Spring has begun to push winter aside, although the signs are still very obscure. Two weeks ago, when the windchill hit 40 below, a few northern harriers passed through on their early migration, and an early canvasback duck was sighted at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Birds we think of as typical winter species--northern shrikes, rough-legged hawks, snowy owls-- also seem to show up in greater numbers now, perhaps because they have begun their northern movement, and birds in migration tend to be more visible than sedentary ones.
The earliest spring migrants fall into two groups: open-country birds and water birds. Harriers and rough-legged hawks both hunt by flying low over open ground. Treeless land loses its snow cover before forested land, so these hunters can move north very early in the year.
Water birds need only enough warmth to melt the ice off lakes and ponds. In a winter as mild as this last one there is open water to be found even in January.
A week ago a large flock of common mergansers was seen on Lake Calumet. We see three species of these big fish-eating ducks around Chicago, and common mergansers are our usual winter birds. As spring advances they will be replaced by red-breasted mergansers in the flocks on Lake Calumet, Lake Michigan, and other large bodies of water.
A pair of harlequin ducks, one a male in its gaudy breeding plumage, showed up off 53rd Street. These birds of rushing mountain streams have become fairly regular around Chicago in recent years.
By the time you read this the first small flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds may have arrived in the Chicago area. If they haven't, they will in a few days. The precise date of their arrival will depend on the weather. If we get a warm front carried on a southerly breeze we can rely on the birds to ride it into the rapidly thawing north.
I am really looking forward to the drama of the changing seasons this year. I spent last year in Seattle, where, meteorologically speaking, almost nothing happens. TV weathermen could record a couple weeks worth of programs and then go on vacation--and I suspect that some of them do.
The long, slow agonizing shift from Chicago winter to Chicago summer takes months, and there is seldom a day between late February and the end of June when you don't feel just a little anxiety about whether we are going to make it this year. A front moves in from the gulf, bringing soft breezes, warm air, and flocks of migrating robins and killdeer. Then the temperature drops 40 degrees in 27 minutes, and four inches of snow fall in three hours. The robins and killdeer, frantically searching for snowless ground, gather on the highways and get squashed in large numbers. Crows and raccoons congregate to eat the robin and killdeer carcasses. Many of the raccoons become road kill themselves, although the crows almost never do.
Our weather gives us drama, a quality that is usually absent from west-coast climates. They get the occasional flood, but our climate involves us year-round every year. You cannot be a spectator here. If you try you might get struck by lightning.
Along the Pacific they have freakish weather from time to time. Here in the middle of the continent our weather is always freakish. We are constantly going to extremes, turning the weird into the everyday. What would spring be without a snowstorm in late April?
Californians can convince themselves that this year's flood was an oddity that won't happen again for decades. Our climate has taught us that anything can happen at any time--and probably will within the next 24 hours.
Midwestern landscapes take on the quality of stage sets on warm, sunny days at the end of winter. The curtain has gone up, but none of the actors has yet entered. The sun warms the bare ground. The native trees, which have been dealing with the drama for millenia, lay low. Most of the birds are still in Mexico. The wings of a few insects shimmer in the sunlight, but most await the greater certainties of May.
In a matter of a few weeks this will all be transformed. Bright green will begin to cover the browns and grays of prairies and grasslands. Trees will leaf out and shade the ground beneath them.
And birds will arrive in large numbers. Only 13 species of wood warblers nest regularly in the state of Washington. One additional species occurs regularly as a migrant. Here we can expect to see about 36 species in migration every spring, and states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which have hardwood forests at their southern ends and boreal forests in the north, may have almost that many species nesting every year.
All these different kinds of birds produce a glorious variety of song. Take a slow stroll through one of our better forest preserves in May or June and the songs will come at you in such richness that you'll have trouble sorting them out. The forests of the northwest simply don't have the birds to make that kind of wonderful racket.
In Seattle I used to walk my dog in a county park near my house. It was a second-growth Douglas fir woods with the typical tree perhaps 18 inches to two feet in diameter. I went there regularly for almost a year, and almost nothing happened. The common songbirds were winter wrens, robins, bushtits, and black-capped chickadees, and all of them were year-round residents. They sang more in spring and early summer, but that seemed to be their only response to the seasons.
When I tell people that I didn't care much for Seattle and that I'm really happy to be back in Chicago I get a range of reactions. Some people--there are a lot of Seattle haters around--say, "I know exactly what you mean." Most Seattle haters are put off by the attitudes of northwesterners. "I can't imagine why anybody would rather live in Chicago than in Seattle," said a woman I met at a Seattle party one night. "That's the trouble with people here," I replied. "No imagination."
The scenery is always pointed out as one of the attractions of the place. But I used to look east from our house at the line of the Cascades and see not ruggedly beautiful mountains but a wall keeping me away from the rest of the world.
I seem to be getting very antiscenery as I get older. I react to the scenery of strange places much as I react to watching a Japanese No play. "I'm sure this is all very nice, but what does it mean? Why are they acting like that?"
Here in the midwest I have several decades worth of knowledge and experience to help me read the landscape. I can tell where the glaciers were, see what was an old field, get an idea of when fires began to be suppressed on the land, and even deduce whether this woodland was grazed at some time in the past. I can walk through a forest preserve in late February and tell you with a high degree of accuracy what birds are going to be nesting there in June.
My year in Seattle did teach me that if you want to enjoy that glorious scenery you need a weekend. When I was 25 I could have loaded up my backpack every Friday after work and set off for a two-night hike into the Olympics or Mount Rainier National Park. But at this point in my life I'm a householder and a parent and a busy worker. My weekends are mostly eaten up with obligations. What I need is a natural place where I can spend a Saturday or Sunday morning, leaving the afternoons free for shopping, cleaning out the basement, and taking the cat to the vet.
And the big secret of Chicago is that we have more of that kind of nature than almost any other city in the country. Seattle has mountains in the distance, but its city and county park systems ain't much. Thanks to our forest preserves, I will actually be able to see and hear and smell the vast changes that the coming spring will inaugurate.
Bioregionalists like to devise quizzes. They ask if you know what the local bedrock is or what kind of natural vegetation once covered the land where your house sits. But what they should ask people to do is tell the time of year by smelling the air. It really is possible. The temperature is 55 degrees. Is it an unusually warm day in early December? Is it the first stirring of spring in late February? Or is it one of those weird days in late May when winter seems to want to come back? If you have lived here a while and if you have been paying attention, you could take a couple of deep breaths, feel the breeze on your cheeks, and immediately know the answer.