Burlington County Times, March 12, 2001

On Saturday night, March 3, I posted the following message on a couple of birding forums. That way, I figured, if my speculations were correct, I would have written proof that I wasn’t making them up after the fact:

“Generally, on the day before a storm, there’s a feeding frenzy at my feeders.

“We’re expecting a big storm starting tomorrow, possibly dumping 10″-20″ of snow before it ends on Tuesday. Yet there were very few birds at my feeders all day today. (There was a hawk in the area this AM, but no sign of it later in the day.)

“If there’s no increased activity tomorrow AM, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the storm’s not going to develop. If we don’t get a storm, then I’ll take credit for being a brilliant observer. If all the professionals are right and we do get socked, then, hey, what do I know? I’m not a scientist.”

At the time I’d posted the message, the news media were talking about the worst storm in 50 years, one that would bury us under more snow than the ’96 blizzard and cause worse beach erosion than the ’62 Nor’easter. Well, guess what? There was no increased activity at my feeders on Sunday morning, and all we got was some rain and sleet, with a tiny amount of snow. Instead of shoveling snow (or bribing my kids to do it for me), I spent Sunday afternoon at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where the crowds were the smallest I’ve seen in the 20 years I’ve been attending it. My biggest problem that day wasn’t driving in hazardous conditions; it was finding a parking lot that didn’t charge as much as admission to the show. (I didn’t succeed. Next time, I’ll do what I’ve done in the past and take the Hi-Speed Line, even if it does mean walking several blocks in the rain.)

On Monday morning, there was increased activity at the feeders, although not as much as during the last storm, when there were 18 cardinals at one time on the trumpet vine, which looked as though it had bloomed several months early. The experts had downsized their expectations and were saying that maybe we’d get 3″-6″ of snow.

In the end, we had very little snow. The roads were less slick than during a rain storm. Schools were closed; meetings were canceled; activities were postponed, all prematurely, and, as it turns out, unnecessarily.

I’m not a Luddite; in fact, I love gadgets, and would be lost without my computer, satellite dish, Palm Pilot, cell phone. I’ve been on-line since 1986, before the World Wide Web existed or “dot com” became a common phrase. I don’t know how I’d be able to do my job without a fax machine and photocopier. Even though I remember the days of manual typewriters, carbon paper, dittos machines, and mimeograph stencils, I find it hard to imagine how anyone managed to write a letter, let alone a doctoral dissertation, without a computer. But, let’s face it, the weather computers – and the humans who program them and feed them data – goofed, big time, and it’s not the first (or, I’m sure, last) time this season they’ve done so.

The computers may disagree, but the wildlife know that spring is coming. The mallards on the lake near us have started to pair off. The male goldfinches are looking more yellow. I’m hearing more and more birds – cardinals, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, mourning doves – singing, as they define and defend their territories and look for mates. The squirrels are starting to chase each other, as are the mocking birds. The red-winged blackbirds, fox sparrows, and grackles have returned. The robins are coming out from the woods and taking over the suburban lawns. There are green shoots popping up out of the debris I didn’t clean up last fall, and the buds on the trees are getting plumper by the day. And, to my great surprise, in the midst of sleet and freezing rain, Chuck, our resident groundhog and the reason that I’m the only backyard gardener in South Jersey who hasn’t harvested any zucchini in the past few years, came out of his burrow to mooch some bird seed.

What has happened is that we’ve lost touch with the natural world. We’ve come to rely so much on our technological know-how that we fail to heed our intuitions, our gut feelings, or even our empirical observations.

I firmly believe that the unpredictability of the weather is nature’s way of keeping us humble. No matter how advanced we think we are, no matter how much we unravel of the universe’s mysteries, there are still every day things that elude our understanding. We’re not omnipotent or all-powerful. We’re just human.


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