Allan Bell’s Birch Bark Nature Notes Revisited

Were my hopes for a spring day premature? That old snowman just wouldn’t quit. It’s a whole lot like last year. Do you remember?


The April Country Journal gives some interesting facts about Easter. The earliest date on which Easter can occur is March 22. It happened in 1761 and 1818. No, I don’t remember that. It’s what the magazine said. It will not happen again until after 2100.

The latest possible date for Easter is April 25, as in 1943. The next time will be in 2038 (I’ll be 120 years old then. Sometimes I feel like that now and I’m only a little over halfway there). The only dates later than this year will be April 23, 2000 and April 24, 2011.

How come? In AD325 it was decided that Easter would be observed on the first Sunday following the full moon of the month in which a new moon falls closest to the Vernal Equinox. March 21. Got that? Confusing, isn’t it?


March 19 is the day the swallows come back to Capistrano. Shall I hum a few bars? These are cliff swallows, the kind you see by the hundreds filling the air around the Fourth St. bridge. A lot has been made of the fact that they always come back on the same day. I’ll bet they all leave Capistrano on the same day, too. They migrate some 6,000 miles to South America where the seasons are the opposite of ours. It is fall there now, with their food supply of aerial insects either diminished or nonexistent.  Wouldn’t you leave, too? Mosquitoes, flies, wasps and beetles make up their diet and are available now in parts of the northern hemisphere.

The other reason for their return to the U.S. is to raise a family. The first order of business is a nest. Every mud puddle in the vicinity of a bridge, eave or overhang is soon surrounded with teetering, fluttering birds.The mud is carried in their mouths, moulded into pellets and plastered onto surfaces in a gravity-defying operation. Trip after trip after trip after trip finally results in a sort of upside down beehive stuck on seemingly impossible smoothnesses. Who teaches them to do that?

The entrance holes are near the bottom of the nest and I’ve always wondered why more baby birds didn’t fall out. The eaves of all the sheds at Raymond Lumber Co. were lined with houses. Baby birds peeked out, waiting for mom and dad to bring their dinner. It wasn’t until autumn, when all of the birds were perched on the highlines, that you could see how many there really were.

Many of the birds built their nests only a foot or two overhead, often near doors with people slamming in and out all day long. It didn’t seem to faze them at all. The bottom of the Jersey City bridge is only three or four feet above the water. As you go under, ducking a bit, you are eyeball to eyeball with birds looking out of their homes or leaving them in haste. Those birds do quite a piloting job, to fly up to that hole that is pointing down, kill their speed, fold their wings and cruise right on in. And make it look easy!

Cliff swallows are not a colorful bird. The rump and throat are a rusty orange or buff, the rest just kind of dirty looking. But what fliers! They are speedy and graceful and although the sky is often filled with swooping, zooming birds, I’ve never seen a collision. They glide in arcs that remind one of roller coasters.

Food – and drink – are gathered on the wing. Watch them this summer. Quite a bird!


On March 22, a windy, cold, snowy day, an osprey came sailing over my house, just above the trees. The birds at the feeder all scattered. Perhaps they thought it was a hawk and weren’t taking any chances. The osprey is  no threat to birds, only fish. It must be pretty cold fishing now. I hope it was successful.


The birds still need your handouts!


Late nature writer Allan Bell wrote this Birch Bark Nature Notes column for the Tomahawk Leader back on March 28, 1984. In revisiting some of his insightful outdoor writings, and considering this recent cold snap that once again turned the landscape white with up to 10 inches of snow falling over Easter weekend, it appears once again that the old snowman just won’t quit. And do you remember last year? According to WSAW, the region picked up over 13 inches of snow on April 10-11. The year before that was even worse. Back in 2018 a total 20.5 inches fell during a period from April 13-15.

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