical. I collected quite a few leaves last fall, pressed them in between the pages of an oversized garden journal, and had a bit of fun reading over my notes – and testing my identification prowess.

Most of the seeds I have ordered have arrived and there is an ineffable pleasure in arranging them alphabetically in the various containers that I store them in inside an old metal toolbox. I switched to a tightly closed metal storage container several years ago after the white footed mice wintering in the barn feasted on our seeds, easily chewing their way through the thick brown paper lunch bags I had put them in.

The days are lengthening, the sun’s rays are getting warmer every day, and on my walks I can detect slight variations in birdsong.

These are heartening signs. I keep a close watch over activity at the bird feeders hoping, for instance, to see a tree sparrow, or even a fox sparrow.

If that happens then I know that winter, while not over, is clearly on the wane. When robins and red-winged blackbirds start showing up that will be a clear sign that spring is not far off.

They sometimes come a bit too early to escape late winter snowfalls, but their arrival is always a sure augury of winter’s inevitable demise. One looks both within and around every corner for hope.