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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I’m writing this the day after a snow storm, and given the persistence of the Island winter you may be reading it the day after another. Perception expands and contracts as a blizzard passes by, the intensity of wild wind and snow creating a kind of timeless time with all appointments cancelled, the fierce gusts threatening chaos as they beat against the walls of the house. Then muffled silence when the wind falls and life grows motionless and muted.

Wakeful, we lie in bed and wonder what might go wrong. We get up into a cold room, pull the blind aside and assess the consequences of the night. If the wind is still howling the dog is likely to stare out an opened door and retreat, but as the day grows light, the plows pass on the highway, and a few birds begin to appear at the feeder hung between trees in the middle of the yard.

Yesterday I stared out the window as I assembled breakfast, made coffee, and suddenly realized that among the birds on the ground by the feeder was a small flock of snow buntings. I have seen them in previous winters as they rose from farm fields, flew haphazard across the road and settled into another field, a handful of glittering white, like rice tossed into the sky. But I had never before observed them from close up. 

These days the majority of birds at our feeder are goldfinches, a flock in muted winter plumage, often accompanied by the most common neighbourhood visitors, chickadees and bluejays. In past years we have played host to purple finches, house finches (I can’t tell the two apart), redpolls, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and the occasional crossbill. (Crows also arrive to assert their size and dominance.) Our feeder has migrated from one part of the property to another to avoid the deepest drifts and in the hope of discouraging squirrels, once in an attempt to stop nourishing a sleek fat rat who arrived daily to gobble down leftovers.

The change from house finches to goldfinches must have its reasons, but I don’t know them. The wintering finches come in substantial numbers, and sometimes the impression of a group of them clustered on the ground is of a seething mass of insects. Then suddenly they are in the air and dispersed with an almost magical swiftness.

And to my delight yesterday morning, beside them fed a dozen or so snow buntings, larger birds, with white breasts, brown wings showing a flash of white, a dusting of yellow and pale brown on the head, beady black eyes.

Are these the famous Snowbirds from Gene McClellan’s song? I had always assumed so, but when I went to Google to see what it had to say, I was astonished to discover that the name Snowbird is usually taken to refer to the dark-eyed junco, which arrives at feeding stations early in the winter and vanishes in the spring. Pretty, tidy birds, with a smooth dark back and white breast, they have always appealed to me, but I had never dreamed that it was the junco that shared its nickname with the aging Canadians wintering in Florida. Not to speak of the demonstration squadron of the Canadian Air Force roaring past on ceremonial occasions.

The snow bunting, with its glittering combination of white and colour, white patches on the wing that identity it to a certainty, displays the wonder of its sunlit flight skittering swiftly across the winter landscape. Snowbirds. To me at least. My neighbour David MacInnis tells me he read somewhere that they are predictably apt to arrive with a blizzard. You’d think they must have first rights to the name.

They are the gift of night and storm. And after our most recent hours of whiteout I was accorded the novel blessing of snow buntings seen from our window, rare visitors hopping across the drifts, picking up seeds.

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