Monday, February 3, 2014

“The russet dress of nature”

This afternoon, when I was supposed to be working, instead I was browsing through Thoreau on Birds, a lovely collection of excerpts about from Thoreau’s Journals, arranged taxonomically and enhanced by snippets of information and commentary by Helen Cruickshank, who compiled the excerpts. (McGraw-Hill, ©1964)

I delighted in this excerpt about meadowlarks:
“Three larks rise from the sere grass on Minott’s Hill before me, the white of their outer tail-feathers very conspicuous, reminding me of arctic snowbirds by their size and form also. The snow begins to whiten the plowed ground now, but it has not overcome the russet of the grass ground. Birds generally wear the russet dress of nature at this season. They have their fall no less than the plants; the bright tints depart from their foliage or feathers, and they flit past like withered leaves in rustling flocks. The sparrow is a withered leaf.”
—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), November 8, 1853.

Meadowlarks used to be quite common, present in almost every field and meadow. Now, with extreme loss and degradation of habitat, they are becoming rare, to the extent that a sighting is now a special occasion for most birders in our part of the country.

I noted with pleasure that meadowlarks had been reported recently (via MassBirds) in a field that I visit in Amherst-Hadley, so when I had to travel there several days ago, I stopped by in hopes of glimpsing them. It's a lovely spot, rather desolate, and for that, all the more precious:


It was a thrill to find eight meadowlarks browsing in the golden-brown grass and weeds that embroidered the snow, just as Thoreau described. My record shot and video are poor:



A birder from the area whose blog I follow got much better shots:


Isn’t that a gorgeous bird? The sunny yellow breast is an amazing sight just now, in the dead of winter.

And oh, its whistled song in spring, almost sweeter than the ear can bear! How long since I’ve heard that song?

One of my treasured childhood memories – was I about ten years old? – is this: Standing at the edge of the meadow down the road from my house at dawn on a spring morning, watching and listening in wonder as a meadowlark, from atop a high tree, sang its song as the sun rose over the green, green hill above the marsh. Such piercing clarity, such a sound!

Don’t you wish there were more farm fields around, with grass and weeds left standing through the winter?

In my town, we have some good-sized agriculture fields, but after harvest they are mostly shorn down to the soil. No food for wintering birds. (This year, the White-crowned Sparrows, once regular winter visitors, are absent.) Increased erosion. Driving through the meadows on a windy winter day, when there is no protective snow or ice cover, is very sad, indeed.

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