Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter's pleasures in the Pacific northwest

At this time of year, I'm always talking about the lowness of the sun in the sky, even at noon, here in the Pacific Northwest. (That is to say, when the sun's visible-- as it is, gloriously, today.) How low do I mean? At the moment, the sun's zenith is 19 degrees. By the solstice, next week, it will be 18. The quality of the sunlight, though, can't really be described numerically. It's usually both thin and richly gold, which sounds a bit like a contradiction in terms. The impression of thinness, I think, might be an effect of the way the light strikes branches and the few leaves that remain over the winter (for instance, those the thick waxy green ones on the camellia tree in my front yard), and on the sides of houses (for instance, on a house where there's only a small patch of light, which looks like a watery wash of a lighter color brushed over the duller base coat).

I did, as I'd hoped, visit the Union Bay fill. The first thing I saw was a hawk in a very distant tree-- too distant for us to identify, even using binoculars. And then we encountered a wren hopping vivaciously about the brush, scolding us with loud tisp tisp tisps. It was unmistakably a wren-- no other birds have those kinds of tails, thrusting out at a sharp angle, twitching madly. There was some rustiness in its coloring, so perhaps it was a marsh wren. (I'm too unfamiliar with wrens to be able to say with certainty.) When we arrived at the cove, we found ducks busily dabbling-- lots of hooded mergansers and common mergansers-- and several swans, mostly trumpeters, but also a pair of tunrdras. (I'd been hoping to see swans-- this is there time of year for making an appearance on the lake.) The rest of the walk was not as eventful-- lots of red-winged blackbirds, robins, and one unidentifiable dark bird, but the landscape itself was a pleasure-- much as I like the fill during the lusher seasons, the winter landscape (especially without the distraction of snow) is starkly beautiful, at least partly because of that quality of the light that's unique to the month before and after the solstice.

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