By Jeremy Siegrist
“The tragedy of life is not so much what people suffer, but rather what they miss.” -― Thomas Carlyle
“I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of the spring” - Henry David Thoreau
Don’t miss it! The bloodroot blooms for but a day. The warblers migrate through, paint the forest, and fly north in the blink of an eye. The morels peak their heads above the soil for a moment then vanish to the depths again for another year.
The tumultuous weather swirls around us and sets the stage. Something is really happening here. The times they are a’ changing. Suddenly we are putting on shorts because it feels like summer, the next day it is snowing again and we are firing up the wood stove. We hear thunder. But the glory is in the details. The faint new sound in the dawn chorus. The swelling of the bud. The splendor of this dramatic season takes some serious effort to experience but it is well worth the work. It pays in currencies of beauty, knowledge, and joy.
Around here we get excited about our yearly species list as a helpful tool for keeping us disciplined in our observations. We note when and where we see the first of every species of bird, flower, reptile, etc… We limit the observation area of the list to the local properties that make up the Iron Creek Land Community. A little bit of friendly competition ensues as we attempt to pay attention. Over the years we have begun to develop a calendar of the seasonal phenology of this area and sometimes make little bets about who will appear next. Will it be Purple Martin or House Wren, Spring Cress or Marsh Marigold…?
Yes, these are the days of great anticipation and fulfillment of that anticipation. Every day someone new wakes up, blooms, or arrives from the south. Our non-human neighbors are becoming active again and so are we. Finishing maple syrup, conducting prescribed burns and foraging for the emerging greens. Coming in to the office after long hours outside, scraps of paper in pockets jotted with notes, searching the stacks of field guides to figure out unidentified species. It’s hard to use field guides in the field when you are searching for everything, I mean you can’t bring them all. Also you don’t want your observations to be influenced by the books prematurely. Take it as much as you can with your own senses first.
And no matter who of our non-human neighbors you encounter or not on any given day the blessings come from the quest itself. From simply being out there amongst the community of all life expanding your awareness. Listening to the ongoing conversation between the wrens, the peepers, the ephemeral blossoms, the wind, the hills. This is a balm for many of our woes.
And beyond identification, and general awareness is taking the time to get to know specific species in-depth.
“…the swallows caught at my heart and trailed it after them like streamers” –Annie Dillard
This is the time of year that inspires poets with new verse, and one of my favorite poems is the flight of the barn swallow.
When I find myself drinking my first mug of nettle tea and eating a little plate of spring beauty tubers, fried in hickory oil, and flavored with wild onion (it’s a little past the best time to gather the tubers, because they are already starting to flower, but it is the time I inevitably do gather them) before another long day of burning I start checking around the barn every morning to see if the swallows have returned. When I finally see one I let out a cheer, wave, and welcome my friend back to the North Country. Often the first sighting is only one or two scouts flying over the field. In the following days and weeks they are joined by the rest of their friends and family. (Actually one was spotted a mile from here as I was writing this. In reality I was eating a PB&J while sipping left over coffee)
Barn Swallows are very common all over the world and have a long history of close association with humans. On the annual Spring Migration count several hundred are regularly seen in Washtenaw County. The fact that they are common does not make them any less special. The more the merrier! This is a creature that anyone may observe and be inspired by, not just experts. Yet, barn swallow numbers have shown a marked decline in recent years, so it is not simply a given that they will always remain abundant. The increase of invasive species as well as widespread use of pesticides are threatening factors. It is important that we work to keep the common birds common.
One phenomenon I love in life is being introduced to a new idea that expands my imagination. When something, often simple and seemingly obvious in hindsight, but that I just hadn’t thought of before, is shown to me and suddenly the world is full of new possibilities. This happened once when I was a camp counselor in northern Michigan. I went for a walk in the Huron National Forest with one of the older permanent staff. He pointed out a watering hole and said that I could see coyotes who were coming for a drink if I came back in the evening. I never did have time to come back and see the coyotes, because a camp counselors schedule is so busy, but the idea that I could have taught me a lot. My experience up to that point was that most memorable encounters of wildlife in nature came about by random luck. I guess I assumed that’s how it would always be, but the idea that you could know the habits of particular animals in particular places enough to make informed hypotheses as to when and where they could be found was a revelation. It should have been obvious but it didn’t stand out until someone pointed it out. The fact that I know when and where to look for the barn swallows makes them all the more a special part of my life and my understanding of the world around me. (The fact that “Barn” is in their name makes this species a little more obvious than some, but still...)
I had similar feeling when reading that Barn Swallows winter in South America. Of course I knew that they and many other birds migrate south for the winter, but to think that these particular birds in an old barn next to my house had just been vacationing for several months south of the Amazon in wild grass lands was incredible! The barn swallow has become a tangible symbol to me of how land here is connected to land thousands of miles away that I have never seen. Migration reminds us that we do not live in a vacuum.
The barn swallow is one of the easiest birds to identify. It is the only native swallow that actually has the forked “swallow” tail, and it is usually found by barns or other buildings. Before European settlement barn swallows presumably lived in caves, and there is still one known North American population living in caves on the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.
In our barn the swallows feed throughout the day and late in the evening you can watch as they return to roost. Then the bats come out for moonlight breakfast. A circle of feeding that looks like a dance. If you wake up early you’ll see the wheel go round as the bats go back to sleep in the barn and the swallows come out again.
But now I'm getting ahead of myself. The relationship of swallows and bats lasts through most of the summer. There will be plenty of time to enjoy that. However, many species that are active right now, even in your own back yard, are part of a web of ephemeral relationships that will disappear by the time the leaves are fully leafed out. There are bees that are only around for the few weeks when certain spring ephemeral flowers are blooming. There are migrating warblers following around local chickadees to find food quickly as they briefly stop over on their long journey. There are vernal pools that will soon be dry. There are salamanders parading through the night between hunting grounds and breeding grounds. There are tender new greens, that will get old and bitter. There are mild, sunny days that will soon be hot and full of mosquitoes. The glory of spring is like the glory of youth. Short and sweet. Don’t miss it.