A quiet visitor on a cold winter day
The bird settled in for a respite on a morning when snow fell as a mix of tiny pearls and sparkling flakes. I was headed for the mailbox, along a slick walkway, when I looked to the cylindrical bird feeder that hangs from our oldest lilac. In the feeder's round tray, there she was, a fluffed-up bird, alone and pecking through an icy crust for thistle seeds as thin as slivers.
From years of leafing through "A Field Guide to the Birds," I knew that gray-brown streaking, a black chin, and a red head patch are diagnostic: common redpoll. I recognized the redpoll as a female, without the pink blush on the chest that marks the male.
There was just five inches of bird, but there was nothing common about her. She was "from away," as we say in Maine, from far away.
Only two days before Ms. Redpoll's solo performance, several hundred birds had invaded our yard, a short distance from Casco Bay. Pine siskins and redpolls, not seen here for five years, joined goldfinches and chickadees, our year-round neighbors. The sudden, southerly relocation of masses of siskins and redpolls from as far north as the Canadian tundra is what ornithologists call an "irruption."
What brings them so far south? A search for food, better weather, or perhaps just a whim that no one can explain.
For an hour that day, four species of birds mingled and marauded, flying from twisted wisteria vines to desiccated hollyhock stalks in a chorus of "chee-eeps," "chee-ips," "chet-chets," and "twee-eets."
Twenty clung to the feeder, two to a perch, nudging off interlopers whose only option was to forage on the ground for leftovers.
As quickly as the flock came, it was gone.
The next morning, Ms. Redpoll took up her solitary residence. She did not seem sick or hurt. She was lost or had been left behind, I assumed, after the flurry of the storm.
I knew that these are not wary birds, a trait that makes them vulnerable to predators, but I approached her slowly. We saw eye to eye, Ms. Redpoll and I. With my face only inches from hers, she busily but contentedly broke open the black thistle, each with a quick snap, like clicking fingernails.
I watched her breathe, her chest pounding. I noticed the faint reddish wash on each side of her bill. I could make out the quills and the barbs of her feathers.
I stood with her for more than an hour, while my nose and feet were freezing. Snowplows and sand trucks came grinding by, and a friend stopped her car to ask what I was doing out on such a miserable day. I made a subtle motion toward the redpoll, unfazed by the commotion.
Then the redpoll hopped around the feeder tray. Her back, with its faint stripes, faced me. I reached out, my hand gloved in leather the color of maraschino cherries, and stroked her.
I was breaking all the rules of a nature observer, but she seemed to invite me. I told myself I would not touch her again.
A cardinal chirped from a rhododendron, an island of green in the snow. I looked in every direction, toward treetops blocks away, but I saw no other birds, no flock in which Ms. Redpoll held membership.
On nasty, frigid days, birds are usually scarce. If the redpoll was to find traveling companions, she and I would have to be patient.
I wired a fist-sized basket, advertised as a roosting pouch, to a branch close to the feeder. I advised Ms. Redpoll that the temperature would be in the teens by midnight, and the roosting pouch, made of woven sea grass, would be cozy.
I doubt that she used it, and I suspect that she hunkered down in a nearby pine or juniper for the night.
In the morning, she returned. When I came to refill the feeder, she flew to the top of a miniature dogwood, chewing off buds that would have been June's blooms. A few goldfinches and a nuthatch dropped in for thistle, and Ms. Redpoll dined alongside them.
She kept me from my work, but she was also company on the coldest, darkest days.
I started wearing binoculars around the house, always on the watch. I worried when the redpoll was out of sight and usually had to look twice to find her because she blended so easily with the gray and brown of the twiggy shrubs.
On the sixth day of her homesteading, Ms. Redpoll had sunshine and feathered friends.
In a whoosh, a dozen redpolls swooped onto the feeder. Among her peers, Ms. Redpoll was no longer distinguishable. After feasting for 20 minutes, the flock - Ms. Redpoll included - flew off.
A vacationer or anyone not born here is said to be "from away." The term is the punch line of endless jokes and is a special poke at those who visit only in our glorious summer.
Few come here to appreciate the singular beauty of this place in winter, and even fewer decide to stay.
Though her visit was brief, the endurance and resourcefulness that Ms. Redpoll showed earned her her stripes, tiny and muted though they may be, as a true Mainer. I came here from "away" 30 winters ago.
Perhaps - at last - I am a true Mainer, too.