Merry Christmas! and the Winter Birds

"Text, reading and photographs by Robert Towe"

From my nature journal 12.11: A mild, windless December morning. My path wanders through old fields growing back to brush land, along the high rim of the Reem’s Creek valley. Still unseasonably warm. The old farm trail becomes impassable with overgrown tangles of weeds, briers and vines---all of it alive with winter birds, feeding on berries and seeds, an abundance of wild winter fruit. With the four-lane rumbling faintly in the distance, I enjoy the December solitude, the woodland sounds of early winter. Each one to the calling he is given.

These old-field thickets have become a wild impenetrable mesh, no longer passable by human foot travel. But as I give the time to stand and look into the snarl, I discover a wide pallet of textures and pigments, bright and sparkling in moist morning sunlight. In the slow processes of forest succession, nature is persistently establishing complex communities of plants and animals, interweaving tough and delicate harmonies of life and death. Dynamics of supply and demand, ebb and flow, status quo and change, struggle in the constant bloody claw-and-feather tension of wildness.

Tallest of the rank shrubs is sumac, dark blood-red fruit curled on the branched brown “staghorns”. Underneath, scarlet sawbriers and crimson blackberry leaves brighten the muted woolish tones of the winter woods. Leathery leaves of honeysuckle vines shine like burgundy wine among the fuzzy white seed-heads of goldenrod and the year’s last asters, killed by frost. Festive orange and yellow berries of bittersweet twine across the tangled chaos of thickets and thorns. A much broader spectrum of vivid colors is on display now, than in the sultry deeps of summer green.

These are just a few of the wild plants providing food and cover for a wide variety of winter birds and mammals. All the summer birds have long since flown. As I stand still, watching, the birds forget my presence and return to feeding. Warbling softly above me in the gnarled black limbs of a walnut, a family of bluebirds perches together, ruddy breasts warming in low morning sun. Beyond them the vast azure sky is streaked with white contrails of commercial jets crisscrossing high above the quiet land.

Dark thickets around me flash and twitter the white scissor tails and tweets of slate-colored juncos, flown down from summer nesting in the higher mountains. The cool air is pierced with jubilant lilting of whitethroat sparrows. Stark pink canes of wild raspberry complement the rosy plumage of purple finches. Further out the gray ridge, two big pileated woodpeckers cluck and laugh at each other, their loud alarm notes echo down the empty hollows. From somewhere far below come the sharp black staccato caws of winter crows.