Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, December 12, 2016

December in My Soul

Winter finally arrived in New Jersey, bringing with it arctic air, biting wind and even a bit of snow.

Winter is not one of my favorite times. Snow and ice make it harder to walk. Shorter days mean I can't do as much outdoor activities, such as birding, as I would like. Longer periods of darkness make it hard to get up at my usual early hour.

The journey begins, 12/10/16 (Margo D. Beller)
I've had health problems this year, and sometimes I don't feel like myself, which can be depressing. Winter makes that feel worse.

So this weekend, with the threat of more snow looming, I decided to go out and see what was flying around. I went to Great Swamp.

The Swamp is a large piece of land that is mainly run by the U.S. government although there are smaller parts run by Morris and Somerset counties.

My trip was to the federal area, which is in two parts - the "management" area where hunting is allowed in season and underbrush is burned or severely cut back (in short, managed) and the "wilderness" area where maintenance is minimal. The wilderness area is more of a challenge, but I didn't want a challenge when it was very cold. You get to be a certain age and you think of what happens if you're alone and fall and can't get up or, in the case of one unfortunate man I once worked with, you slip into the Passaic River and your body isn't found until winter is over.

My usual winter hiking attire. (RE Berg-Andersson)
It is scary getting older. You don't move as fast, even when driving a car. You forget things. Moving around seems harder and more painful. You feel weighed down. For that reason, I eschewed the frozen mud and rocky trails of the wilderness area and took the more wide-open trails of the managed area.

I started with one area of the Swamp where one trail is a boardwalked loop and thus is very popular with parents with children and those who want an easy stroll. At the time I visited it was super cold and relatively early so there were few people around. However, I wanted the second trail to the duck blind, which is partially boardwalked, partially frozen ground.

(As I was lacing up my boots a couple drove up in a powder blue Jaguar. They looked at me and moved to the boardwalked trail, which I expected. But they seemed perturbed by my orange hat, boots and walking stick because they kept stopping to look back at me. Maybe they thought I would try to steal their car. By the time I came back the car was gone, presumably with them.)

I was the only one in this area. I walked slowly and quietly to listen for calls. It was the first time in a while I felt like myself, completely in sync with all around me -- alive. I scanned the sky for hawks and was pleased when a redtailed hawk hovered over my head and then flew to the top of a tree, allowing me a long look.

Frozen - 12/10/16 (Margo D. Beller)
The waters were frozen solid enough for the juncos to skate on the surface as they picked at whatever infinitesimal things they could find to eat. The titmice were as much on the ground as they were in the trees.

The duck blind showed large water fowl way out in the swamp - Canada geese, mute swans, noisy mallards and a few black ducks that decided to fly in. I've been at this blind in many seasons. One year, a channel was open in the frozen water and down it swam pintails, green-winged teals and American wigeons in a sort of parade. Not now. If these smaller ducks were in the far distance with the big guys I couldn't see them.

Passing over the bridge on the way back, I thought of the time one spring when the thick ice started to melt, cracking like rifle shot. Then I looked up to see a flock of snow geese heading north. But now all was ice. A small flock of titmice and white-breasted nuthatch were hunting for food along with two gold-crowned kinglets. This is why I look at everything, because you never know who might be tagging along with the more familiar birds.

Redtail over parking lot. (12/10/16)
Back at my car, I drove to another part of the Swamp, the tour road created out of what used to be part of a mapped street, Pleasant Plains Rd. At other times I've seen harriers over the fields, yellow warblers building nests and bluebirds singing from their boxes. This time a winter visitor, a fox sparrow, popped up from the brush just long enough for me to admire its coloring. I found another one farther up the road in a flock with its cousins - song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and juncos.

It is tempting when it is cold out, especially after a serious medical condition, to stay holed up all winter like the bears in their dens. It can be depressing to do that, making you feel trapped, the furnace heat drying out your skin and making your eyes tear.

You might as well be dead.

So when the damp, drizzly November in my soul turns to cold, hard December, I account it high time to get out of the house and go birding as soon as I can.

Call me Crazy. But at least I'm happy.