Spring is busily arriving here in the eastern high Sierras. It’s comin’ in on winds gusting over the ridges at Katrina force velocity. Trees are goin’ down, and branches, some a foot thick, are sailin’ by like twigs. A couple have zipped by my living room window, with bird feeders still attached, and in one case, finches still attached to the feeders! I don’t know if the little devils were just too hungry, or too afraid, to let go! I expect they’re somewhere near Reno, by now.
Here in this high desert clime, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish one season from the next. I’ve been on a tractor, baling hay in August, when a cold front moved through the valley, dropping upwards of an inch of fresh snow on new cut hay. January can serve up 75 degree days, teasing us with endless, blue sky and dreams of suntan oil, flip-flops, summer vacation and gardens. Newbies and old timers alike begin shuckin’ off all manner of clothing, and start testing the depth of the permafrost with shovels and hoes. Come Memorial Day, Ma Nature might decide to play jinky games with our psyches and unleash another snowstorm of Biblical proportions, leaving withered, and dead, hundreds of dollars worth of freshly planted flowers and vegetables. Home Depot owns our souls at this time of year.
Regardless of the temperature and atmospheric conditions, there are some undeniable signposts of spring. One would be all the new calves popping up in the fields, many of whom become overnight guests, rearranging things in my laundry room, pooping in my kitchen or soakin’ in the bathtub. And, of course, there are the birds that are the true harbingers of our mountain spring.
Following closely on the birthing of new babies come the eagles, “baldies” and goldens, magnificent birds that awaken the poet in all of our hearts, as we search for lofty and beautiful phrases to describe, what are, basically, “glorified buzzards!” (I believe those were Teddy Roosevelt’s exact words used to describe our national symbol…he wanted the turkey, a “smart bird,” inscribed on our silver dollars!) Eagles ARE awesome, however, even when scarfing down fresh afterbirth, or some other dead treasure in the field.
Equally representative of spring’s arrival is the Meadowlark, warbling and twittering away in the sage and chaparral, regardless of the temperature and snow depth. If it’s supposed to be spring, by golly, those little birds are gonna sing!! Mountain Bluebirds, looking like confetti tossed from a deep blue, Nevada sky, skim the ground. One day there will be two, maybe a few more, and the following day hundreds will be flashing brilliant, cerulean blue amongst the still sombre grey of the wild peach and bitterbrush.
And finally, to put paid to the fact that spring has TRULY arrived…………we got BUZZARDS!! One can almost set a watch by their appearance in the valley. There is no fanfare for these guys; no tours and photo ops like those given for the “rockstar” eagles; no anticipation of Meadowlark birdsong, nor dazzling displays of sparkling blue against a brown and grey winter’s backdrop. Nope. No glory. No welcome of any degree. Yet they come, at almost precisely the same hour every year, on the very first day of spring.
Recently, “scouts” have been sighted, hovering high overhead. In a few short days, in the early hours of morning, someone will drive down Highway 395 and glance to the trees to see dark, hulking shapes roosting there. At first appearance, one might be deceived into believing they’re seeing the celebrities of the bird world, eagles. Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that these dark wraiths eyeballing the kindergartners on the elementary school playground could not POSSIBLY be eagles! Their skinned heads are lowered between hunched wings, or swinging slowly side to side, looking for a flattened rabbit or chipmunk that wasn’t quite quick enough in crossing the busy highway last night. There is no vivid, tell-tale white crest of a “baldie,” nor the shimmer of a golden’s bronze wings; just feathers of a uniform, funereal black. Size wise, they are nearly as impressive as a mature eagle. I imagine, too, that they emit their own, special “eau de boo-ZARD” fragrance. I can’t really speak to that, never having been in as close quarters to a buzzard as I have been to an eagle, but the eagle wasn’t particularly “flowery,” himself! Neither bird is a “picky” eater, the buzzard less so, searching fields, mountains and desert for a well done, tasty morsel of overripe, dead thing.
In spite of their lack of beauty, and possible assortment of “unique” odors, they are certainly useful. They’re especially helpful to CalTrans, doing a lot of preliminary “soft”cleanup before the road crews arrive to scrape hide and bone out of traffic lanes. They are definitely unappreciated by those looking for “American Idols” of the bird kingdom.
Not to take anything away from the good folks of Capistrano, and their showy little swallows, but the Buzzards of Coleville are just as impressive as our undisputed heralds of spring here in the mountains…. AND they can strip a deer carcass bare in a couple of hours. I’d like to see a whole herd of swallows try THAT!!!
If anyone happens upon some finches with a bird feeder still attached to a severed cottonwood branch, I’d like the feeder back. I have enough finches.