Focus on Nature: We return home, and so do the birds

Yes, there’s no place like home. What a difference in climate: Florida with its semi-tropical weather and its 80-degree water temperature, and then up here, the North Fork with its cold, miserable rain and cooler weather. But all that is going to change as spring has sprung.

As soon as we reached our beloved home in the woods and stepped out of the car, we were greeted by the calls of the red-bellied woodpecker, the white-breasted nuthatch and, in the far background, the call of the red-winged blackbird, who was already defending his newly found turf.

Yes, it was good to be home. The next morning we rose early to look over the pasture that lay below us. It was overcast and dreary, but that didn’t stop the birds from singing their hearts out. How can they do that when conditions are so miserable? Yes, the robin was running across the lawn, the tufted titmouse and nuthatch were at the feeders and a pair of cardinals was playing the courting game.

All that day we kept a record of the birds we saw. For six months there had been no feeders until the ones our son filled at 1 p.m. the day we arrived, and it was like opening Pandora’s box, with an array of birds that somehow had been told this was the place to be. The noisy little finches, along with the English sparrows, a dove and the noisy blue jay, scratched below the feeder, picking up seeds that were spilled from above.

In between all the activity of the other birds there was a continual flitting in and out by the chickadees. I think of them in the midwinter as the howling winds and low temperatures sweep across the country. Where were they during those nights? How did they survive the cold of last winter? They didn’t just migrate in; these are resident birds like the woodpeckers.

Somehow they had found a place to stay. I hope it was one of my bird boxes. Perhaps more than one would go in and snuggle down among the others, let their heartbeats drop and, yes, they would have made it through the night.

Thinking about it reminded me of the time I was on a bird count on Gardiners Island and I walked over to an old fisherman’s shack on the south end of the island. I walked into the doorless structure and looked around at what was once a busy place, with stove and sink and an old frying pan. I walked over to the stove and lifted the lid and there in a small circle, curled up one behind the other, were deer mice spending the winter huddled together, awaiting spring.

Back to the chickadees — I was talking about them keeping warm overnight in the cold, wild weather. Where was all the food for them? Nature has provided them with a bill that can maneuver deep under the bark of trees and pick out tiny insects to provide them with survival food so life would go on.

Days after our arrival home, new birds were added to our list. A small flock of colorful yellow-and-black goldfinches, recognizable by their up-and-down flight and soft, sweet lyrical song, arrived to enjoy our special thistle feeder.
Then we had a real treat as we ate breakfast: An eastern phoebe, a member of the flycatcher clan, sat on our patio railing. He must have had thin pickings for his meals of flying insects, for it was still cold and raw outside, with temperatures below 50 degrees.

This bird was not the only one scurrying around for survival food. The long, pointed bill of a house wren worked over the patio bricks, where there must have been something in the crevices, for it picked away and then moved along and finally flew off. How do they make it?

Of course, our big treat came when a pair of ospreys flew over our windmill, one landing on it for a while, looking it over. Perhaps they were part of a new generation still looking for a nesting site. Let’s hope we’ll see them back.

Within a week our pasture has turned to green, the star magnolia that my dad gave me some 65 years ago was alive with its pure white, and, of course, the forsythia outshown everything but the daffodils.

The discouraging part of our return was the damage done by deer. We purposely built 300 feet off the road on 7 1/2 acres of woodland in hopes that it would bring us a little closer to nature. This idea prevailed for many years, but during the winter, I guess, when food was scarce, the deer devastated every bud, leaf and shrub between our house and the road. Now we seem to be on the highway, with all the noise of the traffic that was once so subdued by our woodland buffer. It is as if someone had set out to clear the land — everything is open.

In the evening a week after our return, we could hear the familiar sound of the spring peepers down at the pond. How reassuring their call is, for we look forward to them each year. Their calls let the world know that nature has swung around full circle and is ready to start again bringing us the wonders of the natural world.