By Jack Phillips
(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 25.)
“When the sun shines unobstructedly, the landscape is full of light, for it is reflected from the withered fawn-colored grass, as it cannot be from the green grass of summer. The bluebird carries the sky upon his back.”
(Thoreau, Journal, April 3rd, 1852.)
The male bluebird basked high in the cottonwood at the head of the road. He carried the sky upon his back, as bluebirds of both genders and all seasons everywhere do. The road was closed to traffic due to snow, squeaky underfoot. We stopped frequently to listen for birds who, by natural selection or personal choice chose to spend the winter in the Loess Hills. And we, requiring a walk for no particular reason, thought it best to saunter at minus 14 fahrenheit while others of our coterie remained in the cabin writing poems by the fire. Bluebird backs carry the sky, and the sun as well; in every season a clear sunlight makes the sky the color of bluebirds and bluebirds the color of sky.
This is the season of the most-loved sun, thusly proclaimed by W.S. Merwin’s poem, “To Winter:”
… season from before knowledge reappearing
days when the sun is loved most
Governed by emotion over thermodynamics, we faced the southeast sun. My few and only square centimeters of exposed skin wanted to feel the sun; I closed my eyes to make orange eyelids inside. A secret summer. Bluebird was too vigilant for even a moment of make-believe but seemed, like us, to love the full-frontal sun. Bluebirds save the colors of summer on their breasts, keeping orange enough for winter days.
Juncos aver. Not August but December, no blue sky or sunshine, they wear the winter night. In my youth I thought juncos were little sooty birds with snow stuck to their fronts. In these parts we have two kinds: the slate-colored, working from a slim palette of charcoal and school-room chalk, and the less-common Oregon junco, smudgy-gray on white with rusty sides. Now, under a new taxonomic regime, we are provided with only the dark-eyed junco, one species to handle all of our bird-list junco needs. Even the university website into which we feed our citizen science only allows for that one appellation, rendering my careful childhood ornithology into sentimental sobriquets. I nonetheless hold fast to my innocent ways, and give each junco rendition credit for plumage that obviously means something to them, and to me, if only in my notebook.
They also love the most-loved sun in unbluebird-like ways. After standing in solidarity with that bluebird in solar devotion, I caught up with my companions as we together rounded a bend. A flock of two-in-one juncos kept the company of tree sparrows, close cousins wearing chestnut caps and black medallions. Their shared breeding grounds in the far north must be really cold to make these below-zero days far-south enough for them. But they showed not interest in steadfast basking, opting instead for an avian circus.
Even the hard birders in our ranks were surprised at the spectacle we met up ahead. One by one, a mixed dozen shot up and out of the adjacent ravine and took positions on the road, each one facing a stem of switchgrass slightly bent under a frosty seed-head. After a brief but considered moment, each sparrow and junco jumped and flicked and flittered upward to seize the frond just near the top. Slung beneath or balanced above, each bird gingerly rode the stem to the ground; somehow springy not stiff.
If this ingenuity were not enough, we were struck by a mirthful display. We had watched birds at play before; just recently in late summer we watched, not far from here, juvenile red-headed woodpeckers play keep-away with acorns. Feeding was surely in progress today, with seed-heads held to the ground to peck and pluck between little black toes. But for reasons apparent only to them, much like our wont to walk when deep cold makes sun best loved, many preferred just to swing and bounce and play.
*Photo by Robert Smith.