The Very, Very Few Birds of Winter

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This time of year I sometimes feel like a castaway walking to the edge of the surf and looking long and hard at the horizon. Inside the house here, plants that can’t overwinter outside are struggling: some of the Calendula succumbed to aphids; the rosemary dried — it likes neither electric heat nor wet feet, being too long damp — and the bee balm has died back. There are successes. A low Munstead lavender that had barely progressed in two years has suddenly expanded in pale green growth. Before, it had been a knot of stubborn but dry leaves on the deck. Inside, with a humidifier, it has new life. Six hollyhock plants are thriving; the ferns and ficus are fine.

But outside the window little happens. We move from bare cold, bisque-colored shrub to snow flurries. Patches of white that remain in shade for weeks. It has an after-the-prom feel. Everyone has gone home. The vice principal is checking the corners of the gym for snogging teenagers; the janitor has brought out mop and bucket. Footsteps echo on hollow parquet.

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Two years ago, feeling a similar loss, I grabbed my camera and went for a walk, determined to record this emptiness in a visual essay called The Very, Very Few Birds of Winter. Bare-branched trees. The scrotum of an abandoned vireo nest dangling from the cottonwood. I hardly made it beyond the front door. On the apple tree, latched onto the wrapped trunk, a Hairy Woodpecker looked up; “The Very, Very Few Birds of Winter? Ooo! Can I be in it?” he asked. From the mountain mahogany on the east slope, a Dark-eyed Junco overheard. “That sounds like a great idea!” he chimed in. I drove down toward Bingham Hill, where a Red-tailed Hawk stood watching above the hay field. “My picture? Gosh, I don’t know…” he grumbled. I took it anyway.

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Past the duck pond, where the outlet drains from the reservoir, an American Kestrel was even more skeptical. “You’re kidding, right? Birds in winter? Wherever are you going to find them?” And then he made a rude sound, like “fluurbt!” and flew away.

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