Speaking of Nature: No power, no problem: The late-March storm that set a new record

This pine siskin, hiding among the goldfinches at my feeders, turned out to represent species #38 on my March list, which shattered  the old record.

This pine siskin, hiding among the goldfinches at my feeders, turned out to represent species #38 on my March list, which shattered the old record. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON


For the Recorder

Published: 04-01-2024 6:01 AM

As seems to be the case more and more often, March went out with a bang. And, in agreement with my assessment of the year from last week’s column, it seems only fitting that we experienced our most major winter storm of the season in what was officially springtime. None of it makes any sense, but if you stop looking for sense, then it is actually something of an adventure.

For me, the storm started out harmless enough. I awoke on the morning of Saturday, March 23 to discover that about 3 inches of snow had fallen during the night. However, the snow had switched over to sleet by the time that I was actually awake and as I came in from filling the feeders I ran my hand through my hair and found that it was full of little chunks of ice. No big deal. Just part of winter.

There was no way that I was going to battle the weather by going out to test my luck with the snow blower, so I happily sat down at my kitchen window with a cup of fresh coffee and started taking pictures. In all, I would take an even 600 photos of birds that morning, before going out to run some errands with my beautiful wife, Susan. It was on the way home from those errands that we received some bad news.

The power was out in our neighborhood and as we rolled down the driveway I had to brace myself to go out into what had become some exceptionally unpleasant weather. Garage door openers don’t work when the power is out, so I had to unlock the drive mechanism and open the door by hand. We went into the house, I started a fire, and we waited nervously. But then, just as bedtime arrived, the lights came on and all was right with the world. I slept and dreamed of wonderful things.

The next morning I woke up to a very different world indeed. The storm had passed, the clouds had disappeared and the landscape seemed to be something straight out of Dr. Zhivago. Every branch on every tree and shrub was covered with a thick layer of ice and the ice was frosted with a top layer of snow. The forest around my house seemed to be made of spun glass and the rising sun set everything a twinkle. It was gorgeous. My camera was very busy that morning, but it turns out that things would take another odd turn. Sometime between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., the power went out again; this time for a much longer period.

On a normal Sunday morning I might spend one to two hours at my kitchen window collecting data on the birds that visit my feeders. Coincidentally, it also happens that 9 a.m. is a fairly predictable time for me to transition from photography to something else, but on this particular day the options had evaporated.

There would be no working on my computer until the power came back on, so talking and reading were the main events. Hours later, with the power still out, I returned to the kitchen window to resume my watch.

Starting at about 2 p.m., the light becomes very favorable on my deck on a sunny day. This was of particular interest to me on this particular sunny day because it was my last full weekend at home during the month of March and I had a record to consider. In 2020, the year of COVID, I observed 36 different bird species in my yard and the count stood at 35 species for this year. I knew that I would need a massive bit of luck to see one species, never mind two, but the storm had given me the time to try.

I went out to freshen the feeders and I heard a familiar sound. I looked up and there, floating right above my yard, was a Killdeer. The 2020 record had been tied, but I wanted to kill myself because I hadn’t brought my camera and I missed what would have been an amazing photo opportunity. Drat!

Boredom drove me out onto the deck a half-hour later, but this time I had my camera with me. Approving of everything that I had done, the gods rewarded me with a Turkey Vulture that was sent on almost the same exact path that the Killdeer had taken. The 2020 record had been broken!

But the power was still out and about 2 hours later I was still sitting at my kitchen window where I was carefully scrutinizing every member of a flock of over 30 American Goldfinches that was happily devouring sunflower and nyger seeds from my feeders. Then, the gods sent me one last gift in the form of a Pine Siskin that was hiding among the goldfinches. I took over 50 photos of this bird, but none of them were coming out. I decided to take an informed gamble based on what I knew about siskins and I ever-so-gently opened my kitchen door and gingerly stepped out onto the deck.

And the siskin just sat there, looking at me with fearless curiosity. Many birds that live in the empty expanses of northern Canada are relatively fearless of humans because they rarely ever see humans during their lives. This bird actually ended up coming closer to me because it was interested in the food that the goldfinches were enjoying. It paused in the lilac bush that is closest to the hanging feeder and I took more photos than I could count. Everything worked out perfectly and the details of the bird’s feathers are as sharp as the details in the ice. I wouldn’t have noticed any of it if the power hadn’t been out!

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.