Last week I received e-mails, texts and Facebook notifications from all sorts of excited people seeing indigo buntings. It seemed these beautiful birds were everywhere. Everywhere except where I was, that is. Indigo buntings are small blue birds, about the size of a finch or sparrow. They are quite lovely and pass through here each spring and fall, sometimes visiting area feeders. I’ve been lucky enough to see them in the past but this spring, they have eluded me. So far.
I had a few hours between work shifts on a day when the sun actually shone, so I headed to the Frances A. Crane Wildlife Management Area off Route 151 in East Falmouth, where I’ve seen these sweet birds more than once. This area is a restored grassland habitat and is a great spot to find birds that prefer field and meadow areas to nest and feed. This includes bluebirds, sparrows, finches and the aforementioned buntings.
I stepped out of my car and took a deep breath of grass-scented air. The old grasses appeared almost white in the sun, the green of new grasses still hidden beneath last year’s growth. The paths were green and a bit muddy after all the rain and the air was full of tiny flying insects that were being chased by tree swallows all over the fields.
The first bird, besides the swallows, that I heard was a killdeer. This large, elegant shorebird nests in this area, and this one was casually feeding and running about in a mowed area. I headed out on one of the central paths and stopped to look and listen as I went along. It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and just a bit breezy. Song and Savannah sparrow songs filled the air.
I was on the lookout for a kestrel, for I know they like this place. It took about a half-hour before one flew overhead, hovering over several spots. It landed in one of the small trees nearby, and I was able to get a great look at it through my binoculars. These small and lovely hawks were called sparrow hawks when I was growing up. They were much more common then and we saw them often when we were out and about as children playing ball in the fields or empty lots.
A song erupted from a bush near where I was standing. I knew that song. It was a song I hadn’t heard in years. Another bird sang the same song from farther away. One bird flew, chasing the other bird away. More songs were sung and as I watched I realized I was surrounded by Eastern meadowlarks. If you grew up in a rural area, you know these lovely relatives of the blackbirds. The males have a bright yellow chest with a bold black arrow-shaped band. They are about the size of a robin and have a bit of a yellow cast to them when they fly. On this day there were at least a dozen vying for attention. As I scanned the trees I could see one here, one there. They sang and sang, and I smiled and smiled. What a treat.
There were other birds and even butterflies on my walk. There were orange frittilaries and tiny blue spring azures. Big buzzing bees and smaller bees. I even watched a merlin hunt and listened to distant towhees compete. There was a grasshopper sparrow and a big, black snake. There were no indigo buntings that I could see. Perhaps they were flitting about under the grasses. I didn’t care anymore. I had meadowlarks. A lot of meadowlarks. And that was enough.
I wonder if today’s children will have memories of birds and animals the way some of us do. I can remember the big, fat granddaddy toad that sat by our back steps catching moths on summer nights. He was the size of a softball and lived to be at least 5 or 6 years old. Whip-poor-wills sang us to sleep and meadowlarks filled our spring days with song. Bobwhites whistled on warm afternoons and ruffed grouse drummed from the woods behind the house. Skunks and raccoons were common visitors and deer were an early morning treat to see walk through the back yard. This was in Hyannis back in the ‘60s by the way, not some magical spot far from the maddening crowds.
Sometimes you don’t get what you want, as Mr. Jagger said. Sometimes you get what you need. In my case, that was a little dose of an old-fashioned spring, and I needed it badly.