Sunday morning, 6:00 a.m. I am woken before dawn by the soft, cadenced hooing of a mourning dove that roosts in a tree outside the bedroom window. After the song-free dawns of winter, this is a gentle and pleasant means of being roused from slumber. In spite of the pall of COVID-19 anxiety, hospitalization and mortality that extends like a broad gloomy cloud over our city, I rise with anticipation, eager to engage the new day. I am upbeat because of my planned early morning bicycle ride — a route of 15 miles that I complete in a bit more than an hour. It is the happiest hour of my COVID-19 day.
Thanks to exercise-related loopholes in the recently issued executive orders from the local governments, walking, jogging and bicycling get the thumbs up even though tennis and golf and most other outdoor sporting activities are banned or strongly discouraged. Suburban Washingtonians, take note — this is important news. After long hours in homebound seclusion, getting out for a walk or jog or bike ride is like manna from heaven, especially for those who appreciate nature. Moreover, the many of us not working directly on the disease and its treatment now have an unexpected bounty of surplus time to push the envelope on these physical activities in which we can get ourselves into good physical condition — not a bad idea, given the ever-present threat of the virus.
As I push my bicycle out to the street I look over to my wife’s car and see our resident song sparrow perched beside the rear-view mirror, transfixed by the reflection of itself. It sees me and darts into a boxwood. In the shadow of this boxwood crouches a yearling cottontail, compact and alert, as adorable as ever. I look up at the cloudless deep blue sky of morning and there is an osprey — a big, long-winged fish hawk — sketching lazy circles in the blue as it gradually makes its way northward, having spent the long winter in the Caribbean or the Deep South. Seeing an osprey on high fills me with the hope of spring.
Once down on the C&O Canal towpath, I pedal upstream, passing the occasional solo runner or aging walker. Typically, the runner’s face exhibits a smile, whereas the walker’s face, swathed in a scarf, exhibits a knitted brow — a symptom of these uncertain times. But I am not down here for the people, but for the abundant nature. Pairs of Canada geese and small groups of mallard ducks paddle in the shallows of the canal. The floor of the woodlands on the river side of the towpath is carpeted with bright expanses of glossy yellow flowers of lesser celandine as well as patches of Virginia bluebells and trout lilies. A magenta glow is produced by the occasional redbud, whose flowers are now at peak. I pass majestic stands of tulip poplar trees, the biggest with gnarly trunks more than three feet in diameter. High in their upper branches fresh young leaves unfold to the sunlight. From a distance, the canopy gives off a tender haze of the most delicate green — baby’s breath of spring.
My route takes me through tracts of Potomac woodlands, most of which probably germinated shortly after the decimations of the Civil War, so now these trees are a century-and-a-half old — handsome oaks, and beeches, and poplars. I pass several small groups of antlerless white-tailed deer browsing in the woods, their gray-brown winter pelage making them fade into the still-wintery patterns of the forest interior.
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Yes, there are nature’s sights to see, but it is the spring soundscape that heralds the season. With the virus rampant, the aerial scourge of the commercial airliners rumbling and screeching to and from DCA are much reduced, allowing nature’s music to dominate. In small wetlands, spring peepers give their plaintive but loud “peee?” notes, joined by the long sweet trill of an American toad. The main chorus, however, is provided by the Big Three of our local resident songbirds — American robin, northern cardinal and Carolina wren. Each of these offers up an outsized musical series of liquid notes, filling the woods. These three are joined by a handful of other songsters — tufted titmouse giving its “peter peter peter,” Carolina chickadee with its beguiling chatter and blue jay with its insistent jeering. And perhaps the dominant background bird sound of early spring in the bottomlands around D.C. is the American goldfinch, bubbling incessantly high in the canopy as it feeds on the flowers of the maples and elms.
A birding highlight of the morning is to hear the descending cascade of ringing notes produced by a recent arrival from its winter sojourn in the tropics — the Louisiana waterthrush. It loves water, especially tumbling rocky clearwater streams, but is not a thrush. No, it is a plainly plumaged wood warbler with a big voice, one of those amazing sentinels of spring’s diversity.
At a bend in the towpath I am passed by a speeding power-biker, his skin-tight harlequin outfit emblazoned with the unreadable gibberish of French and Italian logos. Dowdy me — I am in jeans and a puffy down coat. I am moving at my own speed, in no hurry to pass nature by, nothing to prove. Then I see a walker with her smartphone pressed to her ear, deep in conversation. I shake my head. Put away the phone! Look around you! Listen! Get with Nature!
Completing my bicycle circuit, I arrive home refreshed, fulfilled by the promise of nature, and am now ready to face a day of desk work, tackling the insistent demands of a computer connected to the internet. Sitting in my basement office, by mid-afternoon I start thinking that perhaps, maybe, possibly, as evening approaches, I will slip out and bike my 15-mile loop one more time before the sun sets across the Potomac.
Bruce Beehler is a local naturalist and author of 12 books, including “Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia” and “Natural Encounters.”
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