Seventeen years ago today was also a Sunday. We were living in Fort Wayne. Early that morning I went for a walk along the banks of the St Marys River.
Frost in the night. Green leaves freeze-dried on the branch. Hardly a breeze, but the slightest stir drops a leaf. Leaves plane down, nose dive, hit with weight, making a crunching noise on impact that can be heard yards away.
Walk through a couple of patches where trees have denuded themselves in a heap of still green leaves—mostly basswood; maples, elms having turned. Cottonwoods holding on to their leaves, which are browning at the tips and curling on the branch.—heaps look unnatural, manmade and repulsive. Otherwise the morning is the finest of the fall.
Arguing mallards hard to make out in the glare off the river. Skins of slushy ice at the riverbends. Go off the path into the woods on some high ground that rises up from the the river. Crunching of frosted leaves underfoot startle geese at the foot of the bluff. Hear splashes and the whiffle of their wings as they wing-walk out of the red sedge into the clear water where they gather complaining, “Hank hank hank hank.” Count thirty-five in the flock, more whiffling out of the sedge.
I need binoculars and a better memory. Robin or starling-sized birds, four or five in a single tree, with buff bellies spotted brown or black. Looking up into the sun, it’s hard to tell the color of their heads and wings. Audubon gives me three possibilities. Female redwings, starlings whose winter plumage includes flecks of white, and wood thrushes. My birds have small heads—thrush? But bent tails, Groucho’s coattails—starlings. Musical call, not clucks, so I lean toward wood thrush. Audubon calls it a familiar bird and puts it in the neighborhood: “Nests regularly in the vicinity of houses.” Quotes Thoreau on the wood thrush’s song:
“Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; whenever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.”