Thursday, January 3, 2013

Visitors from the North

Yesterday during a routine visit to the Amherst-Hadley area, I stopped in as usual to all my favorite birding spots: the Honey Pot, Aqua Vitae, Mill Valley, Moody Bridge, South Maple, etc. Because I bird the area every several weeks, I’ve become familiar with the roads, turnouts, terrain, trees, vegetation, etc. My four-wheel drive vehicle takes me safely through mud, water, snow, dirt, and ice, so I can get around to far-flung places safely and without exposing myself to danger.

I was feeling more than the usual sense of anticipation, since a Gyrfalcon had been sighted (and confirmed) in the Honey Pot, and I knew I had a good chance of seeing it. But even if I hadn’t seen the bird, I would have enjoyed my explorations of this very beautiful area. Amherst and Hadley place a high esthetic and cultural value on agricultural land, and vast swathes are preserved and under active cultivation. (Of course, I always experience a certain degree of nostalgia on every visit, since D and I lived there for several years when we fell in love and were married.)

I love the area at all times of year: during its emerging green-gold spring; at the height of lush, ripe summer; in the golden days of the New England autumn; and during the bare-bones days of winter, when the earth, trees, and sky are beautifully unadorned.

Yesterday there was a special sort of beauty to enjoy. A wonderful snow had fallen several days ago, covering a wide region with a foot or more of soft, dry, pure white snow, and it has been very cold every day, so that the white snow has been preserved in all its icy splendor. In the farm fields around Hadley, a steady wind blew snow across the white fields, creating veils and scarves of shimmering crystals that hung in the air, swirled across the open landscape, and swept across the roads. As I drove along the narrow dirt-snow-ice tracks, I got great looks at a Northern Shrike, and flocks of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, and American Tree Sparrows flew up from the road edges where they were foraging. These are Horned Larks:

The birds would be swept along with the wind and snow, alighting fifty or a hundred feet away. The Snow Buntings, with their extensive white plumage, seemed for all the world like large, living snowflakes. These cell-phone photos, taken on the fly (as it were), give just a hint of what I saw. In the first photo, you can see the birds in the center of the image, just below the corn stubble:

 In this photo, a few birds are visible against the dark distant trees:

With the frigid temperatures, the steady wind and blowing snow, all the tundra and arctic birds in the immediate area (such as Gyrfalcon, Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, Redpoll, American Tree Sparrow, Snow Goose, American Pipit, Rough-legged Hawk), I really could imagine that I was in the far north. So beautiful, so clear, so white.

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