I love winter. It’s partly the drawing in, staying warm, keeping together with family and friends. But just as much, it’s bundling up, walking in the snow, feeling icy weather, watching changes in nature. Leaves are down; more light and sky are visible through the branches. On clear nights, the stars seem to catch on the boughs, swinging so close to earth you feel you can almost touch them.
There’s nothing better than the winter beach. Storms push the tides higher, and equally tug them out so far the tidal flats seem to go on forever. Rolling waves, high wind blowing foam of the white crests, while rafts of water birds—buffleheads, surf scoters, brants, red-breasted mergansers among other winter residents—take shelter in coves.
Two years ago I experienced the Winter of Magical Birding. A nature photographer friend and I saw everything. One brilliant freezing day we went down to Barneget Light. We stood on the long stone jetty observing Harlequin Ducks, their brilliant masks and notable white dots visible as they fed in the seaweed just below our feet on the jetty’s leeward side.
Another excursion into the Catskills brought sightings of fifty, a hundred, White-winged Crossbills and Red Crossbills. It was an irruption year, and the small passerines had flown down from the boreal forest in search of a fine cone crop. The day was cold and snowing, and we were surrounded by forest. The crossbills thronged in a stand of blue spruce, attacking the cones, and I’ll never forget the bright sight and the sounds of seeds being cracked, their hulls clicking as they fell to the ice-encrusted snow.
The third and greatest sighting occurred on Jones Beach, where a young male Snowy Owl had decided to spend a few days. We arrived just past dawn, watched the rising sun’s light turn the owl’s white feathers golden. More than any other bird I love the exquisite and mystical Snowy Owl.
Snowies live on the tundra, and when lemmings, their preferred food, are scarce, they fly south and search out flatlands that remind them of home. Beaches are perfect, and they have the requisite food source: mice and voles.
That day my feet and hands froze, but it was worth it. I walked down the beach, watched the waves crash, saw a surfcaster catch a late-in-the-year Striped Bass, watched seagulls breaking quahog shells and eat the clams inside, and saw an enormous flock of Snowy Plovers fly in from the east. Even better, I spent long hours with the Snowy Owl.
Late afternoon when the sun went down, the light glowed rose pink, illuminating the owl’s feathers. He stared straight at us, all the hunger and mystery in his yellow eyes, and suddenly took flight. Wide wings spread, he flapped once, and went into a silent glide over the thicket of dried beach grass. Darkness came fast, and he was lost to view.
That might be my favorite metaphor for winter. The nights are long, and it might seem light will never return. The dark brings contemplation, inspiration, a feeling of things vast and unknowable. But I’m filled with anticipation, the way I felt as a child with a glittery Advent calendar and a fresh window to open every day, a new candle to light each week, knowing Christmas would come.
Winter lasts long, but it’s beautiful, and then there is spring.