Trail Ornithology: Early Winter

There is something beautiful and fulfilling about heading out on the W&OD on a cloudy, dark winter day.  The light glowers through thin spots in the clouds.  The air feels like rain or snow, though the temperature is too high for snow and the Doppler radar suggests there’s no precipitation for a hundred miles around.  Even the air isn’t as cold as it could be, reflecting the fact that the long line of a cold front is still a couple of hundred miles to the west and moving slowly.

On somber days like this I have time to notice the little things.  It’s a weekday, highs in the upper 50° range.  In 24.47 miles I pass one rider, and am passed by none.  The Trail is empty, silent, cool.  I’ve slightly overdressed, not realizing that the air temperature would be a good 7 to 8 degrees warmer than yesterday.  Even without the sun, which makes a tremendous difference this time of year, the air warmth makes me feel hotter than I should, especially around the neck, where I am wearing a wool mock turtle neck to ward off chills.

The birds in the brush, shrubs, and trees beside the trail draw my attention.  There are cardinals, of course.  Virginia’s state bird, they are year-round inhabitants.  You see the males (red) and females (brown-red), not always together in pairs, chucking away as they flit from branch to branch, scouting food.  Then there are all the little sparrows.  Probably some are still English sparrows, the perennial non-native misfit, aggressive and self-sustaining, eking out an existence in the low bushes and brambles that have not been mowed to ground level.  More of the sparrows this time of year are the White-Throats, larger and more spry than their non-native companions, winter birds indeed.  And there are a few other kinds, notable by their distinctive cries and flight patterns.  To identify them I would have to be on foot with binoculars rather than on a bike rolling along at 16 or 17 mph.   Along with the sparrows are the Juncos, grey sparrows with white breasts and white in their tail, definitely harbingers of winter.  When you see both White-Throats and Juncos together, you know that winter is here.

The most surprising sighting today, however, was the mockingbirds.  I thought they migrated.  In fact, I still think they do.  But some of them seem to think that they don’t have to leave.  The Virginia climate is now warm enough for them the whole year round.  I saw their distinctive shape and wing / tail white streaks along the trail in low brush.

I can just imagine, however, the conversation among Mockingbirds in the subtropics these days, discussing the one I saw who stayed behind:

Bird 1:  Where’s Eddie?  Didn’t he migrate this year?

Bird 2:  Well, you know Eddie.  He’s a bit of a bird-brain, er, a feather-head, . . . well, you know what I mean.

Bird 3:  Yeah, he must have deleted everything in his Inbox just after the Migration email came out.

Bird 4:  Probably just as well.  Knowing Eddie, he’d take off, then spot a Bahamas Tourism commercial on a big-screen TV on the wrong side of a plate glass window, think he was almost there, and head straight for it.

Bird 5:  Yeah, here’s Eddie:  “zzzzzzzzz . . . Huh?  Wait?  Where is everybody?  And why am I so cold?”

All:  Haw, haw, haw, caw, haw haw!

Bird 5:  Thank you!  Thank you!  I’m here all winter.

Bird 3:  Want a refresher for your Margarita?

Bird 5:  Don’t mind if I do.

Just the kind of dialogue for Mocking birds.

© Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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