Sunday, November 17, 2013

Kinglets signal the return of winter

I realized that I only blogged 6 times this year - it was quite a busy and crazy year.  Ben and I got engaged, we found a wedding venue (it overlooks a secluded pond home to egrets and herons!), set a date (it's in early July up on Long Island, so things will be beautiful and blooming), arranged for our immediate families to meet each other, booked a photographer (the one thing I actually did book... sooo many other things to do!).  Then I headed off to Berkeley for a month for the CIDER workshop, returned to Rice, submitted my 3rd paper, then defended my PhD thesis.  One of my committee members said, "you're not supposed to do more than one big thing a year!"  It has been a big year indeed!

And a minor thing to add.  I achieved a small and personal goal in addition to the more momentous ones:  After 4 years of swimming recreationally at Rice, I can now swim 1 mile breaststroke in 30 minutes.  That's about 1 lap or 50 meters per minute.  When I first started swimming - I could barely swim 10 laps in 30 minutes.  I felt like a bloated whale foundering in the pool.  Not bowing to frustration, I vowed back then to be able to swim 30 in 30.  I'm inspired by my mom, who is a lifelong swimmer (in fact, she learned how to swim by being thrown off a houseboat with a rope tied around the waist).  Swimming has been such an important stress-reliever.

So finally, after months of not really having much or any free time, I find myself actually with a weekend all to myself!  But ever get the feeling after being accustomed to being without something for so long, and then suddenly getting it back, you don't know how to react?  You wake up with a surge of happiness that you have a whole weekend ahead of you with nothing really pressing to do - and then immediately a billion things that you wanted to do pop up and you have no idea where to start.  It's kind of overwhelming. 

During one of the recent cold fronts that passed through Houston, Ben and I indulged in some early morning birding on campus.  I haven't birded much at all this fall given how busy I was.  But it felt really nice to walk out in the fleeting crisp air.  Cold fronts never stay long in Houston.  The vast Gulf of Mexico and its legion of warm air see to it that no vestiges of the north remain for more than a day or two.  Occasionally, a snow falls, but the largest snowman ever made was probably 1 foot tall.  The cold never deepens like it does up north.  There's always an undercurrent of comfortable warmth near at hand.  It kind of wreaks havoc with my mind, because I keep expecting it to get colder, but instead the next day after a cold front it returns to 85 degrees.

There wasn't much out while we were making the rounds of campus.  White-throated sparrows were chipping.  Orange-crowned warblers.  Birds were few and far between, but then when we were in the grove of pines near Alice's Garden we heard the chatter of ruby-crowned kinglets.  When the kinglets return, that's the sign of "winter" down here in Houston.  For a split second, we saw one kinglet literally a few feet away, with its red crest up!  It was surrounded by some sort of hosta-like plant with bright green leaves, so the crest was even more stunning.  It's always amazing when a tiny bird that you normally only get to see as a speck in binoculars comes up to you that close.  

In a nearby live oak, we found a rather garrulous winter flock full of more ruby-crowned kinglets.  Sometimes titmice, chickadees and a blue-headed vireo might be found foraging with them too, but it was mostly all ruby-crowned kinglets.  But then we kept hearing this small, sweet squeak-whistle song which at first we couldn't identify.  It wasn't the ruby-crowned's song because that one has more notes and is more variable.  It turned out to be a golden-crowned kinglet, which, though they can be found down here in the winter, have a more northerly range so aren't as common as the ruby-crowned.

Every time I've seen a golden-crowned kinglet, they've taken me by surprised.  The first time, on Rice campus, I was staring at one through binoculars and then it took off and flew directly at me, and I saw the brilliant yellow flame of its crest.  That was cool.  Then another time was last year back home on Long Island.  Ben and I were walking around my street.  Because it was winter, there weren't too many birds around, but we did have a hermit thrush that kept furtively popping up around the neighborhood (once in my front yard and then another time right in the middle of the road).  But the highlight of that walk was all of a sudden seeing a golden-crowned kinglet in a rickety, windblown pine tree.  It was like this little glimmer of life in a cold and deadened world.

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