Winter Visitors

Fri, 01/14/2022 - 7:00am

We didn’t have a lot when I was little, not many of us did. And we lived out here, in the middle of nowhere, it seems in retrospect. So, my mother used what we had to entertain me, in those early years of clear memory, when school started with the first grade and my only sibling was a convenient, for him, six years older than I.
We had radio, and I recall morning weather and news from Providence and even a mid-day soap opera but little else. Then we, or more accurately I, had a few children’s books and also a few large volumes, the sort of thing people like my mother, a teacher with little means,
purchased, a Gilbert & Sullivan, with each operetta faced with a brightly hued plate, a Currier and Ives that disappointed even then, a pair of Bronte sisters volumes with haunting woodcuts and, best if all, “Birds of America.”

The last was and remains a wonderful book, with detailed text, if somewhat dated, black and white photos, punctuated with illustrations, but best of all, groups of Color Plates, all Courtesy of the New York State Museum. The first set, logically, was prefaced with eggs, the largest, set in the middle of the first page, of a great auk. The edition was printed in 1936; by the time I was carefully perusing its pages, the great auk was not just one of those birds that I’d be unlikely to ever see on Block Island, it was extinct. I must have asked what that word meant and found the notion of any creature disappearing from the face of the earth in modern times reasonable, more than I do today.
So late on Sunday, when I looked out and saw the lighted taillights of the vehicle of one of the women who comes to tend the horses in the pasture I presumed something to be amiss, although down near the turn onto Mansion Road there is little to go amiss. My phone beeped;
there was a flock of what looked to be (since confirmed) snow geese hanging out with the ever-present Canadas but in the time it had taken me to walk from one room through another to a third to fetch the phone, read the message — then pick up my glasses — there was nothing down there.

The geese had flown off toward Andy’s Way it seemed, probably veering off to Mitchell Farm where they have been sighted. I got out my “Birds of America,” so sure from all those long ago years that snow and Canada geese were on the same page. Not quite, I found Canadas
and brants and a great whistling (now tundra) swan and consoled myself that I had the colors and the winter landscape, pale blue and white, correct.
The next morning Autumn went out, barking as she so often does, and trotted off down the road, I realized to greet the white geese who had no interest whatsoever in her. They did not indulge her with sprints as the deer sometimes do, or even take the short flights of the Canadas, more a wing-flapping hop or two.

They wandered about after the dog came back to the house, lured by breakfast. With her inside, the geese were interesting, some in their own white group, others mixing with the Canadas, meandering across the big front lot, appearing and disappearing as the land rises and
falls. They were flat out bold, coming up to the house, to the yard and back lane where the grass is almost always green.
I knew a few showed up here every year but I didn’t think this many, up to two dozen, easily.
According to another bird book, one I foolishly thought “new” until I remembered it belonged to my mother, who checked the little circles next to the birds she’d seen listed in the incomprehensible index, and often said she preferred drawings to photographs for their clarity of detail, the winter range of the snow goose is south of us, starting in New Jersey and extending down to Delaware and the Chesapeake, long known as the winter home of Canada geese. It was that big volume that was hauled out to identify the redstarts in the maple tree in the yard and the grosbeaks beneath the dining room window.
It was that book I used to match the photos taken in my yard by our local bird authority the other day when I was out at a meeting — these creatures are prone to flying away. They had been here one morning, only a very few down the lane, then a few more out on — or in — the
big shallow pond behind my house that freezes only in a long, hard cold. Then they began to gather, in and across the front lot, over to sample the grass in the north pasture where the horses paid them little mind, and around to the swale south of the house, the low place where the big garden used to end.
I went out, today, thinking to get my own photo, finding it colder in the milder wind that it had been the day before in the frigid but near calm. They had moved from the yard but not far, to a good location in the field, near the road, the pond behind them, the blue, blue ocean and
sky behind them and, most importantly the sun behind me.
Then a splinter group decided to cross the road, walked too close to me and spread their wings. I thought at first the others would stay put but, no, they decided they had to fly as well. Had I a camera with a big zoom, a fast shutter, set on some sort of swiveling tripod I might have captured white wings against a blue sky but I had only my little phone.
They are beautiful, white geese not large enough to be annoying, with black tipped wings that neatly fold giving them a little touch of sporty tail detail.
Snow geese in the fields and the only animal-food delivery arriving at my door this week has been for Autumn, and the two that weren’t the last couple of months. At least I still live where I can call/text “your order is at my house” because I still know their names.