Waiting for Yellow

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by Dorothy Crane   

Spring 2006   

The first sign—the first faint hint that winter won’t last forever—happens at the thistle feeder by the kitchen window on the second floor of the old farmhouse. The small birds who spend the winter here use the huge apple tree nearby as their staging area for the feeder, flitting back and forth, often emptying the feeder in less than a day. When the weather is cold and dingy outside, the raspberry-stained purple finches and the rosy house finches brighten things up. The goldfinch, on the other hand, is not gold at all. The summer sun-bright male dresses down in winter to match the female’s olive-gray plumage, a plumage most often described as drab in the birding books. But in late February, while the farm is shrouded in white, there is a slight change in the male goldfinch’s feathers. The drab isn’t quite so drab anymore. I can’t see the yellow that will make this fellow look canary-like by May, but I can feel it. He exudes an aura, a color on his breast that is not-yet-yellow but is, without doubt, the-anticipation-of-yellow.

A week or so later a red-winged blackbird appears at the feeder. His red-and-yellow epaulets defy the surrounding grayness. He has probably wintered over not too far south, perhaps in Pennsylvania. Once the snow is gone and the cattails begin to grow he’ll look for a nesting site on the marshy edge of the pasture. Last fall the redwings formed huge flocks that settled like black beads on the branches of the trees in the hedgerow. All of a sudden they would rise up out of the tree, many as one, and fly back and forth in a strange undulating mass, unified in their apparent indecision about which way to go.

These first avian alerts are easy to doubt. The goldfinch’s breast only awaits the arrival of yellow. The red-winged blackbird delivers a slash of yellow on his shoulders, but he could have miscalculated and come north to our feeder too early.

The next sign is unmistakable. After three days of moderate March weather, the yellow faces of the coltsfoot appear where snow has melted on the side of the road. She hurls her bright head up through the tired dirty brown leaves, so impatient that she forgets to bring her green arms with her. Coltsfoot likes neglected places, roadsides, poor soil, rural slopes where people have dumped their trash. Every year the unruly roadside coltsfoot competes with the more dignified snowdrops and crocuses in my garden for the first bloom. The snowdrops usually win, but the coltsfoot almost always beats out the more composed crocuses.

Next, the peepers. I get into the car after work. It’s warm from the sun, so I roll down the window. As I pass the old cornfield on Route 9 the sound is unmistakable—high pitched, ringing, almost like sleigh bells, it hovers over the sound of the traffic. These tiny frogs, proclaiming we have not been abandoned to the icy fist, appear as soon as the temperature begins to stay above freezing at night and there is open water in the fields. With a peeper, hearing is believing, for seeing is impossible. For several years, I armed myself with a flashlight and stalked peepers on warm spring nights. Every time I moved into the sound, hoping to sneak up on them, they did their disappearing act. I was surrounded by a deafening chorus, with no peepers in sight. A full orchestra suddenly became a needle in a haystack. I have seen only one peeper in my life. I found him on a leaf-covered path while hiking on a chilly day. He was the color of the brown leaves, only an inch long, and had the unmistakable X on his back. Hyla crucifere. Cross bearer. Now, as I drive home from work late in the day, their ethereal anthem flies upward, affirming the anticipation of yellow on the goldfinch’s breast, the delivery of yellow by the red-winged blackbird, and the explosion of the yellow coltsfoot beside the road.

The final sign of deliverance happens in the paddock, where we check the sheep. All winter long the manure and hay have built up, layer on frozen layer, making the ground higher and higher. As I lean over to restrain a reluctant ewe my boots sink into the ground. I can feel the hard layers of straw and manure under the surface begin to thaw. The ice has given up.

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Contact: Mike (Mary Michael) Kelley
Dancing Lamb Farm & Icelandic Sheep Dairy
212 Harold Meyer Road
Earlton, NY  12058
518  634-2196