Sitting on Go

March 4,  1996

     When I was a twelve year old beginning birder, I found late February and early March the worst time of year.  All winter I had studied bird books, learning about bird habits and memorizing their characteristics for identification.  I had started a year list with the few winter birds I found in our neighborhood.  Bird feeders were not yet in vogue so that list only included species like house sparrow, crow, chickadee, downy and hairy woodpecker.  It did include, as I recall, one less common species: pine siskin.  There had been an incursion that winter.

     I could not wait for the migration to commence so that I could add to my list.  I had a goal of reaching a hundred species for the year and I was a bundle of nerves in anticipation.  I wandered the fields and wooded areas behind my home and trekked to nearby parks.  Not a single new bird.  It wasnšt until weeks later that robins and song sparrows and red-winged blackbirds and grackles arrived and a snipe who-who-whoed over our neighborhood.

     Last week my thoughts returned to those frantic days as I walked the trails of Golden Hills State Park east of Olcott on Lake Ontario.  Except for the sound of the wind the woods and fields were silent.  Only a few crows and gulls flew overhead.  It was a bright sunny day, a perfect morning for a walk, but I felt unusually isolated.

     Now, however, that didnšt bother me.  There was much to be seen.  Succession is occuring on this recently farmed land.  Most stages are apparent: overgrown fields, brush lots, groups of young trees fighting for dominance, but few fully mature trees.  Along the trail park employees have placed signs to describe these ecological stages.  I found these posters informative and well prepared.  I learned from one, for example, that foresters call early succession woodlots pole stands.

     With few birds and animals to observe, I could turn my attention to other things.  I tested the brown flowerheads of Queen Annešs lace to see if all the seeds were gone.  Only a few remained.  The rest were off seeking soil for germination.  On a goldenrod stem were two of those spherical tumors that are the plantšs response to the larva of goldenrod gall flies.  One had a hole in its side where a bird, most likely a chickadee, had drilled through to feed on the insect.  The other was undisturbed.  I opened it with my penknife and there was the little black insect.  Why didnšt the chickadee drill out that one too?

     Now after a few warm days most of the snow was gone.  The trail passed without warning from frozen dirt to squishy muck and the standing water was covered with only a thin slick of ice.  From a few yards down the trail it looked black, but as I approached it seemed to disappear and I could see the grass and mud underwater.  Only where trapped air made amoeba-like white areas was the surface evident.  When I stepped on it, however, the ice announced itself.  Crackling sounds raced off across the surface like streaks of heat lightening.

     I pushed my way off the trail into a pine grove to look for saw-whet owls.  No luck, but I did find on a leafless tamarack a thick growth of twigs called a witchšs broom.  It is the treešs reaction to some kind of viral, fungus or mite infection.

     Just as in those days of my youth I didnšt add to my year list of bird species but now, more relaxed, I found much else on which to focus my thoughts.