Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Trying to catch the moment spring arrives

You're going to think I am obsessed with changing seasons. Well, but you see, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Region, a place that doesn't have change or seasons. It's always about the same temperature there, not very hot and not very cold. There isn't even weather there. It rains a bit in the winter, but there's almost never thunder and lightning, or huge winds, or, for that matter, even clouds, unless you count fog. I virtually never saw a season until, in my beginning twenties, I was in the army and went to Korea, which was dead and brown in winter when I arrived. And then spring came, wildfires running across the land, and suddenly hillsides pink with wild azaleas and rhododendrons. I was hooked on seasons ever since. Spring was so wonderful you almost didn't mind having to pay for it with winter.

But the idea of change was part of it. When we were first married we used to spend summer vacations at Cheryl's family home in Porthcawl, South Wales, on the Bristol Channel. We were only a block or two from the beach. Living there meant you always knew what stage the tide was at, and you can't believe what tides there were in that narrow channel! A forty-foot drop in elevation between high and low. You could walk on the beach at low tide, then deep-sea fish at the same spot at high tide.

Arkansas for all my complaints is really quite good. Autumn extends to late November. The cold part of winter usually doesn't hit until January, and by the end of February you can smell the freshening in the air. Perfect: You get all four seasons, but not very much winter. And the change from season to season is like watching the changes in the tides, and the very lowest low tide (with so many new things uncovered), or the highest high tide, are special pleasures, like spring.

Every year now as I watch the change towards spring, I try to see the MOMENT of spring's arrival, and every year I am looking away at just that time, and I've missed it again. I start way before spring by noting late winter occurrences. I've already mentioned the snow geese staging in huge numbers then flying off north, or the red-winged blackbirds leaving the massive winter roosts and setting up territories along the edges of the row-crop fields.  There was a new one this year: When we start our bird feeders in the fall of each year we discover there is a complex highway system of Woodland Vole tunnels beneath the surface of our yard. Where we throw out the most birdseed, the highways converge, and the voles are constantly darting out for a mouthful, then carrying it to their underground stockpiles.

So this year when the solid ice-sheet came, and stayed, they were kept underground, living off their preserves. When the ice of our mini ice age finally retreated, suddenly they were back.

That was one sign. Here's another, more complex end-of-winter sign: Our holly bushes are covered with berries in late summer, and berries are designed to be eaten by birds, which will then distribute the seeds around the neighborhood with their droppings. But I think the holly berries don't want to be planted until nearly spring, and so they remain inedible throughout the winter, but suddenly ripen in spring. That's my theory. Anyway, no one eats them during the winter. However each bush or collection of bushes is owned by a mockingbird. They guard them all winter long, so they will be sure to have a cache of berries to eat in the spring when they are preparing for nesting season. Here's one keeping a sharp eye out.

The problem is, all the berry-eating birds around are covertly watching the berries waiting to invade them en masse when they are ready. So that was another sign. Suddenly the robins came from all over to start gorging on berries.

The mockingbird went mad, sweeping in and bashing them violently off his berries and chasing them across the yard. But as he did so, another flock of robins came to the berries from the other side. He swept back and scattered them, but by then the first group of robins had returned to the berries. When he finally got them all off (his berries sadly diminished) he was exhausted. And that's when the cedar waxwings snuck in.

These are quiet soft-looking things, their feathers so silky they look like fine fur. But when a flock comes (there might be 10 or 100), they are unstoppable, and they clean out berries faster than anyone. Here is what the poor mockingbird was faced with.

Well, this is mean to the poor mockingbird, but it's good fun to watch. Now, those are end-of-winter signs. Here is a start-of-spring sign I especially enjoy: The red buckeyes budding and opening up and flowering. It seems to happen almost overnight. Suddenly there is a big swollen leaf bud, almost immediately the leaves break out, and instantly, it seems, there is a flower bud.

When those flower buds open into a bright red spray of flowers, with uncanny accuracy the first ruby-throated hummingbird of the year appears in our yard. Now that could be the actual moment of spring.

Except I'm exaggerating, and probably the appearance isn't exact, or varies from year to year, as perhaps the flowering does too. And if you time the coming of spring to the birds' nesting seasons,  as I sometimes try to do, well, birds don't all nest at the same time. In our yard right now the wrens and mourning doves and cardinals and tufted titmice are already nesting, and probably so are killdeer on the railroad tracks across the road. Mockingbirds and thrashers and towhees are just beginning to sing, looking for mates, and some birds, like goldfinches, won't nest until much later in the year. And I have also tried linking the arrival of spring with when the leaves come out on the trees, but those arrival times are staggered among trees of different species, and even among trees of the same species, sitting side by side. It's complicated.

What I am leading up to is, this year I spotted the exact moment. Here's how it happened. One of my obsessions is to stand up first thing in the morning in our bedroom window (which faces east) and watch where the sun comes up. Let me explain. If I look out the bedroom window one way, here is what I see:

My study is in that outbuilding. If you look at the biggish tree on the right, behind that is where the sun comes up at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the sun as far south as it will go before it turns around and starts coming back. Now look at this view from the bedroom window from a slightly different angle:

I have swung around to the left so you can see farther to the north. At the summer solstice, when the sun has gone as far north as it is going to go, it comes up just to the left of that small red building. Now notice that you can see into the open garage door (it's always open because I am too lazy to close it). What you see is the window on the left-side wall. Now, the official beginning of spring is on the vernal equinox, which is exactly between the two solstices. If you look at these last two pictures together, you will note that the window is exactly midway between the two solstices. This year I wasn't looking away: I caught it just in time, the exact moment that spring began!

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