Changing of the seasons

Art, Essays, Science / Friday, April 6th, 2018
“North and Home Again” – Original painting by the author.

Note: Originally written on March 5, 2018.

One of the things I like about living in Nebraska are the four seasons being so distinct. Independent of what the calendar says are the start of the seasons, there is usually a very definite transition point between them each year in this part of the country. For instance, to me the transitions of Summer are indicated by changes in the humidity.

Generally a day will come, probably in June, where it will suddenly feel noticeably humid where it didn’t the day before. So it will usually remain until it breaks just as suddenly sometime in late August or September and fall is ushered in. The others are perhaps more subtle, but there are still indicators. A noticeable change in the warmth of the evening light, perhaps a shift in the temperature, but most of all the birds.

The transition to Spring is always a welcome one. The weather the last couple weeks had been pretty mild, but it still felt like Winter even with daytime highs in the upper 50’s. Today is cold and drizzly, yet it feels like Spring and the difference is the birds.

I first noticed it last week. We had a day that warmed above 60° and I took the dog for a walk in the park behind our house, where I noticed robins for the first time this year. Next up were the snow geese that have been passing high overhead this week by the thousands. This morning I woke up at 5am to the sounds of songbirds outside the bedroom and I thought to myself, “Just like that, Spring has arrived.”

We have plenty of bird species that make their living here year round, from the little nuthatches that spend the Winter on meager pickings in the backyard to the dinosaur-like wild turkeys that make their home in a little patch of woods at the edge of our neighborhood. Others are temporary Winter visitors, like the gulls and bald eagles that can sometimes be seen around the lake I pass on the way to the office each morning and evening.

Still, birds always seem like the true ambassadors of Spring to me. I think it first hit me after we moved to North Dakota. Growing up in Wyoming, it only ever seemed like we had two seasons: windy and hot, or windy and cold. In North Dakota the winters were long and brutal, so the returning geese were a welcome sight indeed. I used to travel a lot there, along miles of empty two-lane highways, and I remember watching them in pairs settling in to the little ponds here and there along the road.

One image in particular remains an iconic scene in my mind, the very picture of Spring, somewhere along that lonely North Dakota highway: a single pair of canada geese, flying low over the prairie against the dynamic backdrop of a thunder storm on the horizon. There was a deep emotion laid bare in that scene, one I can still feel when I think about it today.

And so it was with those singing birds at first light this morning, heralding the changing season. We haven’t seen the end of freezing temperatures yet this year, nor the last of the snow and ice, but it’s different now.  Just ask the birds; they know it all too well.