This red-winged blackbird overslept once in his life and missed his “flight,” ending up stranded in Minnesota.
This red-winged blackbird overslept once in his life and missed his “flight,” ending up stranded in Minnesota. AL BATT/BLUFF COUNTRY READER

J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Tolkien must have done a Christmas Bird Count (CBC), where things (leaves, clumps and clods) look more like birds than birds.

The idiot light indicating low tire pressure refused to disappear from my car’s dashboard although the tires had been checked and not found wanting air. It was 18 degrees below zero. I went walking around outside counting birds. My personal idiot light was on, too.

I do several CBCs each year. Rituals are important, so I count birds with an idiotic verve. I hoped a rickety day would turn into a bird-studded one. The cold, snow and binoculars presented a cartoonish scene similar to the video a friend, Sparky Stensaas of Wrenshall, Minn., made wherein he used a frozen banana to pound a nail into a board at 25 below.

I hadn’t walked long before a friend questioned my sanity, “Are you nuts?” He’s a caring guy who was gobsmacked. He wondered how I could count birds, as they weren’t numbered or wearing nametags. I told him that when it came to counting birds at 18-degrees-below zero, I could take it or leave it, but I’d much rather take it.

I counted without a whimper. Stoicism is a classic Minnesotan attribute. I was properly attired, so I didn’t shiver like a Chihuahua displaying a keen awareness of the tenuous world situation.

Not all birds want to be counted. They are happy to remain shrouded in a veil of anonymity. I was taken with a lovely red-winged blackbird I encountered. I thought of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by the poet Wallace Stevens. “It was evening all afternoon. It was snowing and it was going to snow. The blackbird sat in the cedar-limbs.“ I’m not sure what that means, but I like it.

I consider each bird to be a feathered jewel. Steve Houdek of Onalaska, Wis., told me, “There's always a gold nugget in every birding day; one just needs to find it.”

Watching birds and counting birds go together. We like things that can be measured. When I read a book, it has page numbers. I count birds because I’m still trying to figure things out.

A couple of friends, Terry Taylor and Peter Mattson, saw a pot-bellied pig ranging free during the Austin CBC. I saw several black squirrels (melanistic gray squirrels) and that made me happy.

Do I have any advice for those doing a Christmas Bird Count at -18? I do. Keep your hat on.

Echoes from Loafers’ Club

I’ve resolved to lose weight this year. I’m exercising every day.

What kind of exercise are you doing?

I step on and off the bathroom scale each morning.

Cafe chronicles

The cafe was one of those quintessential eateries where couples talk during the beef commercials. Most of us are more than willing to tell others about our problems even though most of the people we’re telling them to don’t want to hear about them. The waitress listened to the complaints and her face reflected the proper concern. A good server brings a lot to the table.

Jeepers creepers, where did you get those peepers?

The sweet in my dreams had eye surgery recently. It caused her to see two of me. She claimed that was a definite hardship.

I remember when my mother had cataract surgery. It was a different process in those days. It required a hospital stay with mother remaining motionless in bed with a cushioned brick pillow on each side of her head to restrict movement. The procedure improved her eyesight. On the way home, she had joked, “There are lines in the middle of the road!” Entering her home, the first thing she said was, “How long have those cobwebs been there?”

Everything went and is going well for my wife. I hope that my bride will come out of the surgeries with the eyesight of a rabid sports fan. One of those who never misses seeing a wrong call.

I had an eye exam, too. It was thorough. Very thorough. My eyes were good, but the doctor told me that I’m developing a kidney stone. That’s what I call a comprehensive eye test.

The guy from down the road 

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“Everything is nearly copacetic. My New Year’s resolution is to lose weight and to be punctual. I’m doing five laps around the gym every day in January. In February, I may get out of my pickup and walk into the gym. That should take longer than driving around it. I’ve set my clocks 30 minutes ahead so I can get to town before I’ve left home. The weather has been lovely sometimes. I have a beach umbrella over my snowblower. The weather is that uncertain. I’m cleaning my refrigerator, which means I’m polishing off leftovers from the Pleistocene epoch. I should have Weasel help me. He’s a good eater. Weasel gets by on $20 a week.”

“How is that possible?” I say.

“The $20 never leaves his wallet.”


What was the first bird you saw in 2018? Mine is often a crow, as it was this year. I’m all right with that. 

A coyote ran across the road and I heard a chickadee whistle its song, “I’m cold.”

The tiny red squirrels drive my wife to distraction. She enjoys the company of gray and fox squirrels, but considers red squirrels the cause of most of the world’s problems. She pounds on windows and yells at them when they’re on the feeders. I suspect that was the reason we didn’t get a single Christmas card from a red squirrel this year.

I watched white-breasted nuthatches fly onto my mother-in-law’s feeders and carry sunflower seeds to a nearby tree where they wedged the seeds into crevices in the bark that eased the process of opening the shells. The nuthatch get its name from its habit of pecking seeds or nuts jammed into bark with its sharp bill to “hatch” the edible parts. 

I’ve considered trying that with pistachios. Some of those nuts prove difficult for a thumbnail to open.

A red-bellied woodpecker clung to the tree the nuthatches used as a tool. The woodpecker watched a nuthatch stuff a seed into a crack in the bark. It flew there, frightening the nuthatch away. The woodpecker used the bark vise to open the seed and enjoyed the purloined repast.

Company is coming 

Donna Swenson of rural Waseca told me that when she was a girl, she could tell when company was coming because her mother put the ironing board away.

People tend to clean the house when visitors are expected. They put things away. They’d like their abode to appear spotless, but a keen-eyed guest can spot items stuffed under a sofa. Why not ask a visitant to help clean your house? It will give their life purpose.

In an earlier version of myself, I knew we were having company when my mother said, “We’re having company.”

CBC revisited

I did a Christmas Bird Count. It was 18-degrees-below zero. That was no mountain for a high-stepping Minnesotan.

I walked briskly as if I were going past a skunk farm. It was the January cold that put a hurry up in my gitalong, not skunks. Then I caught the faint scent of a skunk. It made me want to flip the calendar and see how close spring was.

A black squirrel scurried up a tree and put the trunk between it and me. A squirrel knows where the back of a tree is. The name "squirrel" comes from two Greek words, skia, meaning "shadow" and oura, meaning "tail." A squirrel can position its tail over its body for protection from sun, rain or snow. It’s also a warm blanket when sleeping.

The night before, when it was merely -20, an eastern screech owl had flown across the road in front of me. It’s a cool little bird to see at any time. Not far from that sighting, I spotted either a deer mouse or a white-footed mouse scampering across the same road. I’d wished that I had contact information for the tiny owl so I could have given it a heads up as to where a meal might be found. It’s not that I hate mice. It’s that I love owls.

Thanks for stopping by

“Anger makes us all stupid.” — Johanna Spyri

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” — Albert Einstein

Meeting adjourned

Being kind is a way to show that you love life.


© Al Batt 2018