More Than Snow Falls

by Gary Kline

We were doing just fine in the winter of 2011-2012 until the snows of mid-January. Not that they weren’t pretty and we hadn’t sort of missed the winter whiteness (just one light and fleeting snowfall back in November), but these snows brought trouble. Bush and tree limbs were bowed practically to the ground from the snowfall on the 16th.

I was headed out back to put braces in our big hoophouse that had just had a blanket of snow knocked off it when I heard two loud cracks and down came a tree on the property to our west. We lost a good-sized limb out of the Japanese maple growing at the northeast corner of the house. It had a weak crotch with a rotted spot. In knocking snowfall off the other limbs I was bombarded with the wet stuff.

All the birds in the neighborhood must have been here, having heard there is an overflow of food at the Kline place feeder. All the bird seed scattered on the ground was covered now, though the squirrels worked to uncover much of it; and wouldn’t you know it, they promptly ate it, leaving nothing for the juncos, towhees, doves, etc. So I trekked out to scatter more seeds. Do they appreciate us? No matter, we appreciate them; so we win.

Pity the poor robins; they shouldn’t be here, anyway, in January. Hunting earthworms on a lawn with 8 inches of snow covering it gets to be energy inefficient, so they took to the bright red berries on our cotoneaster bush, which serves as an emergency food supply. The robins won’t eat them unless there are no options; a matter of taste, evidently. Sometimes the bush is full of robins, so we get a treat looking at them just outside the kitchen window. Who doesn’t like a robin red-breast (except when singing loudly at 5:30 in the morning)? Let’s be honest, the robin’s breast is not red, it’s orange.

Male Varied Thrush - Typically Found in the Pacific Northwest

Male Varied Thrush - Typically Found in the Pacific Northwest

Something we missed this winter is the varied thrush, cousin to the robin, that’s almost always here poking around under the shrubs in our landscape. Now, this is a winter robin. It’s supposed to be here, and evidently moves down from higher elevations when snowfall gets too deep and blanketing up there. Whatever do they eat? The same question has to be asked about the diminutive and secretive winter wren, which practically no one sees or pays any attention to. But, when the world seems all but desolate in the depth of winter, it’s there defying the bleakness with its flitting, cheeps, and solitary, but undaunted spirit. If we but take note of this tiny critter, the world is less lonesome.

The robin, varied thrush, and even the bluebirds are in the thrush family, along with a number of brown-backed, spot-breasted, shy and melodious regular thrushes. You see the family resemblance in all of their young, which have spotted breasts. Surely you’ve noticed when young robins, fresh out of the nest, appear on your lawn, begging to be fed a juicy earthworm. Earthworms do so much.

The varied thrush, though awkwardly named (which was not their fault) is perhaps my favorite bird – – – right in there with the cedar waxwing. Its shy, perky demeanor and lute-like call are distinctive and endearing – – – treats in themselves. While subdued, its coloration is beautiful and certainly varied, if you look closely. Rich oranges, suffused throughout its wings, flash and dazzle when it flies up from the ground into a tree to avoid you.

At first glance, the varied thrush looks like a robin, except that the male has a distinct black band across its upper chest. Why? You’d have to ask them. The female lacks that band and is more washed-out orange on its breast – – – in keeping with the rule of a more muted gender throughout the bird world. Both costumes have something to do with perpetuating the species. I can’t detect that any of them complains, however; unlike the world of humans.

I don’t know what we’d do without birds to animate the winter landscape – – – or the spring, summer and fall, for that matter; and it’s not just the colors, but the calls and songs as well. Pity poor humans that don’t bother to take notice. The same goes for butterflies and hummingbirds, and all the myriad, marvelous flowers, so beautiful beyond imagination and so precious beyond our deserving or our capability to fully take in. If anything makes living worthwhile, it’s gazing at a gorgeous flower. What wonderment! And this is all an accident?

There have been worse winter snowfalls. The one in 2008 may have been the worst ever. It brought down all the old apple trees in our small, neglected orchard. What a mess – – – and a loss, especially the Northern Spy. You have to wonder what they spy on. Do they spy in the north or is that where they are from? After cleaning all that up, we turned the area into a pumpkin patch that did pretty well last summer. The place could use more bird houses. Swallows will be coming before long.

P.S. – Aha! The varied thrush showed up on the afternoon of the 16th and joined in to eat some of those seeds scattered earlier that day.

P.P.S. – And then the snow really hit; a foot or more the next morning. Truly every bird within a mile must have been here, all zeroed in on the one remaining spigot of seeds, our hanging feeder.

Here they came, four and twenty blackbirds (redwings); and beneath, the bottom feeders, a couple dozen juncos earning their nickname of snow birds. A second varied thrush showed up and set about scratching through the bark mulch beneath our pink-flowering currant next to the house. Then it crossed over the porch floor to the mulch on the other side.

Song sparrows, Stellar jays, and mourning doves swung in too. Strangely, the two kinds of chickadees were not to be seen. But the most comical act in this circus was a couple squirrels that came down out of our large pine tree to cross over to our shrub island, but literally had to swim in the snow to get there; so I had to make another trek with an emergency resupply.

P.P.P.S. – That foot of snow, on top of another 8 inches already fallen, produced major havoc; many more limbs and power lines down. Our stately walnut tree suffered major damage. It certainly rivaled the 2008 storm, and, in some ways, was worse. It made all the damage cited previously seem trivial. But you all know that story, unless you live outside Western Washington. GK

Addendum –
One more thing – Due to several requests, we will be following this newsletter (?) with the Funny Bird story and a story about our Mascot, the big English Walnut near the store (including the sad parts). We just have to figure out whether to call these newsletters, Alerts or something else.

© 2012 Gary L. Kline
All Rights Reserved