Late Winter Languages


Into the bird woods for the first time in months. The binoculars are actually rusty feeling in my hands. Winter is the time for high-powered scopes that peer into the surface lives of ducks. Wooded walks are rare. No butterflies, no dragonflies to scan up close.


Bell Slough is still mostly brown leaf and tangled vine. It is a watermarked emergent landscape of floatline and washup. The carpet of green Senecio leaves is working its way through, trying to make some chlorophyll headway in the scant sun. This is metalmark fodder for later on. Bell could feed the whole world of Senecio munching metalworms. I find myself noting places where things will be, though they are empty or quiet now. Here will go the Magnolia Warblers. There will be the metalmarks and Byssus Skippers. The waterthrushes will walk over here.


The buckeyes are all imminent rupture and budburst. Many soft leaflet hands have already unfurled. They flop and point poorly towards the cloudcover. The bud sleeves almost feel warm. They are golden and silver. I sniff them and they smell like nothing.


The Red-headed Woodpeckers continue to wander freely, innumerable, like they were never rare here. The bright red heads are now intact and striking. The birds make that rattling purr of theirs and one circles a limb in a game of squirrel chase. Downies move, Red-bellies make their own pronouncements. The tappings of all of them still sound like winter.


Towhees seem abundant. And they are. White-throats still outnumber them. And both scratch and scrape in the leaves. A male towhee sings: two whistles and a vibrato whinny. It is like I have never heard him before. Sibley says, “much variation in the details.” Sounds like the last sentence of the paragraph describing our lives ahead. Other towhees chew-heee in the background.


Though I think I am being quiet, at one corner I bring up a sudden herd of White-throated Sparrows. We all stand to see what will happen next. And I whistle my best and cleanest white-throat song. Afterwards, I am proud. But no one answers. They all look at me like I am premature and spring-happy. Damn perceptive birds.


On the lowland trail that will soon fill up with warblers, a Winter Wren moves over the leaves. She circles the shallow pools of puddle and clear water. She (these little birds all look like shebirds to me) is feeding on something that is flicking on the water surface. I can’t see what it is myself. I plop down on the trail to watch her move closer. She stays remarkably in the open and silent. What a stopcock of a bird, what a toasted marshmallow of a bird. Why even have that tail? What lovely long tarsi you have little madam, I think, sounding like the big bad wolf. She looks like a fluffy sweetgum ball with two stems. She hangs from some fallen limbs to pluck at the water some more. She dangles most delicately. A male starts singing somewhere behind us. It is that bubbled wonder of a song that has no end or beginning. It just seems to blink in and out, straggling on with virtuosity for some undetermined time, jazz from a puffball of six pair of laryngeal chords, two lungs and little else. She ignores him wherever he is, whatever he is saying to her.


One Robin jumps in the leaves as well. Looking like a giant with the Hermit Thrushes around us both. It looks like a female. I'd heard her earlier making her pert-pert noise. What's the difference between this bird and the herds on the plains of grass in town? Something significant; it can’t be just luck. Are the worms better in bottomland leaf litter? I would guess so. This one must know it. A worm gourmet, she cocks her head. “What beauty is there in running over flat, poisoned grass?” She seems to say. Exactly, I think.


And through the treetops a sound that makes me stop. I’m unsure what it is above the titmice and towhees and then it is clear. Geese; Snow Geese. I scan and see the lines moving in those zagging consonants—all those Vs and broken Ws. What is there in the sound of northbound geese? That high squeak and cry in clear air? The sun is trying to come out full. We’ve made it through once again to see it happen—the sky scrawled full of going geese. We are still alive.


Or something like that.