Why not an oak tree friend?

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By Brett McNeil

Columnist

The trail is crunchy.

Winter won't let go. Last week's April insult snow has gone but the grass underfoot in a picnic grove along the Des Plaines River is still stiff. 

It's opening day of Triton College's spring birdwatching class, my fourth, and the woods at Evans Field are full of woodpeckers and not much else. Bird action is inactive. We're happy to see a cowbird, such are the dregs of an otherwise translucent morning in the frost. The sky so blue in descending hues it seems backlit. An apparition half-moon still holding above the tree line at about 30 degrees of angle.  

It's a perfect morning for regarding old oak trees. 

A mated pair stand totally naked but still rugged and beefy about 60 yards off the parking lot, dominating the grove. "Great and placid monuments," I note in my notes. Maybe in the summer, during a work or birthday picnic, these trees would just be trees. But in the pre-blossoming starkness of early spring you see them full-on as they are in deepest intimacy. Veiny, muscled, knurled. Outermost branches kind of disheveled.

"There's nothing wrong with having a tree as a friend," said Bob Ross, and this morning I get what he meant. These are good and dignified spirits and I'll visit them again sometime.

The wind, on the other hand, is a prick. A couple first-time classmates, dressed all wrong in commuter coats, give up and head home. 

We putter around glassing downy woodpeckers which are good over-wintering neighbors but are also not why I got up at 6:30 this morning. We hear but do not see a Chickadee, a Cardinal, a Blue Jay.

Across the grove at wood's edge, there is a flash of dull ruddy color. The bird is up and down from branch to ground, from grass to hedge. Field markings are tough at distance -- white chest, gray (?) back -- and then it's out of sight behind a bend. The class moves for better vantage, like a small and clumsy herd, and there is it again -- up, and now down. 

And very clearly: spotted white chest, ruddy tail. 

"Hermit Thrush!" our teacher calls out. 

We have a keeper, and later mark it in our checklists. Total count for the morning a sleepy 16 species, including a last-minute soaring turkey vulture. 

A slow and cold morning but the forecasts all say thaw.

Trail Conditions explores the woods, waters and trails out our back doors. Brett McNeil lives in North Riverside.

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