“It is only 10 days to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.”
Dragon opened one sleepy eye and regarded Cleric with disdain.
“What? Am I incorrect?” Cleric blushed under Dragon’s glare.
“I do not know. I do not care.” Dragon rolled over to toast her other side by the heat of her illusory fireplace. “I do not understand the climate of this world. Spring, indeed! The temperatures are still frigid, and the snow is so deep you could lose a good size horse in the drifts!” She glanced out the French doors to the snow-covered deck and snorted. “In our world, spring meant green grass, flowers, birdsong, sunshine, and blessed, blessed warmth!”
“You and the Arrogant One should be glad you were absent from this world for a while. The temperatures while you were gone were brutal! What Mistress Writer terms the feels like temperature due to the wind chill factor was as much as 30 degrees below zero! Even the real temperature was below zero, though not by as many degrees.” Sorceress gathered her cloak closer around her and sipped from her cup of hot tea.
Dragon scowled. “Those numbers mean nothing to me. I do not comprehend the various systems of measurement they use in this world. Mistress Writer calls the temperature here degrees Fahrenheit, while other parts of this world measure temperature in degrees Celsius. I do not know what comprises a degree, nor do I understand Fahrenheit or Celsius.”
Cleric nodded. “I agree it is confusing. I only know it was positively numbing. Only Mistress Writer and Master Miles have ventured out of the house since you and the elf left for the other world, and they only go out when absolutely necessary. But even in the house, I can feel the chill.”
Sorceress placed her teacup on the end table. “The Foreman and the lads are getting quite cranky. They have been unable to work with their horses since the beginning of winter.”
“And I am so cold, my scales ache.” A cloud of black smoke drifted from Dragon’s snout. “I think we should all go back to visit the Lord of the Forest and the others in his world! It was tolerably warm there!”
I walked in in mid-conversation, but I had heard enough to comment. “From everything you told us about your recent adventure there, I’m not sure that would be a good idea. I must admit, though, the part about it being warm there makes it tempting. I can’t stand much more of this weather myself. And I don’t think the birds are very happy about it, either.”
I juggled several plastic containers as I struggled to open the door to the deck. “How about a hand here?”
Cleric jumped up and opened the door for me and grabbed half the containers from my arms. We went out and filled the various dishes and food stations around the deck with mealworms, assorted seeds, peanuts and grapes. We were hardly in the house again before a huge flock of birds descended to gobble up the food.
Dragon glanced out the door and her eyes widened. “So many birds!” She shrunk to the size of a housecat and clambered onto the back of the sofa to watch through the window.
Cleric nodded. “And they are all so hungry!”
“Well, it is extremely cold, so they need a lot of food to stay warm.” I watched them make short work of the mealworms and start on the peanuts and grapes. “They are ravenous today!”
“Yes, they seem to eat even more than your Old Dwarf.” Sorceress quirked an eyebrow and smirked.
As if on cue, my Old Dwarf walked into the room, munching on some ham. He gave Dragon an affectionate look, then followed everyone’s gaze. “Wow! Thet be one big bunch o birdies!” He walked over to the doors and watched as the birds ate. “They be makin’ me hungry! When be lunch?”
I gaped at the rotund figure. “Lunch? You’re eating right now!”
“Eh, thet be jus’ a little snack ta be holdin’ me over.” He turned and walked toward the kitchen. “I be seein’ iffin yer mister be needin’ any help ta be fixin’ lunch.”
I shook my head and chuckled at the old reprobate.
I turned my attention to Cleric. “Hmmm?”
She tilted her head and scrunched her brow as she looked at the birds. “Are these birds all robins?”
I checked the flock and nodded.
“Is that not unusual for Minnesota in the winter?”
“Well, I don’t know how unusual it is for the rest of Minnesota, but I have never seen such a large flock of overwintering robins in our neighborhood. Most winters, if we have any robins at all in our yard, there are only a few, never more than three or four. This winter, we have a flock that has grown from around 30 birds in December to almost 100 now.”
After a frantic few minutes, most of the food was gone. Cleric and I stepped out and refilled the plates and feeders, then returned to our seats to do some more birdwatching.
My Gypsy entered the room and came over to join us as the birds returned to the buffet. “Oh, robins! I love them. They display more variation in color and markings than most people notice.” He pointed to specific birds on the deck railing as he commented. “Some are pale and have a great deal of white while others are deep brick-red on their fronts. And some have much more white around their eyes than others.”
Once the robins ate their fill and flew off, other birds ventured onto the deck, or waited their turn in the nearby trees. Cleric and my Gypsy settled into their favorite game of seeing who was quickest to identify the birds.
My Gypsy was first. “See the little brown bird on the dish, eating safflower seed? The rufous cap and line through his eye, the smudged dot on his chest, and the bi-color bill all tell me he is an American Tree Sparrow.”
The two companions looked to me, and my Gypsy grinned as I nodded in agreement with his assessment.
Not to be outdone, Cleric quickly identified some birds. “See the two birds on the posts and the one on the dish? The black cap and bib, the white cheeks, the gray wing feathers edged in white, and the stubby bill tell me these three are Black-capped Chickadees.”
I smiled and nodded. “One apiece. Who’s next?”
My Gypsy immediately pointed to another small bird on a post. “That bird also has a black cap and white cheeks, but no black bib. His longer bill, his white throat and belly, and his bluish-gray back tell me this compact little bird is a White-breasted Nuthatch.”
“Two for my Gypsy and one for Cleric.” I smiled approvingly at my two characters.
“Oh, look!” Cleric pointed to another bird that had just landed on the snowy railing. “Blue crest, black necklace, gray front, blue back, and various shades of blue with some black plumage on the wings and tail tell me he’s a Blue Jay, and there are two more in the trees.” She pointed again.
