Gray Winter Days

“January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac

We’ve had a string of dark, gray, wet, cold winter days, and the weather has reflected my own mood – cooped up with bronchitis for almost two weeks. Bird activity around the house – as much as I can see of it through the windows and on brief trips outside – has been sporadic. Often when I look out, there’s not a single bird to be seen or heard. At other times, all the usual suspects are around and the yard looks and sounds lively, though in a stark, winter way, with a clarity that’s never felt in other seasons.

The dry chatter of Titmice and Chickadees, and the sharp pink! of a Downy Woodpecker animate the bare limbs of the pecans and oaks. White-throated Sparrows call tseet from the bushes and venture out to hunt in the places where dry brown leaves have piled up. Yellow-rumped Warblers chase each other around, frequently calling check! Carolina Wrens burble and fuss, and often come to the bird baths and feeders. The mew of a Yellow-billed Sapsucker, the onk-onk of a White-breasted Nuthatch or ank-ank-ank of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and the squeaky-toy calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches are the most colorful sounds, and their appearance always seems to make the scene more interesting.

Occasionally I hear the dry, stuttering call of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and less often, the high, thin voices of Golden-crowned Kinglets, but we’ve seen much fewer of both kinglet species this year than last year.

A small mixed flock of Juncos, Chipping Sparrows and a few Bluebirds usually comes by in the mornings to feed in the grass along the roadside. And we’ve been seeing more and more Goldfinches – especially since putting up a finch feeder on the back deck a few days ago. I’ve also seen one male House Finch there, and Chickadees, Titmice, Juncos and Cardinals all are attracted by the seeds that get scattered around the deck and under it on the ground.

This morning one Goldfinch stayed on the feeder for a long time by itself – at least an hour. Its back was turned to me, and it sat on the perch and ate steadily, filling its bill greedily with seeds. I watched it for a while at close range, admiring the soft olive color of its back, flecked with pale spots, the lemon-yellow under its chin, and the greenish-yellow of its cheeks – and then I noticed that one of its eyes was held in a squint. It was closed to no more than a slit. The other eye was open and bright. It kept the bad eye toward the feeder, and the good eye on the open side.

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