PAT NEAL: The signs of spring

I REMEMBER THAT first hint of springtime.

It was long before the first skunk cabbage poked its garish head above the pond scum.

It was before that other harbinger of spring, the return of the swallows or the awakening tree frogs who croak all winter if the temperature will allow.

It was before that other triumphant bird watching event, the first buzzard.

The dramatic sighting of which means you’re one step ahead of the rest of the bird watching ham-and-eggers and have your finger squarely on the pulse of our seasonal migrations.

In short, to sight the first buzzard, sandhill crane, osprey or any number of other migrating species that signal the arrival of spring means you rule in the bird watching world.

Like the eagles hauling branches and strips of moss to their nests, this was an event of such intense significance that few who witnessed it were even aware how cool it was.

I’m not sure what makes the hyper-competitive world of competition bird watching so competitive.

All I know is when you spot the first migratory species or mating ritual of our feathered friends before the rest of the huddled masses, it gives a feeling of unabashed superiority that allows you to ignore your dead-end career, abusive relationships and nagging health issues long enough to appreciate the vanishing natural world we have not quite totally destroyed, yet.

Let others brag about their fancy tropical vacations, new homes or high-paying jobs.

You just saw the first buzzard.

That’s a feeling you can’t buy.

Migrations are a wonder of nature thing that give flight to the imagination by launching our speculation on just where all these birds are going to be when they finally get there.

Chances are we’ll still be here.

We remain firmly rooted to the ground, unable to travel great distances without increasing the size of our carbon footprint.

But let’s get back to my sighting.

The significance of which is still sinking in.

It was all the more significant because it was not a migration sighting at all but the opening scene to a preternatural mating ritual thing and I like to watch.

Perhaps that’s revealing too much about the secret life of this birdwatcher, but they say write what you know so here goes.

I remember it like it was yesterday because, well, it was yesterday and I have a hard time remembering things back much further than that. I have a good memory but it isn’t too long.

I think it’s the concussions talking but I remember it was a sunny afternoon that made you almost think we might survive the winter. There was a faint breeze blowing a hint of the essence of pussy willows up the river.

It was like a breath of spring that I’ve waited for all year.

The mystery began with a hollow thumping sound like the beating of a savage drum from deep within darkness of the primeval forest.

The speed, volume and intensity of the drumming increased to the point where it sounded like someone trying to jumpstart a helicopter.

My fancy friends asked, “What was that?”

At first, I was tempted to tell them it was the Sasquatch attempting to communicate, but no.

We had already heard that earlier in the day.

Sometimes the truth is more mysterious than anything you can make up.

It was the drumming of the ruffed grouse, standing on a log beating its wings to attract a mate, sending a message that winter might not be over but spring is just around the corner.

Author’s note: I would like to apologize for the reference to the Holocaust in my March 1 column, “Sequim elk: The final solution.” It was a crude attempt at humor that I would never have written if I thought it would offend the memory of the generations of families who were victims of this horrific event. For that I am deeply sorry.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal