Monthly Archives: March 2011


As morning seeped in through the windows. bringing with it another dim, dull day, I drew my winter coat on over a fleece vest and an REI-built thermal shirt, and I sighed. Three layers. Again. The calendar says it is spring, but the La Nina that has parked itself off our shores for months keeps grizzling on and on, sending us one winter storm after another.

It reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, The Long Winter. Well, sort of. Laura’s pioneer family endured a winter so harsh there were three-day blizzards twice a week from October through April. Food was running out, as was fuel. In desperation, the Ingalls family twists wisps of hay to keep the fire going.

One day, as Laura’s hope trickles away, her father announces that the winter cannot defeat them.  “Can’t it, Pa?” Laura asked stupidly.

“No,” said Pa. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up.”

Neither should we. As the old folksong says, “There’s a dark and troubled side of life, but there’s a bright and a sunny side, too. Tho’ we meet with the darkness and strife, the sunny side we also may view.”

The earth is tilting its north inexorably toward the sun, and warm days will come. Soon winter must retreat and El Nino will yield to spring.

The birds know it. Yesterday a cyclone of swallows swirled over the Fill. Fifty Violet-greens had arrived from the south and were busy hunting bugs among the clouds. They towered above me, spiraling up and up, as far as the eye could see. Then, at some unseen signal, they swooped down, chittering their gossipy songs as they skimmed along the grass, nearly brushing me with their wings. One decided to light on the birch snag on the shoreline edge of Hunn Meadow West. It perched there only long enough to give me a glance, then, feeling the wind ruffle through its feathers, it spread it wings and was gone.

Dim light?  Gloomy skies? All irrelevant in the glory of the swallows’ kelly-green backs, their glowing violet rumps, their snow-white bellies, and their bright, bright eyes, shining with the force of their spirit, reminding me that life is good and the world is beautiful. And hope lives.

Now Playing

March is a special time at the Fill. For a couple of weeks this month, a little window of time opens, and the songbirds who have spent the winter with us but who breed in the Far North start to sing. They are the avian version of the “snowbirds” who drive their Winnebagos to warm parts in the south to get away from the winter. Fox Sparrows, Golden-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Yellow-rumped Warblers all seem to think of Seattle as the warm south. In late fall they arrive from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, and they spend the winter foraging for the abundant seeds and insects the Fill provides.

But as the earth begins to tilt toward spring, the longer days and shorter nights stimulate the hormones of these northern natives. In March, they begin to molt into their breeding plumage — and they lift their voices in glorious song. It is the only time of year we here in the city can hear them.

All their songs are beautiful beyond words, but the most improbably beautiful is the song of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. It is a rollicking cascade of flute-like music, a solo sung fortissimo, con brio, a blast of pure sound so loud you’d think it comes from a person-sized bird, not the little puffball who truly sings it. By contrast, the song of the Golden-crowned Sparrow is a lament of long, slow notes sung suave, so sweet it can make you weep. These songs are punctuated by the piccolo staccato of the Lincoln’s aria and the wind-rush of the Yellow-rumped Warbler — singers who always seem to be in a hurry to push out all the notes before they run out of breath.

A great place to listen to the concert is on the Loop Trail beside Kern’s Restoration Pond. Here all five soloists often sing together, a quintet that fills the air with angelic music no human can play. Admission is free, but you have to bring your own seating. I recommend a fold-up campstool and a pair of opera glasses, although binoculars will do as well. You need to book your tickets soon, though, because the singers won’t stay much longer. They are already starting to pack for their bags for the big show in the Far North, where the audience is as tough as any dreaded by La Scala opera stars. The females of their species will be waiting to hear what the maestros can do.

Emily Post Approves

Western Scrub-Jay with acorn (© Gregg Thompson)

In a famous Homer Simpson episode, three of Homer’s co-workers observe him golluping his food at his workstation. One observer says, “God, he eats like a pig.”

Lenny, the loyal but precise friend, replies, “I don’t know. Pigs tend to chew. I’d say he eats more like a duck.”

