Today was the first day of this winter with a bit of snow cover on the ground. I therefore decided to spend an extended lunch break at the Arb - again - which proved to be an excellent idea - again.
It has been a while since I saw that many birds at the Arb. Sure, the snow made it much easier to locate ground-dwelling species, but I suppose it was more the slippery than the optical aspect of it that made it so rewarding: no joggers and no one to walk his dog, I was basically alone! I was also delighted to find that there are bird feeders on three properties that can be viewed from the park and I could already smell the Golden-crowned and Harris' Sparrows.
Fine, no rarities today, but a very neat selection of basically all the birds one might hope to see at this time of the year in a downtown park. Personal highlights were a Brown Creeper, a large flock of over 80 American Robins, killer views at American Tree Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and a single Hermit Thrush.
But then I saw something that made my heart skip a few beats and brought back a memory from almost 20 years ago: an adult male Northern Cardinal sitting in a snow-covered bush.
I suppose looking back, every birder has a selection of observations that have somehow changed their way of looking at their hobby, some landmark encounters with birds or adventures connected to birding that pop up immediately when asked: what was your most memorable bird observation ever?
I am lucky that I got to travel quite a bit, and there were some birding days in my life or single observations that stand out clearly as some of the best moments of my life: watching thousands of Albatrosses on a pelagic tour off Cape Town, finding Black Stilts in New Zealand, standing one foot besides a wild Kiwi probing the forest floor for earthworms, a Bearded Vulture that flew right above me in the Spanish Pyrenees, one morning on the Baltic Sea coast when we counted 120.000 Greater White-fronted Geese at their roost and - maybe a bit surprisingly - a single Northern Cardinal.
When I was 16 years old I spent a year in a small town in Ontario, Canada on a school exchange. One of these winter mornings I got up, went to the bath room and when I looked out of our small bathroom window, there was this single male Northern Cardinal sitting on top of the conifer hedge right in front of the window, maybe a metre away and wouldn't move. I watched it for at least 5 minutes and the combination of colours, the dark green of the hedge row, the white of the snow and the bird's vivid red plumage felt to me like the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I was completely amazed and speechless. Surely, I had seen a few Northern Cardinals before that encounter, although they weren't as common then as they are now - but I had somehow always failed to notice the immense beauty of the birds.
Since then, I've had many more encounters with Northern Cardinals, especially in May 2005, but none of these encounters could rival the one from back then.
Maybe winter isn't all that bad after all.