Posts Tagged Red-winged Blackbird

The Balance of Light


My front door faces almost due west. Our long driveway reaches the road by way of tall loblolly sentinels on both sides. Before dawn, as I walk to the end to retrieve my newspaper, I have lately been bathed in the light of the setting full moon, shining like a beacon just above the treetops.

While the moon still rules the sky, the deep hoots of Barred Owls echo through the bare forest. It is an eerily exquisite moment, when night light still dominates. Until I turn, newspaper in hand, to walk due east back to the house. Now the balance of light begins to change.

I can barely see the eastern horizon, dimly illuminated by the just-waking sun. The owls go silent as White-throated Sparrows trade plaintive calls in the dimming moonlight.

I turn back to the west to find that the moon is sinking fast, now partly hidden by the trees.


Low clouds in the east begin to catch the sun’s rising light, painting the floodplain forest in brightening pastels.


The water in the creek glows pink, reflecting sky and forest, creating bright spots on an otherwise dark forest floor.

A neighbor’s rooster announces dawn’s official arrival. Flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds gather on a towering Sweet Gum, dancing like acrobats to retrieve seeds from still dangling seed balls. A flock of two dozenĀ Cedar Waxwings whistle to each other. I can just make out their silhouettes in the top of a Walnut tree.


The eastern sky grows brighter as more birds join the morning chorus.


I turn one last time, searching for the moon, now dimmer as the sun’s light begins to assert itself.


In a matter of five minutes, the balance of light has shifted as the moon sinks below the western horizon and the sun colors the eastern one.

Hungry does emerge from their hiding places to graze what they can before a distant hunter’s rifle shot scatters them back to the shadows.


The dance between moon and sun is never more apparent in my landscape than around the Winter Solstice. The bare trees of the deciduous forest open up sight lines, allowing both orbs to show themselves as they first emerge above the horizon.

I know some folks dislike the darkness of our winter months, but frankly, I think that’s because they’re not paying attention. Or perhaps they just don’t waken early enough to be heartened by the ever-changing, yet always constant balancing act between light and darkness. And perhaps they don’t realize that darkness only fully rules a few nights a month while the moon sleeps.

The Barred Owls know. They don’t stop their pipe organ calls during new moons. They know she’s still with us, just as they know that Winter’s cold is a necessary and welcome pause before the growing season commences in earnest.

Today marks the Winter Solstice, the point at which dark night is its most lengthy. Beginning tomorrow, the balance of light shifts back toward the sun. Before I can blink twice, green buds will be swelling, and spring vegetables will need to be planted.

For a few more weeks, I will luxuriate in Winter’s slower pace and enjoy the shifting balance of light. Soon enough, Spring’s frenzied energy will carry me into another growing season.

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone!


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While they sleep …

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia 'Elizabeth'

Swelling flower bud of Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’

Just before dawn this morning, thick frost glimmered in the fading light of a full moon. As the sun topped the nearby ridge, surfaces sparkled — walks, benches, lawn, even the trees. The thermometer on my cold hill bottomed out at 26 degrees Fahrenheit before the strengthening Spring sun began its work — Winter cold. Too cold.

The Spring Peepers, which have lustily chorused off and on since late December, have been utterly silent for four days. The American Toads, which had added their exquisite soprano trilling descant to the thrumming of the Peepers two weeks ago, have also gone quiet. The Green Anoles, which sunned themselves on our gutters on warm days all winter, have not ventured from their sleeping chambers in a week. To be sure, our weather has not been fit for cold-blooded amphibians and reptiles.

The plants in my yard agree. Half-open flower buds have opened no further. Some have browned from freeze damage. Others seem suspended in time, waiting for temperatures that match the astronomical calendar, knowing the equinox was last week, wondering like me, I imagine, why March turned so cruel in its waning days.

But while the plants and cold-blooded animals sleep, the warm-blooded ones are scrounging for food. A herd of five pregnant does devours every blade of green from our floodplain at dusk, when they emerge from their hiding places on the other side of the creek. Dark shadows in darkening light, they drift around the trees, more ghosts than flesh in the dimness.

The birds, on the other hand, have refused to concede to Spring’s reluctant arrival. Growing flocks of American Robins patrol the landscape, plucking fat earthworms from rain-moistened soil, muttering in delight at each new-found morsel.

The Red-shouldered Hawks circle the floodplain, then dive at crowded bird feeders in the hopes of pinning a slow-moving Mourning Dove or a greedy Red-winged Blackbird that lingers too long for one more bite. When the birds elude their grasp, they settle for patrolling the ground, pulling back fallen leaves with sharp yellow talons to reveal earthworms, which they greedily devour. When they’ve had their fill, they fly off with more; hungry nestlings must be fed, even while their favorite cold-blooded prey sleep securely in their winter hide-outs.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Nestlings must eat regardless of weather.

Flocks of Purple Finches grow daily. I think groups migrating from further south have heard about the snows in their summer homes up north. They linger at my feeders — free food — all you can eat! A pair of Carolina Wrens busily inspect flower pots, deck underpinnings, and an open garage for potential nesting sites. Wood Ducks paddle up and down the creek, preferring water warmer than the air.

A Great Blue Heron stalks from sand bar to sand bar. Rising into the air on massive wings, its majestic flight starkly contrasts with its harsh squawk of frustration at finding nothing tasty.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Alert for anything that moves, the hungry Great Blue Heron remains statue still.

Suet feeders are perpetually busy from dawn to full darkness. Woodpeckers and nuthatches are feeding nestlings, and insects are difficult to find in the frigid air. They are joined by increasing numbers of warblers, which must be arriving for spring nesting season. Like the woodpeckers, suet is their fall-back food until the insects finally emerge.

This morning as I filled the feeders, I heard the characteristic melodic gurgling call of Brown-headed Cowbirds. They usually arrive a few days after the warblers, lingering at my feeders until they pair off, and egg-heavy females deposit their eggs in the nests of unwary warblers.

Warm-blooded life does not seem to have the luxury of waiting for Spring to assert itself. Somehow it must carry on despite the dearth of natural food and warming nights. I keep my feeders filled and birdhouses clean, in the hopes that this eases their struggle a bit — for my local population anyway.

The weather forecasters predict that our perseverance will be rewarded. Warmer days are promised soon. I think perhaps they might be right. I spotted a bright yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail this afternoon struggling to make headway against a gusty northwest wind.

Any minute now, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds will be arriving for their spring nesting season. I’d best dust off their feeders ASAP, because their usual early food sources — blooms of Red Buckeye and Eastern Columbine — remain tightly closed against the unseasonable chill.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Not even a flower bud is yet in evidence on the native Coral Honeysuckle beloved by the hummingbirds.

Like the warm-blooded life surrounding me, my garden and I must persevere. Lettuce transplants huddle beneath garden fabric in the vegetable garden. I’ve been afraid to check on them, fearing that lifting the fabric might chill them more. And the tomato and pepper seeds I sowed a week ago have mostly germinated in the greenhouse. I’ve raised the thermostat to reduce the chances of cold air being fanned onto new-born seedlings.

Gardening is always an act of faith. This season, however, is requiring a bit more of it than usual. Believe, my friends. Soon we’ll be up to our knees in tall grass, mosquitoes, and summer squash.

But don’t blink. I have a feeling we’re mostly skipping Spring this year.

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