The snow that was supposed come last week came down as rain instead. The temperature rose into the thirties, and with the lightning and thunder it felt more like a spring day. Our little taste of spring lasted only a couple of days, then back into the deep freeze and 15 degrees below zero overnight. It looks like the lion of winter will be guiding March through the door.
The deer are roaming the valley night and day in search of something to eat. If they can’t replace their fat reserves during sub-zero weather they may soon be victims of the cold. The recent warm days have given the deep snow a hard, crunchy surface to walk on. I can hear the deer walking through the snow’s shell before I see them, they can’t take a step without making noise. There is still a lot of winter left, a long time before it warms up enough to make the deer’s lives more comfortable.
The cold hasn’t frozen the spirits of the wild turkeys who gather each morning on a sunny hillside. The frigid temperatures may chill me to the bone but the early morning gobble-gobble from the turkeys warms my spirit. I counted twenty-one turkeys gathered on a sunny hillside where the snow had melted, exposing the grass. Seven of the Toms were strutting their turkey dance with their huge tail feathers all fanned out in fine fashion. The courting turkeys can be added to my modestly growing list of the sure signs of spring.
A male cardinal must think it’s spring as he whistles from the top of an apple tree, “wet-year, wet-year, weet-weet-weet, weet!” His robust spring song is a warm, welcome voice on such a cold morning.
The little male downy woodpecker is seemingly frozen to the branch. No, he’s not cold, just keeping perfectly still because a Cooper’s hawk just flew by the edge of the yard. The woodpecker knows it is a bad time to fly or even move for fear that the hawk might detect him. It was nearly ten minutes before the downy figured it was safe enough to move again. This combination of fear and respect will help the wild birds get through the long winter.
The red-tailed hawk high on a boxelder branch seemed to be leaning over and looking down at the ground directly below him. Not unusual to see a hawk watching intently for voles but there was something a little strange about this hawk’s posture. I watched him for a few seconds and when he didn’t move at all, I took a picture of him and zoomed it up. It’s a revealing story, apparently the old male red-tailed hawk had succumbed to the killing temperatures. Without enough food through this extended cold period, the hawk simply froze to death in his sleep and fell across a small branch in front of him, head hanging down over the branch, his talons clinging to his last perch in a death grip. A sad death, but a natural one.
I wondered how many other hawks and owls in the area were having a hard time. That question was answered a couple of days later while driving along the river. I spotted what looked like a dead pheasant lying in the snow about fifty yards off the road. Walking out over the crusty snow for a closer look, I discovered that the dead bird was a red-tailed hawk. A quick examination told me that the adult red-tailed hawk was feather perfect and no broken bones, but because there was no meat around the hawk’s very sharp keel (breast bone projection) this hawk also, no doubt, had starved to death. He might have fallen out of the sky while in flight, explaining why he ended up where he did. Nature’s stories are many and not all of them are pleasing but they always offer a lesson in respect and humility.
Again it was cold Tuesday morning at -4° below zero, but the sun was bright and the wind wasn’t blowing and it really didn’t feel so bad. I shook my head in disbelief as I watched a little chipmunk standing on the top of a brush pile. He was searching for bits of bird seed and didn’t seem to care how cold it was. Still it’s very strange to see a chipmunk in such harsh weather, it’s the coldest day I’ve ever seen a chipmunk. Normally I would see the first chipmunk around the middle of April. This little guy isn’t out because he thinks its spring; he’s out and about because he’s hungry. He should have stored away enough food in his underground den to last the winter, but it’s been so cold this year he needs to find more to eat or he will perish.
Nearby, the pretty rufous-sided towhee makes an appearance from under the brush pile. It’s been a long winter for him as well and he searches the frozen ground for bits of cracked corn. I wish I could tell him that things are going to get better but the 10 day forecast calls for more sub-zero temperatures.
The week started with a couple of above-freezing days, and for a fleeting moment we could feel spring coming. For the first time in several months, the Kickapoo River began to thaw and the snow and ice was on its way out, but now it looks like its back to the deep freeze. One step forward and two steps back, that’s how it goes with spring sometimes.