This week’s weather has seen a variety of changes, starting out with a little light rain and a beautiful foggy day. There is something about the fog in the valley this time of the year that I love. Everything is so still and quiet, the smoke-like fog is the only thing moving. Thinking it may be a good day to spot a beaver along the banks of the Kickapoo River, I took a slow drive along the gravel river road. I wasn’t lucky enough to see a beaver but I spotted lots of fresh sign that told me they are nearby. There were lots of places at the edge of the water where a beaver had crawled out on the bank. There was another spot on the riverbank where it looked like the beavers had slid down into the water—a beaver slide! It would have been nice to actually see a beaver, but I could sure feel their presence. I’ll keep watching for them. Still, I didn’t feel like I missed anything; I just love spending time in these foggy bottoms in December.
There’s been a pileated woodpecker showing up in the yard from time to time. She’s a beautiful sight and I always know when she’s near because of her vocal greeting: a loud, “wik,wik,wik,wik”. I don’t know how she can resist the sunflower seeds and cracked corn I scatter for the other birds. She hasn’t even visited either of the two large suet feeders I put out for the woodpeckers. I’m thinking she will creep a little closer when the winter gets harsher and food is harder for her to find.
The temperature dropped to nippy Wednesday night, and by morning there was a half-inch of new snow on the ground. I like to sweep the snow away before I step on it, especially around the porch and maybe a path to the driveway. I also take the time to sweep the snow away from under the bird feeders.
The blue jays are the first to show up at the feeders at around sunrise. There are about twenty jays each day, down from the thirty-five that were here last winter. All of the bird species that normally visit my winter feeders are down in numbers by one half. The cardinals numbers fell from twenty pairs last year to two pairs this year. Chickadees dropped from thirty-five to fifteen, and over half of the woodpeckers are simply gone. It saves on bird seed but I’d much rather have the extra wild bird activity through the long quiet winter.
My opinion of why there are so few birds in my valley is of course just a theory. I first noticed the absence of song birds around the third week of August, and that there were very few new fledglings coming to the bird feeders. It makes me believe that the nestlings of many kinds of birds didn’t make it. But why? The one thing that all of these birds have in common during the early nesting season is insects. They all depend on the life-giving nutrition provided from insects, and young birds will flourish if there are enough insects to eat.
Another half-inch of snow fell Thursday night and then stopped before morning as the temperature dropped to minus 16°. Frigid mornings sometimes show a special kind of beauty in spite of the cold. The new snow was sticking to everything as the sun peeked up over the eastern tree-covered ridge. It would be a beautiful cold and crisp blue sky day.
A red-bellied woodpecker was pecking at a large red head of sumac berries and I thought I would get a better look at him with the camera. To my surprise, the bird I zoomed up in the camera turned out to be a pretty female yellow-shafted flicker. It’s not often I see one of these striking woodpeckers here in the winter. She was really going at those Sumac berries, hungry no doubt. She could have flown over to the bird feeders, but she didn’t and I haven’t seen her since.
The little winter birds (juncos) are always busy kicking for seed on the ground. There are about thirty of them, and I love their pretty little musical songs and their cute little pink beaks. I was watching them from the window while doing some dishes this morning when all at once the birds all dove for cover when the blue jays called out the alarm. Then in the next second, a small blue-gray hawk dashed from around the side of the house in hot pursuit of one of the juncos. Diving into the brush pile an instant ahead of the hungry hawk, the junco narrowly escaped the sharp-shinned hawk’s sharp talons. It’s a cold morning and the sharpie will no doubt be back for another try at a junco, but she knows that her best chance of catching one is through the element of surprise.
There is nothing like a brisk walk on a cold, moon-lit night. Give it a try.