Spring Tune-up       


The lake is stirred by a south wind—a better wind direction than more recent breezes. The geese are feeding in pairs over the soccer lawns. No gulls aloft. A small flotilla of ducks bob just off the levee bend. They are all polished-looking Greater Scaup with a few Lesser Scaup and, oddly enough, one and then two Black Scoters—the oceanic duck come for a refreshing inland look. One is male; one female, the male having the bulbous expansion at the base of his beak and some smudgy feathering over the gray-white cheeks. This male even has some orange blush around his noseholes. Hope he stays around to blacken up locally before fleeing with his March bride for Quebec or Newfoundland.


The river valley is all green field and crows, waterpools waiting for plover and sandpiper to fall from the sky. A distant line of Black Vultures flies toward a premonition of death or nothing. Who can say? The humped dark of an eagle sits atop the riverside nest they used last year. She could be brooding already or straining in the production of an eagle egg—a magical, raptor-mothering event either way. I wish her luck.


On the north side of Bell Slough the dam is still raging water from all the snowmelt. The bottomlands are fully submerged. I walk over the dam and up the levee road which has been bolstered by fresh stone and the pacings of some dozer. The walking is firmer; the esthetic not quite the same. Someone didn’t like grass seed in their socks—or something like that. After the first bend on the road I am on a spit of roadbed out into the flooded swamp. There the bird noises are carried across water. And it is tune-up season. Each year one fears the spring birdsounds have been lost to memory, to winter, to the jay and grackle noises filling up all the taped memory banks with their cold season squeaks and caws: it is the recurring fear of the rusty-ear syndrome.


The cardinals are out of the lackadaisical realm and into the serious ranges of calling. The variety still astounds. They overlap omni directionally. Titmice and chickadees harmonize. One titmouse makes the shrill three whistle call of the irritated tit. A Carolina Wren fidgets and scolds somewhere in the flooded brush and a Winter Wren answers with ticking dismay on the opposite side. The treetops are all woodpecker voicings and distant Fish Crows. I hear Red-headeds and Red-bellieds, Downies and the soft question of the sapsucker.


Golden-crowned Kinglets make the triple high stitch of a happy feeding bird. A woodpecker works some buds apart. A few Wood Duck flush and scree off to the east. Along the water’s edge a veritable queue of Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows run and pick at things that apparently jump for them but are invisible to me. The birds make sure they stay a few paces ahead of my boots. I am terrifying—almost.


Every fifty feet a Great Blue Heron brawls and squalls his drawn hog-rasp and growl with slow wingbeats out of the woods—repeated accusations to the trespasser I am. One bird stands high atop some conglomeration of vine and leaf and stares me down. His breast appears to be jet black. Weird. I don’t remember so much black on the blue heron’s belly. Long fingerlets of silver and white feather flutter over the black, in fine defiance. I want one for my hat, if he’d be kind enough to drop one for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever stumbled over the silver breast plume of a Great Blue Heron. Primaries, sure, but not one of these decorator featherlets. I will watch forever after. This one keeps all of his plumes this day and does not even bother to fly off.


In the brush to the left where a Winter Wren fled something splashes and I catch the end of a snake vanishing. Dark and slim was all I saw. Too perky for a moccasin, the air temperature is around fifty degrees, the water can’t be much over forty. Another snake makes an uncoiling from the neighboring bush. I see the last half of this one and it looks like a Mud Snake. Haven’t seen one in years if that is what it was. I watch the water but the frigid serpent is hiding somewhere. I am impressed. Not by his stealthiness but by the fact of serpents already falling from bushes. It is surely a sign of the fever dreams of March, the voodoo mind of summer creeping in.


The road comes to an end. Or the road goes on but only for the amphibious or the waterproof. Today, at least, I do not qualify as either. The mud below another band of chickadees is trampled with deer and raccoon feet, with the splayed toes of big-footed herons. Everywhere in the mud are the white stars of heron scat. (Or is it “splat” for creatures with only one exit?) They are Rorschach elephants and gargoyles and strange white geometries—I turn and cock my head for something more to be revealed. This is a busy stopping place apparently for those of us who enjoy a dead-end view into swamp. Or it is just a designated bird toiletry. I was, I suppose, the only one not looking for food here or processing it.


Walking back out I catch a shadow fluttering down and I jerk my head around for a butterfly that is not really a butterfly but just a falling oak leaf with a shimmy in its last flight. I watch it strike the ground to make sure. But it is not a Leafwing, just a brown leaf. Ah, toyed with by the winter some more. But I’m satisfied to know old Frosty is doomed. The cardinals are in his ear as well, the serpents are on the move. Toy with me—I just laugh. Soon the Orangetips and dragonflies will fall on the world like a confetti of vengeance from the tilting sun.


The wait, it seems, is always longer than we remember. But the options beyond waiting are all less savory to say the least. Who so close would sell their soul for just two weeks?


Not I.