I have often observed ducks eating at the Fill, and indeed they do gollup their food. So do many other birds. Without any teeth, they have little choice, I suppose. Herons, grebes, gulls, robins — all down their food whole in great gulps.

Not scrub-jays, though. The Western Scrub-jays of the Fill must belong to the upper crust of the avi-kingdom when it comes to fine dining. They have manners. I know because I was privileged to watch one scion yesterday at the Fill who brought an acorn to table.

It must have been a nut cached some six months ago. In the fall, I saw all the scrub-jays busily harvesting acorns from the oak trees scattered throughout the neighborhood. They would take each acorn to a selected place in a lawn or nearby field, place it in the larder so to speak, and cover it up with a leaf. At the time I thought this was pretty stupid. After all, squirrels, rodents, raccoons, and other birds are always on the lookout for an easy meal. What’s to stop them from sniffing out such an ill-hidden cache?

Nevertheless, the scrub-jays are now reaping the rewards. Every day, they unearth a deposit from their nutty caches, fly to a convenient bush, and commence dining. It is a delicate procedure. They begin by carefully wrapping their claws around the acorn. Then they peck precisely at the hull, splitting it in two and creating Acorn on the Half-Shell. They proceed to strip off the rest of the hull, and then they nip off bites of nut. Each bite is fashionably tiny, as though they were politely breaking off a little bit of cucumber sandwich at an English tea.

Between bites, my particular jay exchanged remarks with another jay at the next table…er, I mean bush. The two of them took their time to eat, just as fashionable diners do in the finest restaurants. When at last it had finished, “my” jay wiped its beak fastidiously on a twig and then cast an inquiring look at me. I had been standing dumbly there the whole time, like a waiter ready to bring the next course. My mother would have said I was rude to stare so openly. Perhaps the jay agreed, for when it finally flew off, I did not receive a tip.

A Winter’s Day

The Fill has been very cold and a little snowy lately, but the snow has been more of a dusting than a real blanket. Still, we’re definitely experiencing winter storms, despite the fact that the crocuses are up, the pussy willows are out, and the Red-winged Blackbirds have already decided which tiny patch of cattails will be their version of a Cadillac and a “Hey baby, hey baby, hey baby.”

I have been feeling disgruntled. Where is spring? Where is even the steady day-by-day progression towards spring!?

I set my campstool down at Main Pond the other day and decided I would sit there until spring arrived. It wasn’t altogether by intent. By the time I had moved glacially as far as Main Pond, I was frozen pretty solid. Sitting down was difficult; getting up again seemed impossible. I was sure the joggers going by would be glad to drop off a cookie or two now and then, so I would be fine for another month at least. Surely spring would be here in a month.

Main Pond was clear of ice, and a few Green-winged Teals and American Wigeons were tucked up under the willows. I couldn’t see the Common Teal who has been visiting from Siberia all winter, but he had been on the pond the day before, so I’m sure he’s still hanging out here. The sky turned a leaden gray, that brooding color that signals more snow is about to fall. I sighed. Oh for a bit of sun.

Just when I was feeling sorriest for myself, out from under the trees sailed two Northern Pintail drakes in full breeding plumage. They glided across the pond without any visible sign of movement, as though they had only to wish to be somewhere and there they would be. Their reflections glowed in the still water. The sun broke through the heavy clouds briefly, enough to silver the world with light. Every detail of every feather on those ducks stood out in the clear air.

Northern Pintail drake on Main Pond © Doug Parrott.

Say what you will about winter, a cold north wind brings with it a purity unlike any other. It blows away the city sounds, allowing nature to speak in quiet tones: the little crackle of a brown cottonwood leaf hitting the snow, the clack of bare branches waving in the breeze, the creak of coots as they talk amongst themselves on the pond. I sprang up, eager to see what else the Fill had to offer on this day. Gloomy weather? Not at all. Winter is a season with its own beauty, as glorious in its way as spring could ever be.