The Fox Sparrow Says So
It is a long standing joke in colder climes that there are only 2 seasons. In the Poconos the location of choice for this saying is usually the Borough of Mount Pocono, but you can insert your own village name if you’ve heard it before. The joke was usually spoken by folks from either the Lehigh Valley (Allentown area) or the Wyoming Valley (Scranton area), and it goes like this: “There are only 2 seasons in Mount Pocono, winter and the 4th of July.” I am hoping dearly that this isn’t the year that old joke holds true.
Given the winter of 2014 to date, it is easy to get pessimistic about future weather conditions. We have been buffeted with brutal cold, high winds and deep snow. I’ve lived in the Poconos for most of my life and I do not remember a winter like this. One of my favorite late winter activities since becoming an environmental educator with the Monroe County Conservation District’s EE Center has been maple sugaring at the Meesing Nature Center. Historically mid March would be the end of the season, but not this year. The cold has kept sap flow to a minimum. When we have had a couple of days above freezing, the sap that does flow, freezes when the thermometer plummets into the single digits again.
Jackie and I love winter. Unlike most of our friends who envision a life down south after retirement we’re thinking of a cabin in the Catskills, but even we are longing for spring. While our neighbors fret that spring is late we know that it’s closer than it feels because the birds tell us so. While my brother couldn’t believe that there were robins in January we birders know that there are species that follow the rising and setting of the sun, regardless of the temperature and snow pack, to return every year. For us the 2 birds that mark the beginning of the end for winter are the red-winged blackbird and the fox sparrow.
The blackbirds are breeding birds in the hay fields and marshes of the Poconos but unlike most breeding song birds they return early. Sometimes by late February they start to pop up at bird feeders. They will flock around feeders for about a month before moving back to their breeding territories in late March and April. Our first red-winged blackbirds appeared on February 22. I know it is hardly spring, but just by being there our spirits rose like the sap in the maple trees. Unfortunately for our spirits, and the maple trees, the Poconos dropped back into arctic conditions.
It is March 18. Conditions haven’t changed. This morning was only 16 degrees when I made my way to Kettle Creek, but I’ve got a bounce in my step even though the trails remain icy. A few days ago, there was dancing in my kitchen. The fox sparrows were back! For me this large plump, rusty red and grey sparrow is the most highly anticipated bird of the year. Head and shoulders above the song sparrow and white-throated sparrow, the fox sparrows don't just scratch the ground while feeding they excavate it. And it was that exaggerated motion, as if the bird were attacking the ice beneath the feeder that made me do a double take: “They’re back,” I hollered to anyone and everyone. When Jackie raced into the kitchen we danced for joy. It didn’t matter that it was only 10 degrees outside, spring was coming, not matter what the thermometer said. Yes, spring was coming; the fox sparrow told me so.