March 20, 2013
The heavy hand of winter can be particularly punishing in the high Rocky Mountains of western Colorado. It is the meanest of seasons, often impossibly long and completely covered with a certain color of white for months on end. Living here at this time of year is all about ice and storm and driven snow, and when conditions are right it seems that there is no place that the bone chilling winds cannot touch. They are alive, animated with purpose and jagged edges, and always ready to reach out to let you know that there is nowhere to hide, nor escape.
At its worst it is possible to convince yourself that the steel-blue landscape laid bare before your eyes could never recover from such terrible, life threatening blows. The earth rolls and creaks with the dark numbness of the night, and carries on with the dull resignation of harsh reality. It is a timeless conflict between something old and cold, and the thawing breath of something new. Spring becomes a disjointed and haunting memory; a shimmering prize on the edges of raging conflict in a battle for the heavens.
Old man winter suffers no fools. Fail to give it the respect it demands, and it will kill you quick, without remorse. At the heart of the matter it remains a clearly defined struggle between life and death for us and for all the little things. Often it seems a most special and personal test, designed especially for you.
The trial is not only physical, but spiritual, and mental too. It is a measure of wills in a contest expertly developed to discover who will break first, left to lie down defeated and shivering upon the frozen ground.
Who knows how many less fortunate men have buckled before the indescribable hardship and despair of an unforgiving winter, and simply relaxed into the false glow of hypothermia and its inevitable outcome? It is a sad result to be sure, though perhaps an easy choice for some, held captive under unbearable circumstance.
It’s best to prevent things from getting to this point, and I prefer a brighter strategy. At times like these, I think of birds. And not just birds of any random kind, but bluebirds, and robins.
They are birds of the common folk, but these are not your average feathered creatures. Writers with much better words than I have spoken of them for centuries, trying to capture the magic and momentousness of their arrival. They are the proverbial harbingers of Spring, the dawn breakers, and the shining bringers of light. No other birds can offer such cheer to the lonely, windswept soul.
In this part of the country the calendar may say it is Spring long before it appears it is so, and this year has been no exception. Typically, by now I am pacing about with one eye skyward, eager for a flash of blue or an unmistakable red. Turned to the south like the doting and overprotective parent, I anxiously search for the approach of the school bus now late for its’ scheduled stop. Things can get rough for the lover of birds.
It is no small wonder, this movement of life. No one can predict their arrival. They can not be tracked along their journey. Who knows what makes them head our way, or how long they dally at each stop. It is only for them to know, and they get here when they choose. This year it happened exactly on the first day of Spring, and it was the Bluebirds that graced us first.
I happened to be driving when I saw them, and as I turned a sharp corner on the first day of Spring on a back road as the sky exploded with dozens of fluttering bits of blue. It was if my world had changed in an instant, and I felt a great weight lift from my sloping shoulders.
Pulling quickly to the side to keep from crashing, I stared transfixed with wonder and joy and marveled at the colors in the early evening sky. It was a perfectly choreographed display of innocent beauty and it brought tears to my eyes.
What else can one do when delivered before such grandeur?
“…Winter is no mere negation, no mere absence of summer; it is another and a positive presence, and between its ebbing and the slow, cautious in-flow of our northern spring there is a phase of earth emptiness, half real, perhaps, and half subjective. A day of rain, another bright week, and all earth will be filled with the tremor and the thrust of the new year’s new energies.” —Harry Beston, The Outermost House
“This is one of the earliest birds to arrive in the spring; it is a question which we are likely to meet first, the Bluebird or the Robin, but not infrequently a flash of the cerulean color tells us the Bluebird has won in the race northward.” — Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, by F. Schuyler Mathews, 1904
“How the waiting countryside thrills with joy when Bluebird brings us the first word of returning spring. Reflecting heaven from his back and the ground from his breast, he floats between sky and earth like the winged voice of hope.” — WL Dawson, Birds of Ohio, 1903
*For more information and a great website about Bluebirds Click Here.
Update: March 4, 2014
I had my first bluebird sighting of the year today, a broad-shouldered male, and it happened in just about the same spot as it did last year but more than two weeks earlier on the calendar.
This male was as bold and blue a bird as I have ever seen, and was in fact a credit to all male bluebirds everywhere. He saw me coming and rose into a buffeting wind with that characteristic bluebird gait, hanging there in the magnificent universe for all the world to admire. I had no way to know that he was particularly interested in showing off to the lone female watching from the dead brown grass and tangled weeds nearby.
It warmed my blood to see him after so many months of bright white snow drifts and steel-gray, overcast skies. I am sure that she appreciated his display in ways I could never fully understand.
It was odd to see a male and female together so early in the season, and it was especially unusual for them to be the first birds of the year. I had always believed that the males arrived ahead of the females in order to establish dominance over other males and secure a territory to their liking.
Obviously, this is not always the case. Sometimes a male and female pair arrive on the breeding grounds at the same time, ready and willing. Still, it seemed a bit odd that they seemed to be the first and only birds to make it back so far, unlike the previous year when dozens of males all appeared almost overnight.
It’s been a strange year all around, with numerous storms and heavy snows which have built upon the ground since last November. The weather as a whole has seemed cranky and confused, with lingering low pressure systems and wild and violent mood swings. The signs were easy to read upon the birds.
A most obvious indication was the arrival of large flocks of robins in January, which seemed strange not only to me but to several of my friends who were quick to point it out. They were wild and agitated groups of birds, milling about restlessly while searching for a comfortable clime found most anywhere but here. One friend stared in amazement, as robin after robin appeared to attack the eves of his house, desperate to catch a drop of snow melt drizzling from his roof.
There is something quite unsettling about the sight of an obvious icon of Spring staring forlornly at deep snow and bare branches, puffed up bravely against the blustering gales. It’s an image not easily processed against what one has always known to be true.
Most of the robins have since managed to remain and survive until the snow banks receded and disappeared, though I know not how. It is true that not all robins migrate to the south, and that some do overwinter even in northern areas. There is also some evidence that more and more robins are migrating northward earlier in the year due to shifting weather patterns.
Yet the birds seem out of synch, as if their internal clock has wound too soon and their surroundings do not quite match their memories. No doubt we feel their distress on some undefined level, and like our feathered friends we can’t quite make sense of the changing world either.
But there is one thing is for sure. The bluebirds and robins have blessed us with their return journey, and stand ready to beat back whatever remains of the cold and dark times of winter.
I shall turn to the East and the rising star to celebrate the passing of another raw and soul cleansing season, while keeping one eye turned to the South for the telltale flash of blue, and red.
Update March 9, 2016
Here Again – One Big Male Blue On the Wing Today – a wonderful sight at the end of this very snowy, tough winter.