IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR at about this time. I am out and about for a last turn round the woods before winter sets in with a vengeance, and there they are. I usually first see them flying in a small flock, a dozen or so spar-row-sized birds. I seldom see them except in flight. They are beautiful in flight, flying in tight formation, all the birds wheeling and turning as one, their brilliant white undersides flashing with each turn as they skim just above the surface of the field or clear-cut opening that I am passing through. Invariably I stop and watch, mesmerized. They will often land on the ground as one bird and when they do I lose sight of them. And then, for whatever reason, they will up and fly again. Taking off in tight formation, they resume their aerobatics at almost ground level. It always seems that the first significant snowfall happens within a few days of my first sighting.
I call them snowbirds, though my bird book informs me that is not their correct common name. They are more properly referred to as snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis). Some people even call them snowflakes. They arrive with the start of winter and stay with us until they begin their migration to the Arctic in the spring where they will breed and nest and raise their young. They are truly a winter bird, and when they arrive in our area I know that winter has arrived too. I suppose that is why when I first see them flying in formation over a field I am filled with the contrasting feelings of euphoria and angst. Winter's arrival does that to me. I love the season and I dread it. I love its spectacular beauty, its weather challenges and its recreational opportunities. And yet I despise its long, dark nights, its bitter cold winds and its horrid driving conditions.
The snowbird is for me a harbinger of a season of delight and dread. And not just winter, but Advent. (The words no sooner hit the page and under my breath I find myself uttering, "Now ain't that a caution?")
I must confess that I feel a little odd at Advent time in the Christian church. There seems to be all the talk of joy and exultation with the celebration of the coming of Jesus at this time of year, which I share. But if I am honest, I am also filled with feelings of angst. Because of that, I feel more than a little out of place in a church that oftentimes seems to be exclusively bent on joyful celebration at this time of year.
But Advent isn't just a pretty picture. At Advent I become...