The Block Island Times

Snowy Migrant

By Martha Ball | Feb 08, 2014

It is winter and snow seems to be a constant although as I write — knock on every piece of wood within reach — my road has not once been impassable. It is a gift of the weather gods who determine which way the wind will blow; here a shift of a few degrees can be the determining factor between a few inches and a few feet at the turn onto the town-owned and plowed Mansion.

Each storm forecast hangs like a pall with the possibility of being The One. My neighbor and I talk about the winter and wonder how for the cold it really has not been all that bad. We speculate that the wind has not been as tough as it can be and I think it is rarely as dire as the threat of it hanging in these days of warnings, yesterday for a system off the West Coast.

I am unsure if there has been less wind or if the worst of it came from a direction less invasive and battering. It is only the start of February, I remind myself, recalling the winter that wasn’t when we went through the season saying, “We still have to get through January” — then February, then March. Only with April did it feel no other shoe was going to drop on us with a huge, echoing “gotcha!”

Tomorrow’s forecast for a “wintry mix” well describes what fell from the skies yesterday, slushy on the roads, eventually turning to heavy white that clung to all the branches excepting a patch of blackberry vines behind the house. There is always some odd exception but this is especially strange.

The walk I knew to shovel last night but did not is now icy under a thin layer of snow. I hear ice dropping as I write, from the eaves, from the trees, wherever the morning sun strikes, but the walk will not feel its melting presence until later in the day.

The land, I realize once I look beyond that anomaly of bare vines, past the singular track of one deer up and down the snow-covered land behind my house, is covered with a different kind of snow. It is not the filagree that vanishes by mid-morning, nor the heavy bough — and line — breaking white that can wreak havoc with utility companies that somehow forgot this is New England.

It is winter wonderland all around me even three hours after the sun has risen. Everything is covered with snow, excepting that distracting patch of blackberry vines, the rolling field between my kitchen window and my neighbor’s farm, the frozen surface of the big pond and all the water willow rimming it. The flatter area behind the house where there used to be an orchard, one of many fallen in the ‘38 hurricane, looks like the Old Harbor in the mid-sixties. There was a spell when every day the tough little Sprigg Carroll broke through the ice when it landed at noon; when it sailed a few hours later it sent broken pieces floating up and over its wake.

My field had the look of digitized special effects, a loosely knitted blanket resting atop the goldenrod and weeds or, more dramatic, those lighthouses on Lake Michigan where the air is so cold lake waves freeze in motion when they hit the towers and connecting bridges.

Eerie and beautiful and not of this world.

It could be the realm of a Snowy Owl and, for the first time, I wonder if it is these magnificent birds who  brought the white weather.

I have an old bird book, a 1936 “Birds of America,” with color plates. I noticed — a surprisingly short time ago given that I do not remember the book not being a part of my life — that the illustrations are grotesque. The Osprey carries a whole fish in its talons, the Duck Hawk is feeding its young a Meadow Lark, a wing already torn from the body. Among the prey, often bleeding, shown are a rabbit, a snake, a mouse, even an inconsequential moth lies beneath the open beak of a Sparrow Hawk. The Snowy, surprisingly, given its reputation as an especially efficient predator, is sitting, empty-taloned and empty-beaked, although the Barred Owl next to it holds something that could be... anything, some kind of animal.

The book is a window on another time, it speaks of the great egrets almost extinct for having been taken for their prize plumes to adorn lady’s hats. A more recent Audubon cites the same bird as one having come back.

It is the language I love almost as much as the slightly freaky color plates.

Of the Snowy it is written: “The fine, strong, picturesque Snowy Owl comes to us as a migrant from the northland where it breeds, and where the long days in summer make its habits chiefly diurnal. This fact has been discovered too late by many a Crow engaged with his brethren in the pleasing diversion of mobbing the big white specter sitting on a limb motionless, and presumably blind, because obviously an Owl. For, let one of the black tormentors come near enough and the ghost suddenly launches out on strong, silent wings, the great talons strike and close, and there is a Crow who would have been wiser but for the circumstance that he is very dead.” It cites a number of instances when they seemed to invade southern climes seemingly with neither rhyme nor reason.

The big white Snowy Owl here over the weekend merely moved from one roof to the top of a telephone pole to another and before leaving my sight. First, though, she, I think it was a she, let me get a few yards past the pole closest to her perch, eyeing me, before she flew off effortlessly on those wide, strong wings.

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