Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Sound of Spring

I awakened one morning this past week to the sound of spring -- a single note -- perhaps mezzo soprano with just the hint of a trill -- maybe a second in duration.  Pause.  Repeat.  Pause.  Repeat, often in alternating frequencies.   In human terms it could have been a distant child blowing a whistle, albeit one tuned to a lower range than the kind we might wish someone had not handed out as a birthday party favor.

A varied thrush, a close relative to the American Robin had returned to our wood lot.  Was it staking out our
tiny forest as it’s territory or just sending a greeting as it passed through on it’s way further north?   Either way, to me it heralded the official arrival of spring in our neighborhood.

Our house is surrounded by the kind of habitat that attracts varied thrushes -- trees -- tall conifers -- Sitka spruce, hemlocks, yellow cedar, even a shore pine I dug up as an “infant” to plant at the road end of the walkway leading to our front door.  At the edges, less shade tolerant species -- alders, mountain ash and elderberry add to the privacy of our lot.  My favorites are a pair of cottonwood trees that have merged at one side of our front lawn.  I planted them there and now they tower above our roof.  They’re the survivors of four branches I broke off from cottonwood trees at the Juneau airport while waiting for a plane one spring day back in the late 1980s.  I had heard cottonwoods could be grown from branches.  My science experiment worked. 

The cottonwood trees and other nearby deciduous trees have a pronounced impact on our lawn that draws the varied thrushes, robins and even hermit thrushes in the spring.  They shed leaves -- lots of them.  If I don’t rake the lawn, birds have a grand time flipping them over in spring --  in quest of worms, beetles and even slugs that take refuge under the litter.  We couldn’t buy a better bird feeder.

Of course there is a down side to those cottonwoods.  Think roots.  With our house built on muskeg soil -- peat -- trees do not sink their roots deep into the soil.  Rather, they run along the surface -- in the case of the cottonwoods -- all over our lawn.  We can trace their structure by the sinewy tendrils that make mowing the lawn in summer a bit like driving a car through tundra pock marked with Arctic ground squirrel holes.  But, oh, the birds and smell of cottonwood leaves in spring make the challenges of lawn mowing a small price to pay.

I so enjoy the cottonwoods that I once figured that if Johnny Appleseed could make roadside apple trees a feature that traced his wanderings, I could make cottonwood trees a feature that delineated my walks.  Fail.  Not one of many many branches I thrust into the ground survived.  But a least we have the  united pair at the edge of our lawn to help provide sustenance to our heralds of spring, varied thrushes.

                                 Karen's painting:   Winter Guest  7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches  Watercolor

During several winters a varied thrush or two has over-wintered in Petersburg.  We hope they made it.  Such "decisions" carry a risk for birds.  While migrations expose birds to the threat of becoming dinner for predators -- including  cats -- in unfamiliar territory, a severe winter carries the risk of starvation.  Such was the challenge one of those winters posed when a pair of varied thrushes showed up in our yard in mid-winter, honing in our our bird feeder.  Although they were very wary (thankfully because a neighbor's cat insists our feeders were set out for it's amusement) Karen was able to document this male varied thrush with a watercolor painting.

                                                 Karen's paining:  The Hermit  4x 6 inches  Watercolor  

Another quite secretive thrush that we mostly hear in our woods in summer is the Hermit Thrush.  However, the ripening of our red elderberries is enough to lure these birds to a bush (planted by birds no less) right outside our kitchen window.,


Kathi Riemer said...

My favorite sound...the varied thrush. It announces the coming of Spring. I heard my first one on April 1st this year. I am still waiting for the cottonwood to start budding and I know it will be soon. I sure enjoyed reading your blog Don. Thank you!

Terri Mappin (Seasons 365 Project) said...

Lucky you! Robins yes ... no signs of thrushes though! I am patiently awaiting the Meadow larks! Karen's paintings are beautiful!

Don and Karen Cornelius Artwork said...

Thanks, Kathi and Terri: Meadow Larks! I don't even have one listed on my not-well-kept life list. Interesting how different species come to symbolize different places and seasons for us.

Dana Konings said...

Absolutely lovely, Karen could make fairytale illustrated books, beautiful.

Don and Karen Cornelius Artwork said...

I agree, Dana. Karen would be a natural to illustrate children's books.