THE FINCHES OF CLOUDLAND: MARCH IN MONTANA By Dr. Lynne E. O’Connor:
Fierce March winds from the north blow all through the night. Rising at first light, I let the dogs out before anyone is fed. They come back instantly. Winds are still strong. I must use the entire weight of my body to get the mudroom door closed.
Passing into the kitchen, I spot a single sentry Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch perched on the wall just beyond the windows, as one does most every morning until I arrive. But something feels different. She moves to keep her balance in the wind. Two-hundred or more finches are perched against the east-facing stone chimney adjacent to our feeders, all waiting. I scoop four empty coffee canisters into large bags of black oil sunflower seeds and thistle seeds until they are full. Stepping outside in boots, I grip feeders lest they blow away. Seeds scatter on the ground under the table. A shield from hawk attacks? A stream of Gray-crowned Rosies begins to cascade from the stone chimney and, maneuvering stout bodies in raucous winds, they arrive within a few feet all around me. Their bodies struggle to stay put while watching with what feels like a sense of urgency. A group of twenty common redpolls and ten black-capped chickadees appear in nearby bushes. Up to one hundred and fifty Redpolls have joined our GCRFs this winter as regular visitors at feeders. Even before I manage to close the door behind me, well over two-hundred birds boil in to scramble for nourishment.
Only when I am inside, turn to face the coffee machine and look up to the mountains do I see what they already knew. A huge blanket of snow is pushing in over the peaks. Ten minutes later, our house and valley are consumed by a roaring whiteout blizzard. This used to happen more often – we’ve had warmer temperatures and very little snow this winter. Our Gray-crowns have come and gone, instead of spending most of each day with us. We imagine that inbetween feedings, they prefer the higher cooler altitudes of the surrounding mountains. But snow has brought them here today! Harrison walks into the kitchen while I’m building a fire in the wood stove.
“This is the kind of storm that can really hurt animals,” he says. My husband is thinking about our pregnant cows and newborn calves down by the barn.
We sit by the fire over coffee and marvel at the energy of this moment. Only five feet away on the other side of windows, hundreds of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches and Redpolls continue to eat excitedly while battling fierce winds and snow. We wonder at their stamina. They’re built for this. They know they must feed before seeking shelter. Feathered bodies look larger than usual, fluffed up to hold warmth. I note the windchill is minus thirty-five.
“I felt their urgency,” I say, wondering if I should toss still more seeds.
“The barometer is falling fast. Might trigger the arrival of new calves today. Tough day to be born.”
“Everything out there knew this was coming. They feel it in their bodies.”
I imagine our nomadic human ancestors were far better at feeling it in their bodies. Harrison refills my coffee cup. We still have an hour before we must bundle up and head out ourselves, down to the barn for a next calving shift. A sudden microburst of frigid wind slams into the house. Windows rattle. Finches are pushed and sent sailing. They return to feed as quickly as they can.
One week later, this crowd is joined by the appearance of twenty starlings and three red-winged blackbirds, new arrivals with another storm. Harrison saw our first three robins yesterday! The impending absence of our favorite winter companions weighs on us now. One day soon, this fervent flock of Gray-crowned Rosies who so inspire us will be gone. They’ll know just the right moment to leave. Like everything else, they’ll feel it in their bodies. We will be left to imagine them on their journey: joining up with other flocks, flying to far extremes of the north, nesting once again on the highest of peaks. Always, we wish them well.
This is when we will restock our seed supply to anticipate arrivals of bright-colored goldfinch cousins and lazuli buntings. We will jump in the truck and drive two hours to Freezeout Lake Wildlife Habitat along the Rocky Mountain Front, where we camp each year with hundreds of thousands of migrating snow geese, swans, and ducks. Back at the ranch, we look forward to spring’s potent mix of snowstorms, hail, thunderstorms, and sunshine. Nature’s alarm clock is already ringing. The crow of the cock pheasant, drumming his wings. The insistent two-note call of our black-capped chickadees. The excited chattering of our family of geese returning to the pond. Horses chasing the first green shoots of grass and wild spring onions. Soon, we’ll hear the resonant song of a swainson’s thrush again outside our bedroom window, perched high on the aspen beyond a blooming lilac bush. And hopefully, the roiling water song of many healthy creeks, all rising and joining.
All Photo Credits Dr. Lynne E. O’Connor
Dr. Lynne E. O’Connor is a writer and rancher. Her upcoming memoir is titled The Finches of Cloudland.
FiRN is a nonprofit, and has been granted 501c3 status. FiRN is committed to researching and protecting these birds and threatened finch species like the Evening Grosbeak, a species that has declined 92% since 1970. We are actively in the process of fundraising around an Evening Grosbeak Road to Recovery plan in addition to a student research project, so please think about supporting our efforts and making a small donation at the donate link below.