It is hard to remember a transformation such as we just had, when the season seemed to change suddenly, with the decisiveness of a no-nonsense business executive. November was pleasant and mild, warm but not unseasonable, with enough rain and cold to bring out the sweaters and not fool us into thinking we had all been transplanted to Georgia.
Then December came along and it was winter. The calendar might haves said not quite yet, but the thermometer said Now!
I like early winter because the afternoon light starts to turn golden around 2:30. Also because flocks of ducks and geese return to the Chesapeake. I can take the cold air, for about a month, as long as I get a daily dose of comfort food.
It is good to get out for a walk in the cold. On a windy day, the woods are a refuge, and the sound of the wind in the trees masks the not-too-distant highway noise. I went to the woods to take stock of the good things in my life and to look and listen for winter birds.
For the first mile, it was quiet. With my ears wrapped against the cold, I couldn’t hear above the sound of the wind … until the chirping of a red-bellied woodpecker cut through my internal monologue.
I had been lost in my thoughts. The walk warmed me, so I lifted my earflaps to let the outside sounds come in. Chickadees, some crows and a flock of geese were added to my list. But mostly it was quiet except for the wind. But I know that is the way it is in the winter woods: long stretches of quiet until a mixed flock of feathered winter cohorts move through the scene. And so it was on my December, mid-week walk: quiet until I hit the swamp.
In the swamp there were birds in pairs; cardinals and tufted titmice. The titmice are small, gray birds with crests or tufts atop their heads and large, dark eyes.
A sharp-shinned hawk flew overhead; I saw its shadow before it appeared, and so I was quick with the camera and got a decent shot.
There is a tradition of Christmas Bird Counts this time each year. They are organized outings, loosely overseen by the National Audubon Society. Legions of amateur ornithologist head out to list as many birds as they can find. The counters come together at the end of the day often for hot food as well as to compile the numbers. The counts are at least as much about socializing as they are about science. But on this walk, I was flying solo.
I didn’t find some of my favorite winter birds — kinglets and the elusive winter wren — but I know they were close by. I did see white-throated sparrows, juncos, a downy woodpecker and goldfinches. When I was almost back, I got a good look at a sweet hermit thrush. This cold-season resident of the mid-Atlantic is cousin to the robin and the wood thrush. The thrush rewarded me for my patience and willingness to take what comes by posing in a tree by the side of the trail.
Satisfied, I headed home, still taking stock and counting my blessings instead of birds.
To join in a Christmas Bird Count, contact the individuals listed below. Find a complete list at www.mdbirds.com under species counts.
Saturday Dec. 26
Blackwater/Southern Dorchester County. Compiler Chan Robbins: [email protected]
Sunday, December 27
Point Lookout. Compiler Bob Boxwell: 410-610-5124; [email protected]
Friday, January 1
Bowie. Contact Fred Fallon: 301-249-1518; [email protected]
Sunday, January 3
Patuxent River. Compiler Andy Brown: 410-535-5327; [email protected]
Annapolis/Gibson Island. Coordinators Sue Ricciardi: 410-647-9513; and Lynn Davidson and Hal Wierenga: 410-647-7439.