SCRITCH-SCRITCH (HEY SWEETIE!)
Friends have asked me where my ideas for this blog come from. Ideas arise because I enjoy writing.
Because I enjoy writing, I've read several books on writing—not so much to improve, but because I like the way writers think. One thing I have in common with some of the writers whose books I've read is that I find my ideas “just come.” These writers also say, “When you think you have an idea, write it down immediately. In a few hours, even if you remember it, the freshness will be gone. You won't re-create your train of thought.” That's great advice and I often find myself writing some notes, or tapping out some random train of thought and emailing it to myself.
Those considerations came to mind recently while cross-country skiing near the rustic cabin we own on 20 acres adjacent to the Grand Mesa National Forest. Our property is at 8300 ft. Other than a nice meadow, the terrain is aspen woodland with a few Gambel Oaks on the uplands and some Narrowleaf Cottonwood by the small stream—a deciduous woods, that is. As I skied, I stopped every so often to listen for birds.
I stopped. Silence! Deep silence is all I heard. Once I heard a very distant raven. Another time an airplane. Otherwise it was stillness. While I skied, I heard only the rhythmic scritch-scritch of my skies.
With all due respect to the Grand Mesa Nordic Council and the racers and skaters on the groomed trails (which I often enjoy myself) on nearby Grand Mesa, my favorite cross-country skiing is when I'm breaking trail. I love watching my ski tips push through the clean snow. I love returning on my own trail, rapidly now because of the track I've made.
Scritch-scritch. An idea formed. In a cumulative couple of months up here in the winter, I suspect I've seen not even ten species of birds. There is more diversity in the conifers which dominate the forest somewhat higher in elevation. Especially when there is a good cone crop, one might see crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and other species I never find among the winter aspens.
My idea gelled. I would write about the lack of bird sound. I would write about how the summer-abundant flycatchers, warblers, and swallows are in Mexico and Central and South America. This would be interesting, because in doing my due diligence for the article, I could learn for myself which birds traveled farther, which wintered together, and which went separate ways before their annual summer convergence.
These thoughts worked through my mind as I skied along—enjoying the shadow of cone flower heads waving over the untracked snow, the contrast of red birch and yellowish alder branches against the snow covered hills. High above the valley, I could see the dark green of the Englemann Spruce and Subalpine Fir. Silence and beauty, I was thinking. Scritch-scritch.
Then I heard it--a birdcall. I stopped. Listened. Silence. Again, I skied. Scritch-scritch. Again, I heard the sound—a soft two-note call. I didn't recognize it exactly, but decided the pitch was correct for a Black-capped Chickadee—the most likely bird for me to see here, if I were to see a bird.
I pulled out my iPhone and played a typical “dee-dee” call, knowing I didn't have the brief “toot-toot” I had heard. Within seconds, a Black-capped Chickadee popped out of some nearby brush making the same sound I had just played. I had to look at my phone to assure myself it had quit playing.
The use of calls to attract birds is controversial. I could write quite a lot about that. Some feel it is an unnatural stressor. Others believe responding to a call is such a normal part of a bird's day, that playing an imitation is meaningless in the context of most bird’s lives. Some even believe using a call allows a male to demonstrate his fitness to his mate because most birders, once the bird is seen, cease playing the call. The apparent intruder, in that case, has been vanquished, and the female is impressed. Most of the time, when a call elicits a response, the bird will zoom in. Everyone has a look, me at the bird, the bird at me, and the bird leaves.
Not this time. Chickadees are typically gregarious. I've experienced playing a call and having ten or more chickadees descend on me. Not this time! This individual landed overhead and kept repeating “dee-dee, dee-dee.”
I began to feel badly. This poor guy really wanted to find some of his fellows. Then he did it.
He switched calls.
“Hey sweetie.” A pause. “Hey sweetie”. He had stopped making the quarrelsome “dee-dee” call and was doing his spring territorial/mating song. He was so lonely he was advertising for a mate, here on the last day of December. (Here is a link to the “Hey Sweetie” call: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX48Xv09HBI )
“Hey sweetie!” Over and over, he called. I was feeling mortified. Virtually, never have I regretted using a call to attract a bird. I was regretful now. He stayed overhead and called repeatedly. Five minutes! Ten! “Hey Sweetie!”
I'd never had a single bird go off like this. He seemed so lonely. One of my heroes, the late Alexander Skutch, perhaps the greatest field/observational ornithologist who ever lived, was criticized for anthropomorphizing birds. How could he not, with behavior like this? I didn't want to chase the bird away. It didn't deserve to be frightened. Plaintively it repeated, “hey sweetie.”
Then, out of the corner of my eye, some movement. A chickadee! Then another! Just two! At least my bird had some company. The calling stopped. The three of them worked their way up and down and under aspen branches. It struck me then, how perfect they were for winter in the aspens. Their combination of gray, white, and black is ideal. Each chickadee resembled a lively piece of aspen bark flitting from branch to branch and twisting to and fro as if looking for a place to fit just right in an aspen bark jigsaw puzzle and stop and hide.
I felt better now. It occurred to me that the two arrivals might be a mated pair that would only depress my apparently lovesick loner, but at least, he now had company. I felt even a little better when I returned to the cabin. My wife had seen some chickadees. She also saw three. Maybe the groups will get together and everyone can have a mate.
What about my writing? Now I had another idea. I could write about the chickadee. Then I would have two winter blogs, saving me possible future stress about finding an idea for the next one. But I remembered, somewhere in my readings about writing, there was more advice about ideas. “Don't save them. “If you hoard ideas, they grow stale. If you save an idea in case you won't have one the next time you need one, it just stifles your creativity.” “Ok,” I thought: “Scritch-scritch (Hey Sweetie).”
This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]