Swamp things

This cruel, late spring moved swiftly from drab grays and browns of late winter to bright greens of aspen leaves and fresh grass, as well as the blooms of the fruit trees and tulips.  

Spring colors couple with spring scents: Fresh cut lawn, plum and apple blossoms, lilacs and, out in the woods, the heady, bitter, hop-like smell of aspen sap. 


And sounds: How is it that the frogs survived last August, September and October without water, only to return to sing their wall-penetrating songs this spring? 


Only a few weeks ago, the log in the middle of the swamp sat on dry ground. Now, a dozen turtles clamber out of the water and sun on the log every sunny day. Where did they hide? How did they survive the drought? 


From sensory deprivation to sensory overload in two short weeks! That's the roller coaster ride of seasons in the land-locked north. 


From the crow's nest in my living room, I use binoculars to look down on the bird life which flourishes in the reeds and bulrushes that circle the swamp. 


Snowmelt and spring rains filled the swamp in front of the house enough to allow a swan pair to return and nest for the 10th consecutive year.


Some scenes, such the swans and the flocks of goldfinches at the bird feeder, are annual and familiar. The orioles show up as soon as you put out grape jelly. The rose-breasted grosbeaks struggle with feeders built for birds with smaller beaks. Robins skip the feeder to live in their world of worms. 


As soon as the mosquitoes hatch, the cocky barn swallows arrive to show off their astonishing aerobatic talents.


Others sightings this spring have been completely new, at least to me. 


The biggest surprise came when a scarlet tanager, a chubby neon-red bird, showed up at the feeder. I had never seen one before. For three days he hung around, brightening the scene and scaring off the finches whenever he wanted a snack. 


Then, when I was looking the other way, an indigo bunting showed. Boldly blue, the bunting is truly camera shy. In fact, if you glimpse one out the window in the corner of your eye, don't turn to look or it will fly away. 


The yellow warbler is as pure and deep a yellow as a dandelion, until you focus in with the binoculars and see jagged streaks of orange on the breast. Judging from a only few glimpses, it is my favorite this spring. 


For those who relish combat, the churlish red-winged black birds fight just for the sake of fighting. The bigger the bird, the more likely the red-winged black birds will take them on. 


Red-winged black birds remind me of Billy Martin. The pugilistic but slight baseball manager fought all comers, including players half his age and twice his size. If there wasn't a fight, he'd pick one just for sport. 


Over the past two days, the red-winged blackbirds have carried on an ongoing dogfight with a red-tail hawk in the neutral airspace above the swamp. One feels for the lumbering hawk as he soars majestically, only to have the nimble red-winged blackbirds nip at his his wings from behind. 


In time, the even graceful 30-lb swans will glide into black-bird territory with their new brood, only to be attacked mercilessly from above. After a few minutes, the swans lose their cool, fly into a rage and hiss and lunge at the swarming blackbirds, who seem to never meet defeat. 


As with Billy Martin, you don't have to like red-winged black birds to admire their pesky determination. One attacked his reflection in the window each morning for five summers before disappearing, probably dead from exhaustion. 


Other birds have disappeared as well. It has been at least six years since I have seen a football-sized green heron. The water has apparently gotten too deep for the larger, salamander-gulping blue heron. 


No rocky mountain bluebirds here, although neighbors report plenty. No redstarts have bustled in the reeds, nor have any egrets stopped by to balance on one leg like a swamp thing from Dr. Suess. 


Rails, birds we rarely see because they nest in swamp reeds, haven't shown up. Neither have the woodcocks. Both were one-year phenomena on the swamp.


But for those with eyes to see, or a good pair of binoculars, there is no shortage of bright plumage. 


In fact, the beauty here in spring, when it finally arrives, rivals that of any tropical paradise, and without the venomous snakes.