Spring is returning to the North. We know because it’s April—late April, in fact. But the scene out the window doesn’t support the spring-is-coming theory much. A howling wind is sweeping down from the north and driving thick snow before it. This looks like a day out of the middle of January, or maybe December.
A day ago, it was balmy. It was fifteen or twenty degrees above freezing. Good-bye winter coats; hello rubber boots. Snow disappeared, the last drifts clinging to shady areas where the climbing sun hadn’t yet thrown its rays. Gooey, sticky mud squished everywhere. Birds are returning—Canada and Greater White-fronted Geese, Trumpeter Swans, Mallards, Pintails, Widgeons, raptors, crows, and robins. A pair of magpies is building a nest high in an aspen across the road. The nest is huge, built tall like a column. We’ve never seen a magpie nest that shape before. Maybe it’s this pair’s first one and they got a little confused while building it. Behind the house, another one is under construction. This one is round, like a ball, and is perched in the top of a sapling.
I went for a walk in the warm sunny day; I took the dog and my camera and telephoto lens. I wasn’t going any place in particular, just up the road to see what there was to see and maybe happen upon some agreeable denizen of the forest that would pose for me. It would be nice to find that Short-eared Owl I’d seen a couple of weeks ago.
On either side of the road, bare trees creaked in the wind. Flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows fluttered up from last year’s yellow grass as I walked by. I stopped to take some pictures of one or two that perched in a bush. They looked tolerantly amused as I inched closer to get the most close-up shots possible.
As I went on, I noted the silence of things. Yes, there was the wind, soughing in the pines, and the incessant chirp of sparrows and juncos. But the real noise hadn’t started, the sounds of the smaller spring migrants—especially the warblers. They arrive in a single day, and then the forest drips with them, bubbling their liquid songs as they sweetly take over the place. Among them would float the lovely, fluting notes of the Hermit Thrush, the crowning voice among many, announcing the arrival of another summer. But, for now, the forest stood silent, waiting for them.
As I rounded a large grove of pines into whose dark depths the sun could barely reach, I saw the flapping wings of a big black bird, close the ground. Aha, it was that Pileated Woodpecker again. I’d seen him a couple days before, right at the edge of our backyard. I commanded the dog to “lie down” and “stay,” and then began working my way closer to the bird. He was busy at the base of a tree, apparently bent on demolishing it entirely to get out every last grub he could find. He ignored me, hammering and picking out grubs by turn. When I looked at his slender neck, I wondered at the power behind his blows.
I took pictures, assessed the histogram, adjusted settings, and shot some more. When I moved too suddenly, he was mildly alarmed, and streaked up the tree trunk, hiding on the other side of it and peeking out at me. When I held still, he came down again, backing in little jumps, using his tail as a brake. I’d never seen a woodpecker back down a tree before.
My dog patiently waited for about fifteen minutes while I stocked up on Pileated Woodpecker photos. Finally I decided the bird was ready for some peace, so I took off. A Short-eared Owl would have been the best, but a Pileated Woodpecker was quite a sufficient alternative. I headed home, dog in tow, bathed in warm sunlight, sniffing the promise of spring in the south wind.
That night, a grim north wind arose and took the promise of spring and blew it all the way back down to the border. We woke to a couple of inches of snow already on the ground and more blowing down thickly. It looked like it was going to snow for a week, at least. The sky was perfectly colorless, a shade or two darker than the snow itself, the kind of sky that can dump snow for hours on end.
It did, too. It snowed all day and all night, took a breather for a few hours next morning, and then snowed all day and all night again. Then it stopped. About fourteen inches of wet snow covered everything, forming deep drifts where the wind piled it up against buildings and around obstacles.
But listen to that! Apparently, the promise of spring hasn’t been blown away completely. Some of it seems to have stuck to that Ruffed Grouse that’s drumming merrily just up the woods a little.
More of it has been stored up in the songs of the little birds that sound as cheerful as ever as they comb busily through the grasses and bushes in search of food. Still more of it spills from the antics of a flock of Blue Jays that bob and whistle at the edge of the yard. Starlings perch high in an aspen and take turns singing. And, come to think of it, didn’t we see some Sandhill Cranes arriving in the middle of the storm, flying low over the house and calling to each other?
After the storm, it warms up again. The snow starts to melt. The Pileated Woodpecker is back at the edge of the yard, excavating gaping holes in the bases of trees. My sisters troop back to take some pictures. My dad sees a White-crowned Sparrow for the first time, from the living room window, and finds it a thing of wonder. I dig out a wren house that’s been stored in the shed for years and take it into the woods to mount it somewhere. Maybe some chickadees will nest in it.
There aren’t any warblers yet, and no sign of leaves on the trees, except for a few brave branches that have put out fuzzy catkins. The sun isn’t out—clouds still cover the sky—and there’s no guarantee that we won’t get dumped with more snow in the near future, but, thankfully, we don’t have to worry. There’s Someone Who has said that summer and winter will not cease.