Bell in Bud
March steps in all coddle and tease. The sun beams down like it is unaware of calendars and schedules. The broomsedge leans into urgent whisperings, and something hurried passes across the far fields like gossip, like the news of my arrival.
I have not been into the wetlands of Bell Slough for months. My binoculars feel strange and heavy in my hands. The first bird I see sitting up in the treetops is shaped oddly on its perch. I do not know it and then it launches into the wind and northward and then suddenly I do know its name—Sharp-shinned Hawk. I am accustomed to the bird only on the wing. The smaller birds near my feet break into the trees only after this dangerous accipiter is out of sight. There are indeed things worse than me. The frightened ones are White-throated Sparrows that perch up in the brush. They twitch and stare but do not appear nearly restless enough for me. “Canada,” I whisper invitingly. “Seet,” they say back.
Inside the walkway bridges I am chickadeed and titmoused. The light is muted. A Downy Woodpecker works some small branch into submission. At the turn of the water a Winter Wren talks. And then it comes up to shift and speak more. It is the impish chit-chat they make in their moments of attentiveness. It is nothing like the burble they can sing in full song. They are the wonder-songsters with the endless breath. Chimps chimps, it says now and secretly moves deeper in the brush. These are one of the great birds of winter. Miniscule but astounding enough. Like watching rusty golf balls talk and fly. Bobble birds that cheer and ask nothing in return.
Along the water below me I see a larger bird moving quickly back and forth near the edge of the flow. It is a Hermit Thrush and he is dazzlingly plumaged. Though I don’t know if they molt in winter or not, he is too freshly minted not to have. Seems he molted anyway, damn the fashion or the rules. I am not sure he sees me above him but then again occasionally he seems to give me the cocked eye. The tones of red in the base of his tail and in the primary bases are intense. They shade into the olives and browns of the back. The breast is the classic fading spot pattern, the leopard bib, and truly, on this day, it is lovelier than usual. This bird is animated. It lunges and plucks wet leaves to throw them over and expose the undersides. He knows what he is doing. Whatever he is eating though, it is too small and he is too fast for me to see what it is even magnified in the binoculars. I luxuriate in his presence. And then I notice something I have never seen this thrush do before (any thrush species for that matter). He stands on the wet leaves in and out of the water and presses his right foot down in repetitive taps—it is a little one-legged cadence, a birdfoot metronome. And for a brief moment I think he is a bird with a tick or the water is too cold. But this is not some random activity. It is purposeful. He is almost certainly attempting to get whatever is in the water to move, to break so he can get at it. He turns more leaves and runs away from the water and then back. He taps again. Switches legs. I stay with him until he moves away.
In the sunbreaks of the woods the plants are awakening. The buckeyes flop and splay in various levels of bud eruption, some green, some red, a few are already showing the shrunken and fetal flower heads that will taunt, soon enough, the noses of rubythroats. Here and there the ragwort peaks out from leafiness. At first, I can’t get back its scientific name in my head and I am completely distracted. It turns my ears off. I’m blind for a moment and then I hear it in the great ear of my mind: sin-ees-see-oh. It is back from dormancy. Senecio, senecio—for a while it rings in my head like it wants to stay for good.
Dogtooth, Brassica, Spring Beauty—the names, the names. Words I have been waiting for. The Red-shouldered Hawks call to the south. Agitated hawks and flowers. I finger every bud I find. Birds are having sex again, I think. Senecio, senecio.
A few frogs squeak here and there and plunge away from my feet. The Great Blue Herons rise and wing slowly over the wet fields. They are still reassuringly both great and blue. A few Great Egrets also stand stark white out in all the brownness as well. They are so contrasted within the March world, if I were an eagle I would pounce and lavish those feathers with blood. Perhaps it is not so easy to catch and kill these great white dagger birds though. I overestimate the skills of my imaginary and personal eagle. Who doesn’t?
The beavers still have their long wedge of water on the back side of the levee field. The concrete gates just make life easy for them. They only have to make a five foot long dam and they are back in business. I would hate to be the man who has to struggle against their repeated reconstructions. Here and there on the beaver pond pairs of Hooded Mergansers rise and wing away. A few swim out of the flooded grass to stare at me before going. They are extremely fast birds and wary. It is only when I get to the wider creek itself that I can get close to a pair that is bathing calmly in small city of cypress knees. Their ducky heads are shaped like upturned axes with perfect tapers, perfect feather metallurgy. The male’s head is painted with a wedge of white triangle so bright it seems to fluoresce, the female’s mohawk is a pure creamy burnish of cinnamon. They twirl and strip at the long feathers on their backs, reaching and pulling over and over, floating in lazy circles despite the current. I know it is a business that has something to do with skin mites or waterproofing, some task so very mundane, but it looks like pure vanity from where I stand. ‘We will show the world what fine ducks should look like.’
Down the tunnel of the path I see a Pileated Woodpecker low and leaning back. The light behind his crest makes it look like he has skinned a cardinal and decorated his head with it. Beyond that Mallards lift from the water, heavy and skittish. Mallard, mallard, merganser, merganser, and twice the squeal of Wood Duck.
Over the fields the first swallows come. They are Tree Swallows that tilt and show their emerald shoulders. A thousand yellow-rumps range the Palarm creek banks, fly-catching where there are no flies. I reenter the trees and admire the sky full of silhouetted buds. Touching the buckeyes near me again I lift a butterfly up. It is a dark and speedy creature. Whirs around me in the classic flight of the Mourning Cloak. I watch it land and take sun. This is one of the butterflies that rides out the winter. It refuses to die at summer’s end. Rages on. Hides in cracks and crevices sheltered from the best the ice beast can dish out. This one looks like it took some storms head on. The yellow margins are tattered. But here it is. It pushed on through to March. Another soldier, here in the woods with the March sun on its back. I look down to the Spring Beauty blooms that seem infused with blood inside those fine red arteries. And it feels like I am remembering the fondness I had for some lovely woman who keeps going away. Like I am falling for some beauty with swallows in her hair and frogs in her pockets. Like I know this and I go anyway, I give in with the understanding that she’ll certainly just burn me once more with bees and heavy fruit, foxes and ferns, all that heat and greenery that she does so well and then she’ll just break my heart like she did last time.