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Cold and miserable as this winter has been we humans are lucky that all we have to deal with is cold and misery. Warm in our homes, well fed and protected from the biting winds we are the luckiest creatures in our part of the world. If we had to participate in the life struggles our wild neighbors endure night and day I doubt that many of us would survive.
I recently spent a long day snowshoeing along a local river just to see what was going on away from the woods and close to the water. Of course, most of the waterway was covered with ice but there were pockets and pools of dark, open water that flowed like mud in the early morning light. I stopped to scan the opposite shore with binoculars and was amazed to see a great blue heron standing up to his knees in the frigid current. He looked forlorn and disheveled against the snowy backdrop, but his focus was on the water coursing past his spindly legs. I watched him for close to an hour before he finally dipped his beak close to the water and captured a small fish. After gulping it down he spread his wings and flew off, blowing my theory that he must have been injured or sick – who ever sees a blue heron in Maine in February? And, why in the world would he stay here when there are balmier climes to the South . . . although this winter one has to wonder if there’s any place in the East a water bird would find comfortable wintering grounds.
Plus, knowing that, big as they may look, herons are essentially bones and thin feathers, ill-equipped to ward off the winter chill, I found it surprising that he was able to survive these below-zero temperatures. Standing there watching the bird I began to shiver. I can’t imagine what it must be like for him perched on a frosty tree limb these long winter nights. I shivered again at the thought of it!
Downstream along a windswept corn field I came upon a flock of birds that were busily pecking away at a small mound of corn left exposed by deer that had dug through the thin end of a snow drift the previous night. That deer can find an ear of corn under a foot of wind-driven snow at minus 5 degrees makes me wonder how hunters expect to fool them with all their no-scent products, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Of more interest to me this time was the variety of birds that were standing shoulder to shoulder eating what they could of the hard, yellow corn. Mourning doves, cardinals, titmice, juncos, chickadees and sparrows were all in it together, gleaning what they could of the meager provender while making an effort to maintain their personal space and avoid confrontations with the larger birds while keeping an eye out for danger. Their constant chatter and fluttering for position is what caught my attention, and from a safe distance I was able to observe their activity for quite some time.
I was also able to watch as a red-tailed hawk slowly made its way from branch to branch in a massive maple that stood on the edge of the cornfield. The predator’s display of patience and focus was remarkable. Whenever he flitted to a new vantage point the corn eaters would disperse with a flutter of wings, but in a few minutes they’d settle down and return to the job of surviving the day. This went on a dozen times as the hawk edged closer and the gleaners tended to their business.
Finally, the hawk made his move, diving down on the corn eaters like a bullet. The smaller birds quickly escaped harm but one dove, slower to react than the rest, died in an explosion of soft gray feathers. The hawk was back on his perch with his prize before the last fluffy plumes drifted down to the ground, and moments later the mixed flock returned to the corn as if nothing had happened. Some birds eat fish, other corn, still others eat other birds. Survival is the name of the game this month, a daily fact of life. We humans can throw a pre-wrapped snack into the microwave and assuage our hunger, but not so the wild things. Just walking along the river on a cold February morning can be a challenge to those who need snowshoes to get around, but imagine having to sleep, eat and evade predators in temperatures so cold it can freeze the surface of a river. Certainly our ancestors did so and they survived, but there are few among us modern uprights who can do it. I know this because I’m invariably alone on most of my winter treks, and when I get out there I see few tracks of others who might be curious as to what goes on beyond the edge of the woods in winter.
One of the most telling observations this week was the doe and yearling I spotted on a ridge above the river. Though I could see them and they could see me they elected to stay put in their beds, just watching me as I passed by on the river’s edge below. They know that the energy they’d have to expend to avoid me would cost more than they could afford, so they remained in place as I skirted their ridge-top haven and moved on down the river. I would rather not disturb them now, and seeing them at all was reward enough. They’d found a safe place to spend their day and I was glad for the encounter. I hope they make it through the winter on their fat reserves. Sadly, many deer in the Northeast will not, and the difference often comes down to just a few calories. I hoped they were able to find enough corn in the field across the river to keep them going till spring.
It’s safe to say that we’re all having a tough winter this year but as the saying goes, “Things could be worse!”
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