It’s December 17th and time for the Christmas Bird Count at Mule Springs Farm. This is the second year I’ve counted birds and entered my data at eBird.org. Before moving from Alaska to Oregon, a little over two years ago, my friends and I would don waterproof suits and brave the stormy maritime climate in Southeast Alaska to look for birds. We ventured out the weekend closest to December 19th with our notebooks and binoculars and came home with closer friendships, soaked outer garments, and our notebooks listing only a few birds.
Last year’s visibility for the Mule Springs Farm bird count was terrible. Thick ice fog enshrouded the land and reminded me of countless foggy days in Alaska. I saw two Red-tailed Hawks come off their perches on neighboring Ponderosa Pines. Lazily circling once above the meadow, they returned to their trees. A Northern Flicker passed through the murk as I walked, across the ice-meadow, below the barn. The bird’s undulating flight and its white rump patch helped me make no mistake when I jotted down Northern Flicker – West Riparian Meadow — in my small notebook.
The closer I approached the low-lying creek the longer the fuzzy crystals became. Hoarfrost clung to every plant stem and blade. Kickin’ Mule Creek ran high and noisily as it bumped along its frozen cradle. A few white snowberries, like sticky dried marshmallows, clung stubbornly to bare dark branches. The seemingly endless corridor of winter was unbroken by any bird sounds until two sharp cries rang out, and I was startled by bursts of blue and silver movement. Two Western Scrub-Jays darted amongst the “tangled bine-stems” of the creek bed thicket. The pair had watched me, silently, as I crunched along, until they could no longer remain voiceless and had to tell of the imminent intruder.
As it turned out on that day I only saw three species of birds before turning back because I was bone-cold. The bird count finished, I entered Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Flicker, and Western Scrub-jay into the eBird website and wondered what the second bird count at Mule Springs Farm might bring.
This year’s weather brought a torrent of change. We experienced a blizzard, sleet, rain, fierce wind, and warm sunshine. And my day wasn’t free to pick the best weather to count birds, since Bruce had also planned a Mexican Christmas feast for the workers up at the new house.
Since the cold strong wind was too brutal to brave a search across the entire property, and I feed birds around the barn, I decided to conduct a feeder count for the farm’s second Christmas Bird Count.
After we shared a wonderful posole (a Mexican stew of pork, hominy, mild red peppers and coriander) with the builders, I set myself up to watch birds. The wind blew fiercely, biting, and it made me uncomfortable, so I wore several layers: a turtleneck, flannel shirt, a hooded polar fleece wind-stop jacket, a woolen cowl, boiled wool hat (the one I wore in the Arctic), and fleece pants. I sat in the doorway of the tack room in a chair and spied through my binoculars eight Spotted Towhee, five Golden-crowned Sparrows, thirteen Dark-eyed Juncos, twenty-one House Finch, three Western Scrub-Jay, one House Sparrow, and a “partridge in a pear tree.” Please don’t believe that last part.
Then the wind slackened a bit, but a solid wall of dark clouds slid in. I placed my binoculars and notebook in their bucket inside the tack room, as the snow began to heavily fall. Within minutes the snowfall turned blizzard, and soon I wondered where the donkeys were. It was unlike them to stay out in poor weather—rain and snow would consistently bring them back to the barn. Bruce agreed we should go and look for them. So, up the driveway we walked as snow poured around us and stuck to our clothes and faces. We planned to get to the house, because it is higher on the land and we can see across the prairie. It was difficult to imagine the donkeys would be on the prairie trying to graze during this storm.
Bruce was ahead of me, and I heard him say, “I see ears.”
“Where?” I asked.
“In the garage,” he said.
And both donkeys were inside the garage standing on the carpeting the men had laid to keep the new concrete floor warm. Bruce laughed, and I wondered if the donkeys would follow me down to the barn in this raging storm. If I waited and the snow got deeper, they might get stuck in the garage all night. As of now, the light was failing.
“Hey guys, are you ready to go?” I said.
Ziggy barely looked up, but Chippo shifted his feet and came nearer to me.
“Let’s go,” I said, and I gave the hand signal for “walk on.”
To my surprise, Chippo the donkey who often only follows Ziggy (the leader) followed me right on out picking his way across two by fours and crumpled tarps.
Ziggy did not move and seemed to say, “I’m quite content here.” But once Chippo was out in the intense white-fall with me, and we began to walk toward the barn, Ziggy sought an escape from the garage, and he quickly followed after us.
Donkeys are desert animals at heart, so I was thrilled they trusted me enough to accompany me through the wet storm back down to the barn. It was a really nice ending for a sort – of wild weather second annual Christmas Bird Count day.
Link for eBird.org the birding website where I annually track the birds that come and go at Mule Springs Farm.
The quoted phrase “tangled bine-stems” comes from Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.”