The last week or so has been a period of mild torture for all sorts of winter fans in Maine. No snow, no ice, bare spots and mud everywhere – what is this, the end of March?
It was nice to be able to roam about the yard with just a wool sweater on, cup of tea in hand and no need for a hat or gloves. I don’t really know what I intend to accomplish in my midday strolls other than taking the opportunity to enjoy the strange, unexpected warmth that prevailed over most of the last couple of weeks. I couldn’t pick up sticks, rake or otherwise putter around the place because everything was still frozen into the ground below the mud. Even the dead leaves that have blown about the yard all winter are still frozen in place. There’s work to be done in the yard and garden but it will have to wait, even though (as everyone seems to say) it looks like spring out there.
We impatient humans are not the only ones who think it’s time for winter to break. My daffodils, strawberry plants and herbs (mostly chamomile and hyssop) are turning green and sprouting as if it were the middle of April. I noticed signs of life in my “orchard” of eight fruit trees, too, a change in the bark and swelling buds suggest that they are ready for winter to be over as well.
With so much bare ground in sight and teases of greenery all around I felt it necessary to spend a few hours roaming the woods but discovered that looks can definitely be deceiving. Where there is no snow there is mud, 6 inches or more of it on level ground and more where there is standing water, which is just about everywhere. Mud I can deal with by simply wearing my knee-high rubber boots, but there is a good, thick layer of hard frost underneath that makes walking treacherous. The muddy frosting is negotiable but the hard ice beneath it is slippery, uneven and full of gaps. I quickly found that walking on logging roads, snowmobile trails and other “improved” pathways was too dangerous, so I began walking in the packed leaves and grass to one side, which made traveling through the woods much more enjoyable.
I did not expect to find anything thrilling along the way but, of course, something always happens that surprises, amazes or enlightens. As is my habit I stopped at a small opening in the woods that was lined with stones piled there long ago by Colonial inhabitants of the region, and here I set up my little gas stove and tea cup for a break.
The opening was likely an old foundation or livestock pen, both commonly used back in the 1600s and 1700s. As I sat there imagining all the work that went into building the foundation, the road and clearing the land I was suddenly assailed by more than 50 robins that, for no logical reason, decided to land inside the stone enclosure. They sang not a note nor uttered any sound, but all of the gray, dull-colored birds began to dig in the leafy detritus for whatever it is that robins eat over the winter. I was surprised to see that their normally bright breast feathers were a deep, dark orange hue, and there was no white on their beaks or tails to be seen. Had I not observed robins in their winter plumage many times over the last half-century I would have guessed they were some other species.
Their silent scratching went on into my second cup of tea, and even though there were no more than 50 feet from me they paid me no heed. And then suddenly, without a sound or signal that I could detect, the entire flock lifted off the ground as one and disappeared into the evergreen growth below. What an interesting, unusual sight and to think I was not going to take a walk this day because it was so muddy!
Even though it’s scientifically proven that robins in Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast do not migrate South for the winter, almost everyone I meet seems surprised, even suspicious, when I tell them that I saw a flock of robins in winter. Nearly 30 years ago I saw a flock of robins feeding on a crabapple tree outside a church on Route 7 in Dexter, deep snow on the ground and a cold wind blowing, but I had the hardest time convincing anyone that those were actually robins and not evening grosbeaks or some other similar-sized species. Believe it or not robins are all around us year-round – you just have to take the time to look for them.
I actually found that flock again while roaming along the diminutive Sebasticook River in what is known as FayScott Bog. The alders were thick with them but they ignored me as I walked past, apparently satisfied that I was not a predator worth worrying about.
When conditions in the woods are as they have been lately, with that unmistakable feeling of spring in the air, I am reminded of my days with Yodelin’ Slim Clark, whose love of nature matched mine. Every so often we’d take a walk along the hill below his home in St. Albans and see if we could find a shed deer antler or two to add to his immense collection. Everyone knows Slim as a country western star but he was also a great student of nature, and later in life he spent much time painting outdoor scenes that, occasionally, featured pre-spring landscapes and shed antlers. In fact, we talked more about deer hunting and trout fishing than we did about anything else. Isn’t it funny how a simple change in the weather can dredge up such fond memories.
No matter what the daffodils think it’s not quite spring, but it sure was nice to have a free sample, if even for just a few days. More winter is bound to come but be patient – we are nearly there!