More than a foot of snow has fallen, and an equally giant blizzard of migrating birds has fallen from the sky. Giant flocks of shorebirds, North American Emberizid sparrows, Lapland Longspurs, and waterfowl are socked in, risking everything to cling to patches of protective habitat and sources of food. April Showers are here again--in the form of driving snow and falling birds. It seems Wisconsin is in the clutches of a Little Ice Age.
Killdeer alighting on frozen pond
I was writing this stuff here last year, this same time of year, writing about these unprecedented April showers. But "the writing" has been there on the wall for some time now. The freeze-up and snowstorm of April 12, 2008 was, perhaps, the looming foreshadowing. From the hot and dry scalding droughts of July and August to the brutal and lingering winters, the patterns of last year and this year are remarkably similar. April Showers now refer to heavy, even dangerous winter storms in the western Great Lakes region. Those May flowers are delayed. Migrating birds meet walls of brutal weather head-on. My pattern-seeking human mind enters a realm dominated by cavitations of thought. Like those gurgling and erupting and collapsing bubbles from a motor-boat's prop having been suddenly thrown in reverse, I generate agreement between data and hypothesis and, just as quickly, lose the agreement to new evidence. Mother Nature is feeling our growing pains, shifting heavily to find comfort and balance.
Fox Sparrow, a boreal forest bird, a harbinger of Spring
Dark-eyed Junco, the "snow bird"...
Hermit Thrush seeking insects amid open holes in the ice...
As I watch the birds, I sense their urgency. Things are not going as planned. In this moment, they seem strangely human, as if they had read our calendar and made some sort of expectation about just what sort of weather is usual. They have blundered forward. In their response to an ancient, genetic calendar, they have been duped. Yes, the days are now long and the sun high, but Winter is still here.
Great Blue Heron
The birds aren't alone in the confusion. Just three or four years ago, maple syruping in the Great Lakes landscapes had become a game for the wary and watchful. Those who studied the snow and the trees and tapped the maples in February had syrup, while those who merely read calendars failed to produce. It wasn't long before some local tree-tappers were talking about the new and permanent reality of an early sugar bush. Now, just a couple of years later, the winters have shifted the sugar bush to mid-April, as distantly late as it had been early . Many of the elders around my neck of the woods talk about "Late March" as the historically common time to harvest the sap. In four years, we have seen a two-month swing of the season. Extremes and unpredictability are the new normal. Fortunately, the birds are collectively more like the watchful tree-tappers and a little less like those who study paper calendars. They are resourceful and tough, and they are seldom caught completely off-guard. But each extreme event is a new trial. There are more and more of these trials. Even the toughest birds cannot consistently produce young and continue to survive when "extreme trial" is the new normal. My thoughts continue to cavitate.
Wilson's Snipe flock descending to find food and shelter on a frozen marsh...
Weather, the caution reads, is not climate. But the frequency of weather events leads to the notion of climate, and the overall trend of weather is, indeed, climate. The trend is changing. Climate change is upon us, and, whether anthropogenic or otherwise, we should consider the importance (with haste) of erring on the side of caution. We do, indeed, live in a time of consequences. While most of the world has been hotter than average, this little spot of planet Earth has become an icebox. And then, in the middle of summer, the land scalds under an angry sun. If the grass turns brown and dry and the soil becomes as hard as cement again in another brutally hot July, I will predict another brutal winter. This seems to be where we are headed here--long, cold winters lasting into May and extremely hot and dry summers. Evidence for Climate Change abounds! I sure hope I am wrong. I would rather my pride is damaged than the ecology of the Earth.
Birds are champions of survival. They live in the moment (and sometimes they die in the moment...another cavitation of my thoughts). Usually, they prove to be resourceful, durable, patient, tolerant, and persistent. Most of these April migrants are year round residents to North America, many the evolutionary result of Ice Ages. I watch the Wilson's Snipe in awe as a single bird manages to catch an annelid worm through the icy slush with its long, sensitive bill. Suddenly, it catches a second worm, and, to my amazement, a third. A small flock of Eastern Phoebes has congregated around the edge of the ice and seem to be skimming nearly microscopic insects from the air above a small patch of open water. American Robins, Hermit Thrushes, Fox Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a mixture of other migrant sparrow species are forming "super flocks" sometimes hundreds of birds strong. These flocks comb through the thick brush and rifle through sand, grit and gravel along the rural roads. They are finding food.
Eastern Phoebe hunting for winged insects
While the Trumpeter Swans have still failed to show up on most of their traditional breeding territories around here, the Sandhill Cranes have established their pair bonds. A familiar old friend with a crooked beak is back for another year and displaying vigorously for his mate. The air smells fresh and ozone-clean. The snow and ice put a solid chill into the air, fighting the lingering daylight. A small group of Fox Sparrows press on toward the boreal. Longspurs bounce along above open fields, heading for the Arctic. The cranes dance and bow on territory. I find a strange beauty to this frozen landscape, and the optimism of the crane wrestles down my fitful thinking and puts me into a singular moment. This is what it is, here and now. I am witness to a spectacular moment in nature.
Sandhill Cranes, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks
All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and a Canon 300mm f4L IS lens.