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When all the snow we had turned to ice and crust last week there was a definite shift in activity among my back-yard neighbors. A thick crust over the snow tends to lock out the browsers and ground feeders, and it makes matters worse when such weather patterns occur during the heart of winter.
On my daily snowshoeing treks I have already seen the sad signs that winter has turned vicious. I came upon some deer tracks leading out of the local swamp and up a snowmobile trail for a short ways and, backtracking the deer, found where they had tried to dig through the crust to get to some bits of greenery underneath. The snow was spattered with blood where the whitetails’ dew claws had been scraped raw by the icy crust, and their tracks showed specks of blood where they walked through the shoulder-deep (on them) snow to the snowmobile trail.
This is where trouble begins. The snowmobile trail provides easy walking for the deer, certainly, but also for predators. Combine easy walking, fresh blood, injured deer and hungry coyotes and the story couldn’t be clearer. The worst of winter is upon them now and all we can do is wish them well.
Another telling story in the snow was revealed just a few hundred yards away. I found a hole in the snow that was surrounded by grouse feathers, and because I’d seen this same phenomenon before it was no mystery to me. A grouse had burrowed into the snow for warmth and security but, alas, the recent warm trend put just enough glaze on the snow that the bird could not escape his temporary haven. Either the bird died after struggling to free itself or some passing fox or coyote had sensed the bird’s dilemma and pounced, taking advantage of an easy meal that, I think, may be all too common on the predatory menu at this time of year.
Over the many years I’ve been exploring Maine in winter I have found a great many grouse buried in the snow, some that were trapped (that by pure, random luck I was able to free) and just as many that were nothing but piles of feathers beside a hole in the snow. If I were to extrapolate these numbers I’d be willing to bet that as many grouse die this way as are taken by hunters. It seems as if I find at least one such death trap every time I wander through grouse cover in winter, and if you multiply that by the potential grouse coverts in Maine and the number of snowstorms we have, the sum total of lost grouse must be staggering. And yet there are always birds waiting for us in October!
The “find” of the week has to be the mature bald eagle that showed up in the tall oak beside the turnip patch just a few days ago. I was sitting by the wood stove having tea and pondering my next great move when a huge, black specter flashed across the front window. I first thought it might be a crow, that pesky barred owl that’s been eating all my squirrels lately or perhaps just an errant shadow.
But, I got my binoculars out and started scanning the field edges and there he was: a huge, mature eagle with a yellow beak, white head and tail – very impressive and quite exciting to see back here in the woods. The bird, which was banded, by the way, hung around the edge of the woods for about an hour, and then flew off no doubt in search of something other than bird seed.
Once threatened by DDT (as recently 40 years ago) eagles are common now, no longer “endangered” and not even threatened according to most students of the bird. In fact, I’ve been in places (Alaska, the South and West) where bald eagles are considered numerous, which is quite a change from the early 1960s, when ornithologists railed that they’d be extinct by the 80s if something wasn’t done.
Well, “it” was done (banning of pesticides, primarily) and raptors of all sorts are relatively common if not plentiful as a result. Chemicals (which made the birds’ eggs and bones brittle and breakable) are no longer a threat. Habitat loss is the bigger limiting factor now, but no sweeping legislation is going to cure that ill.
Anyway, having lived through the entire cycle of bust-to-boom raptor restoration, it was a great treat to have an eagle stop by for a visit. Chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, crows and turkeys are great any time, but having a bald eagle in the yard is a rare event for sure.
On a much smaller note, I have been noticing increasing numbers of lady bugs turning up on the window sills, the counter tops and the kitchen table. Much preferred over the big, ugly, nasty (and definitely common) house fly, these popular little bugs tend to show up in late fall seeking shelter for the winter, and unless you have piles of them in the high corners of your house they are usually welcome. Some people consider them good luck, and it’s even considered bad luck to kill one. It’s up to the individual to decide what sort of luck a bug can be – we’re all entitled to our superstitions!
I rather like having lady bugs around. They don’t make noise or annoy me or make messes or fly around at night and land on my nose, so I consider them a neutral neighbor that, if nothing else, lets me know when it’s really warm outdoors. The heat (or barometric pressure, maybe?) brings them out in numbers even in the dead of winter. They fly from window to window or walk around on the ceiling but otherwise they are not a bother.
I imagine that they can’t wait to get outdoors and start feeding on aphids (hard to imagine a lady bug being a vicious killer of aphids, but it is what it is). It’s a tad early for that so I just let them huddle in the corners for now, all of us looking forward to the arrival (and arrivals) of spring!
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