I turn the top of the concrete birdbath over to face the sky and fill it with a milk jug’s worth of water. Within minutes, a goldfinch arrives along with several of his wren buddies. They perch on the rim, taking furtive sips and cocking their heads at me as if to say, “It’s about time, sister.”
I remove the empty suet feeders, greasy with residue from the nut-encrusted fat cakes meant to entice woodpeckers and chickadees. The squirrels will now have to give up their pole-dancing and content themselves with cast-off seeds under the birdfeeders, listening for the slam of the back door which means a white dog is on its way, intent on their destruction.
The bluebird boxes have been swept clean of the remains of last year’s nests and are ready for new tenants. I don’t remember seeing bluebirds in February before, but they were here. I assumed they traveled to warmer climates over the winter but maybe not so much anymore. I’ve heard the distinctive call of the red-winged blackbird (we name them all Freddie) and the peepers are back in the little stream that flows behind the grove of trees at the foot of the yard. The finches, having shed their drab winter grays and browns, cluster in yellow pops of color around the thistle seed feeder, the upscale restaurant of birdseed offerings.
I will look for the cardinals to build their nest in the flimsy branches of a rhododendron bush outside our dining room window. There have been tragedies over the years, yet they insist on returning to that same spot. Another bird, perhaps a mockingbird, frequently constructs its nursery high up under the eaves of the house, where it is warmed by resting on the spotlight that illuminates the backyard.
The lawn is just starting to show light green, and here and there, patches of yard garlic poke out like shocks of unruly hair. I remember spending time with my grandfather in his backyard garden where we would pull spikes of that wild garlic and eat it, coming back into my grandmother’s kitchen with pungent breaths and cheeks ruddy from early spring’s cool breezes.
I planted cold-weather vegetables yesterday—broccoli, cabbages, and kale. The garden has already been tilled and bathed in a few bags of organic fertilizer, and each thrust of the trowel brought forth fat worms, happily burrowing through the compost of last year’s harvest. When I came in, I noticed a small itchy bump on my wrist, so some biting insect is awake and hungry. The chicken-wire fencing will need to be erected soon to prevent rabbits from making a salad of what I’ve planted.
The dogs share the porch with me, noses quivering with scents carried on this first breath of warm air. Winter brought miserable bathroom visits in cold rain, when they had to find a spot on frozen mud and leave trickles of yellow against jagged shards of old snow. I hook Stella’s leash around a chair leg because otherwise she will run like the wind, squeezing her chubby body under the neighbor’s fence and peering down dangerous groundhog holes in pursuit of her prey. Vinnie dozes on my lap while Stella remains vigilant, cooing and whining as she scans the yard for chipmunks and squirrels. I suspect this may be Vinnie’s last spring. His broken liver, which a brilliant veterinary specialist has kept going for the last three years, is showing signs of exhaustion. He still chases the occasional squirrel on his good days, the days when steroids trick his body into thinking he is young and healthy and that he still has many springs ahead of him.
I wait anxiously for my hummingbirds to return, following the tiny colored dots on the online migration map. When I see them populate into Maryland, I will boil sugar and water down into simple syrup (never the red pre-mixed stuff) and hang my feeders where I can see them from the kitchen window. Sometimes it takes weeks of cleaning and refilling the feeders until my first hummer arrives, usually a female. She tentatively buzzes around the nectar holes at dusk, when the other birds are starting to settle into the trees in the fencerow, gradually quieting as another day filled with nature’s renewal of life comes to a close.