“Two-all. You’re both getting really good at identifying these birds!”
My Gypsy grinned, missing the opportunity to score another identification, as Cleric quickly continued. “Those three are Dark-eyed Juncos, also called snowbirds, as they are winter visitors here. They are mostly dark gray to black, with white bellies. They have white outer tail feathers, which, of course, you can only see on the bird sitting on the post. Oh, and they have pink bills.” She pointed to the birds, one on the post, one eating from a dish, and one pecking at some spray millet.
“You forgot to identify the sub-species.” My Gypsy gave her a smug look. “There are at least seven sub-species of Dark-eyed Juncos. These three belong to the Slate-colored subspecies.”
“I’d say you each get a point for that one. That puts you at three apiece.” I grinned.
My Gypsy immediately tried to pull ahead in the competition. “There are three female Northern Cardinals eating from the clay dishes.” He pointed, and continued, “See the short, thick bills, and the pale brown coloring, with tinges of red in their crests, their wings, and their tails?”
Cleric nodded, and quickly pointed to the trees. “And there are three male Northern Cardinals in the trees, waiting for their mates to finish eating. They have brilliant red coloring, long tails, and black masks. And one is singing!”
“Another point each! You’re doing so well!” I gave them both an encouraging smile.
Cleric beamed at the praise. “It is fun to practice our skills identifying the birds of your world, Mistress. While we knew most of the birds in our own world, everything was foreign to us when we found ourselves in your world.”
My Gypsy nodded. “Even after several years here, we still sometimes have trouble identifying some birds. For instance, I can tell the little woodpecker eating from the dish on the deck is a Downy Woodpecker. He is close enough that I can see he is very small and has a short beak relative to the size of his head. But there are three woodpeckers in the trees that look like Downies, but I cannot be sure. They might be the larger look-alike, the Hairy Woodpecker. From this distance, I cannot judge their size accurately, nor the relative size of bill-to-head.”
Cleric and I looked where my Gypsy was pointing. I turned to her. “Do you want to weigh in on this?”
Cleric nodded. “I believe all three are the smaller one, the Downy Woodpecker. Although there are no other birds near any of them by which to judge their size, they appear very compact to me. Also, while I am not positive, I believe I am seeing dark spots on their white outer tail feathers, which would confirm their identity as Downies.”
“Excellent! You both scored another point!”
My Gypsy furrowed his brow, obviously upset that he was unable to confirm the identities, but he quickly brightened when he saw another bird. “Well, I can see that bird in the tree well enough to identify it. A soft-gray bird with black spots on its wings, a long, thin tail, pink legs and a thin, slightly curved black bill – that’s a Mourning Dove!”
I nodded. “Very good! You just took the lead.”
“Oh, no! I do not suppose that one would count – an Eastern Gray Squirrel, who has chased all the birds from the deck!” Cleric frowned at the furry animal, then laughed. “I think he wants to know if we have any more peanuts. The birds did not leave any!”
“I don’t think we should put any more out right now, and you might want to suggest to the squirrel that he gets out of sight.”
No sooner had I said that when a hawk flew down from the tree, landing on the railing. The squirrel made a hasty escape into the bush next to the deck.
“Oh, my! I am glad our furry little friend did not end up as this bird’s dinner!” Cleric gaped at the bird, who struck a regal pose. “Mistress, is this a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk?”
My Gypsy, eager to show off, did not even give me a chance to answer. “Oh, I know! This bird is larger than the average Sharp-shinned Hawk, which is only about the size of the Blue Jay we saw earlier. The eyes are close to the front of the head, and the feathers on his nape are lighter than his head feathers, giving him a capped look, rather than a hooded appearance. This is a Cooper’s Hawk.”
I nodded. “Yup, and the red eyes and the vertical barring tell us it is a full adult.”
There was a commotion on the deck, and we watched as a smaller hawk came and chased off the Cooper’s Hawk. The newcomer settled itself on a post and looked around.
Cleric tilted her head and studied the bird. “Oh, this hawk has yellow eyes and streaks rather than barring. This is a juvenile, is it not?”
“Yup. But a juvenile what?” I grinned.
Cleric chewed on her lower lip. “A Sharp-shinned Hawk?”
My Gypsy raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain?”
Cleric grinned. “Yes. This bird is smaller than the other hawk, and the barring is very large and bold. The barring on a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk would be thinner, finer. It is a Sharpie.”
We watched as the bird moved around, showing off its beautiful plumage.
Dragon frowned. “The Gypsy said a Sharp-shinned Hawk was about the size of a Blue Jay. While this hawk is smaller than the other hawk, it is noticeably larger than the Blue Jay we saw earlier.”
Cleric nodded. “It is probably a female. The female birds of prey are larger than the males. A female Sharp-shinned Hawk could be almost the same size as a male Cooper’s Hawk.”
I nodded. “Excellent! I am very impressed by both of you!”
My Gypsy frowned. “But which one of us won? Who identified the most birds?”
I reviewed the birds we had seen, and who had identified each one. “I think it was pretty much a tie.”
“Well, I will win next time.” My Gypsy squared his shoulders and set his jaw.
“We will see about that!” Cleric smiled.
Sorceress rose from her chair and beckoned us. “Right now, I think we should see if perchance lunch is ready.”
Dragon hopped down from the back of the sofa, resuming her former size before her feet hit the floor. “Only if I can move my fireplace into the dining room.”
We hope you enjoyed our winter armchair-birding adventure. Be sure to return every week to see what new adventures and misadventures await my band of displaced characters. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.