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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Almost spring

The last week has been interesting to say the least. One day it’s snowing and then, just a couple days later, we get consecutive days where the temperature rises up into the 50s. It’s all part of the unsettled time of year that is the changing of the guard from winter to spring and the signs are absolutely everywhere.

On Sunday, while out doing those mundane, yet reassuringly comfortable weekend-type chores, I drove past a spot where skunk cabbage plants traditionally grow and there they were. The flowers were up out of the ground and there were even a few green cones of the leaves that had forced their way up out of the wet earth. Spring is definitely on her way.

When I finally returned home, I decided to bask in the relative warmth of the Sunday afternoon sun. Many people might have thought me a little touched to be out sunning myself like a turtle on a log, but we northerners all understand one another in situations like these. Warmth is a relative thing and even 50 can be celebrated with some basking, particularly when we hear that its 47 below in Eureka, Canada.

It was while I was out basking that I caught an ear full of another sure sign of spring — the arrival of killdeer. I am always suspicious of this particular call because starlings can do a fairly decent killdeer impersonation, but all the conditions were perfect for authenticity. The call came from above, it was clear and perfect and I never actually saw the bird. A starling would have stood out against the blue sky like a sore thumb.

Then, for the first time this year, I saw flocks of Canada geese flying in the sky. Actually, I heard them first, which is how about birders locate their targets about 80 percent of the time. I caught a call, looked up and saw a line of geese headed west. About 20 minutes later, I saw another small group of geese flying just over the treetops headed east. Everybody is starting to look for their breeding ponds now, while the ponds are still frozen.

And then, of course, there is the simple fact that anyone with ears can hear that a change is on the way. The cardinals are singing again. In my neighborhood, they have been joined by the mourning doves in an all-day recital of their early spring songs. There is also a large flock of blackbirds that has been lending its squeaky notes to the fugue, so at any time I go outside I can hear that the world is alive once again.

The warm weather of the weekend even woke up the stream in the woods down at the bottom of the hill. This is one of those streams that flows much of the summer, but can actually dry up in the hottest days of August. When a heavy storm or a persistent melt occur, however, the channel can fill with an impressive current and it can be heard from my porch even though the stream is hundreds of yards away. On Sunday afternoon, during the peak of the heat, the stream was roaring. Check out the wallpaper on my Web site for an example.

By the time you read this, we will have had a few more warm days and even a day of rain, which will have acted to further weaken winter’s hold on the landscape, but it’s important to recognize that winter is still firmly in command for the time being. There are lots of things that a warm day can do for the spirit, but we humans (at least we Americans) live so far from the grasp of winter that we don’t really play by the same rules as our wild relatives. For them, winter is a season of want and the wanting shall persist for many weeks yet.

I was reminded of this last week when I was on my porch refilling the birdfeeders before sunset. I had returned home from work and was delighted to see the sun still above the horizon. The days are getting longer by four minutes per day now and the recent Daylight Savings Time switch has resulted in even longer evenings. Anyway, I was out with a scoop of sunflower seeds in hand when I spotted a deer at the edge of the meadow.

This deer had been around a lot in the days leading up to this sighting and I think part of the reason is the fact that my house, which faces south and is covered with windows, reflects enough warmth to melt the snow and expose some grass. There is also a seep in my backyard and the slightly warmer water is able to maintain a margin of grass that is just a little greener than anything else around.

Well, the deer was down at the edge of this seep and it was clearly hungry. My presence on the porch was not enough to scare it away, so I quickly grabbed my camera and started taking photos. The conditions were not particularly pleasant at all. If you recall, last week was cloudy and raw with a biting breeze. As the light was fading I definitely felt the wind’s teeth.

The deer was not passively grazing. After nibbling whatever it could grab through the crusty snow, it would stomp, kick and scrape with its hooves to prospect for more grass. This is behavior that I have seen in nature documentaries but had never witnessed myself. If ever there was an image of a desperate search for food, this was one. The light was fading and constant motion of the deer made photography difficult, but I did finally manage to get a fairly decent photo.

Then, on Sunday, I saw something truly remarkable. I was back inside the house after my basking session had finally ended. I was actually in the process of bringing stuff back inside when I glanced out the window and saw two birds flying at great speed. This is something that is fairly common in the spring when males try to impress females with a ritualized game of tag. Yet there was something odd about this particular game.

The birds were small and I was quite certain that the one doing the chasing was definitely not a sharp-shinned hawk, but the game of chase did not seem like a game. The pursuit seemed too fast, to desperate, and too prolonged for any of the mating chases I’ve ever witnessed. No, this had a definite feeling of seriousness attached to it.

And then the birds turned in a high banking maneuver and I noticed something odd about the tail of the bird doing the chasing. The coloration gave the appearance of a black diamond bordered in white feathers. This image was only visible for a second or so, but it was unmistakable. My mind raced to filter through the birds that might show this coloration while also exhibiting this sort of behavior and I came up with only one answer. I think I saw a shrike trying to take down a smaller bird.

This is also something I’ve heard of but never witnessed. To tell the truth, I barely even witnessed it this time but I can’t for the life of me think of what else it might have been. The habitat was right, the sizes of the birds fit and the coloration matched. If you have an alternate hypothesis, I’d love to hear it.

So, remember that while we humans may rejoice in the “warmth,” there are many other animals that are still in the middle of a life and death struggle for survival. In the case of the deer, survival means scraping up enough food to get by until the new grass starts growing. For the shrike, survival means that smaller animals have to lose the struggle. Bask not only in the sun, but also in the incredibly rare freedom from want that most of us enjoy.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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