Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Leaping Lizards

Every four years, except in centennial years divisible by 400, we add an extra day to the calendar year to make our poor human calculations of time coincide more precisely with the earth’s annual revolution around the sun. An extra day, even if it’s just on paper, seems like such a lovely thing—a day we can devote to birding or playing with our dog or whatever we wish. Of course, we don’t usually treat it that way—most people are doing business as usual today, as if Leap Year Day were nothing at all. Normally that would be a pretty neutral thing at worst, but this year's politicians are also committed to business as usual, which puts a darker light on the entire concept of extra days. 

My niece and my cousin’s daughter were both born on February 29 in 1984, in the same hospital outside Chicago. Only about 1/15 of one percent. (0.068%) of all people are born on Leap Year Day, so for two close relatives to accomplish this made the Chicago Tribune back then. Today those two young women are 32 years old, yet today is only the eighth birthday they’ve ever been able to celebrate on their actual birthday.  For them, Leap Year Day is hardly an “extra” day or a "business as usual" day.

Leap Year Day has been in effect since 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted.  It seems a little odd that they’d have set that extra day in winter rather than a more pleasant time of year, though at least they were smart enough to make February the shortest month. I’d personally have set Leap Year Day in May, which even with 31 days isn’t nearly long enough to enjoy the fullness of spring migration. But Pope Gregory never knew of the existence of Blackburnian Warblers or Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The world would be so much better in so many ways if we all thought more about warblers, hummingbirds, and other lovely birds, on Leap Year Day and every other day.

Thomas Jefferson, of course, did recognize birds and wrote a lot about them in his Notes on the State of Virginia. But neither he nor the other Founding Fathers ever anticipated an election cycle anything like this year’s, or I’m sure they’d have set elections for the shortest, not longest, years possible. Of all years to be saddled with an extra day!

But if we do have to deal with an extra day in 2016, what is the best way to spend it? I’m going to be looking for birds.  Now that my mother-in-law lives with us, I drive her to Port Wing every two weeks for her regular card club game, and today’s one of those days. On the drive, I keep watch for Snowy Owls. So far this winter I haven’t seen a single Snowy along that drive, even though Ryan Brady seems to be finding them everywhere near Ashland, which isn’t that far from Port Wing.But I'll keep watching and hoping. 

Snowy Owl
I photographed this Snowy Owl in Ashland, Wisconsin, when I was birding with Ryan Brady. That's the secret to wonderful experiences with Snowy Owls, apparently—go birding with Ryan.

Once we get to Port Wing, while my mother-in-law plays cards with her friends, I'll go off birding with my dog Pip. This is Standard Operating Procedure every two weeks rather than something completely extra once every four years, but there’s not much I can do about that.

This will be Pip’s first Leap Year Day ever, but I doubt she will even notice. I’ll do my best to see lots of birds, have lots of fun, and ignore the news as much as possible, but can’t expect too much, this being February in a year that has already lasted much too long. 

Trumpeter Swan
This year, the number of days is not the only thing that could be shortened—rumor has it that our Trumpeter Swan wants to shorten its name to the Peter Swan for the duration. The month, the politics—everything seems like more than anyone can handle right now. Spending the day with chickadees is a good policy anytime, and this Leap Year maybe more than ever.

Black-capped Chickadee