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Standing outside in my socks in a 25 mph wind and sipping pea soup out of a coffee cup was probably gilding the lily but that’s how I roll on a lovely Sunday evening. I know little of my Dutch ancestry, except that there’s a gene in there somewhere which makes me love pea soup (snert!) beyond all reason. It sits right next to the gene for love of wet muddy places and for small boats of every description.

I get my weather data from an app that talks to a buoy in the middle of Lake Mendota. Limnologists and atmospheric scientists from my university placed it there. They named it “David.” … Ha ha ha!

I woke that morning to throw off the quilt at 2:44 am. With the windows open and the wind howling from the south, the night-time temperature never left the 60F range and the humidity of an all-night rain made it uncomfortably and unfamiliarly warm. I read The Twelve on my phone and then fell fitfully back to sleep. Up at seven to clearing skies, do the Wordle, sip some coffee, and then retrieve a short-sleeved church-shirt (first time!) from the back of the closet.

Weather radar indicated that nearly 700,00 migrant songbirds rode that south wind northward through Dane County overnight (check out the link below for bird action near your home).

I’ve been walking to church as much as possible recently (nearly all winter) as part of a “walk my talk” discipline in light of the climate crisis. It’s a mile and a half through suburban neighborhoods of small to modest homes. I typically identify 6 to 12 species of birds in the half-hour walk and I marvel over the variety of maple cultivars planted over the years. This morning’s first movement overhead was our stealthy Cooper’s hawk vectoring through the red-flowering maple limbs. I rounded up the usual suspects by sight or by call: robin, house finch, goldfinch, English sparrow, crow, cardinal, chickadee, junco, Canada goose, Sandhill crane…, and then crossing main street another Cooper’s hawk and then a northern flicker (doing that dart-like thing that woodpeckers do when they fly)!

A two Cooper’s hawk Sunday. Beat that!

Pastor Karen preached about accessing love in the face of a climate crisis.
I couldn’t make time to prowl the creek where I see warblers in the spring or the patch of woods by the footbridge where I found a winter wren once. I had to hustle home – ironically for a Zoomed church council meeting.
And then a turkey sandwich, and then a few chores, and then, with Carol’s blessing, I left for poking around at Dorn Creek.

No purer wind blows than the one that blows off the water, and I stood on Mendota’s north shore yesterday while a hard humid wind blew out of the south and I could smell the fresh spray of lake water and feel it on my face. Those southerly warm winds carry the migrants. Summer song and color, taking the red-eye north while we sleep. By this afternoon the wind blew hard out of the west and over the prairie, clearing the sky and clarifying the late afternoon sun.

This is the big show. The players are arriving, and the curtain is rising. Birding in the afternoon during a 27 mph wind is not optimal, but I knew of a small hill in the remnant woods that would offer some shelter so I crawled in and sat myself still on a log. I’m a recent adult-onset birder, which is a bit of an embarrassing admission given that I am a wildlife professor. But I am feeling all the zeal of a new convert and I am astonished at how learning my local birds enriches my sense of place. How wonderful to experience t-shirt warmth on an afternoon with the freedom to be still and pay attention.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

After a bit, I was joined by several ruby crowned kinglets, and then my first warbler of the year (a yellow-rumped) and then a brown thrasher — its impossibly rich rufous coloring practically pulsing in the pucker brush. And then more.

In a world of wounds, you sustain hope by sifting your love from the tactile, by seeking and learning. And by starting local. You stand in the weather and feel it on your face. You name it and watch. You puzzle and open your heart to the wonderful. You taste it.

Reader, don’t miss this. Creation’s big show is starting now. If you’re a newbie like me, here are a few resources to get started.

MERLIN is a free smartphone app that helps you identify birds by sight and sound, and it’s put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It’s like guidebook in your pocket.

BirdCast is a website that uses weather radar to track bird migrations. You can enter your own location for local data, and it predicts which migratory species might be showing up by you.

eBird is a website where you can learn more about the life history of your local birds.

ALSO!!! Join us for the Reformed Journal’sThe Church and Climate Change: Refugia Faith” webinar tonight!


Cooper’s Hawk photo by Richard Knight
Ruby-crowned kinglet photo by Andrew Weitzel


Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yup, yup, yup. What a joy the birds are in our lives.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Tim, yes you’re a wildlife professor;however, you are a masterful writer with exquisite timing, vivid yet unobtrusive precision, and musically rhythmic and auditory cadences of phrases. What a joy to come alive to the experience of your composing itself. Thank you. Shalom

  • Gary VanHouten says:

    My first warbler of the year, a yellow-rumped too, flew in a couple of nights ago. Was eating ravenously at the suet feeder when I first saw him the next morning. Obviously very hungry after a night of flying. Two white-throated sparrows first time at the feeder this morning. What a wonderful time of year! Thanks for the essay, and totally agree about the pea soup!

  • From this wonderful essay, to the Andean condors on “Our National Parks” (Ep. 2), to our own bird feeder, I am inspired and delighted. If birds were our only teachers from nature, it would be enough for me, but we have so much more! Thanks for keeping this on our minds.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Tim: And you are right: the Merlin app from Cornell is amazing on the sound i.d. of birds. It’s fun to know what birds you are hearing even if you do not spy them. On a recent trip to Charleston, SC, I used it on a hike one day and Merlin i.d.’d multiple birds including Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Carolina Wrens, Northern Parulas, and more! A great tool! Also confirmed a Willet, Common Moorhens, and American Coots.

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    The webinar last night was so good! Andrew and Kyle are my good friends from working together at the CRC OSJ.

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