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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Snowy Sunday

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>This little finch spent some time taking photos with me while it recovered from an injury.

    Bill Danielson photo
    This little finch spent some time taking photos with me while it recovered from an injury.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>It took me over three hours to get this photo. The little “splash” of snow was a bonus.

    Bill Danielson photo
    It took me over three hours to get this photo. The little “splash” of snow was a bonus.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>This little finch spent some time taking photos with me while it recovered from an injury.
  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>It took me over three hours to get this photo. The little “splash” of snow was a bonus.

When I awoke last Sunday morning, I realized that we were no longer waiting for winter. Although her arrival was not scheduled until Dec. 21, it was clear that she had arrived a little early. The world had been cold on Saturday and the landscape had been dusted with white, but by the time Sunday morning rolled around, it was a changed world indeed.

My Sunday began, as they all seem to these days, when I opened my eyes at about 5 o’clock. I’ve been getting up around that time for so long now that I can’t seem to stop. But, as with virtually every Sunday during the winter, I was free to close my eyes and go back to sleep. That’s got to be the absolute best thing about winter weekends.

So, I slept some more and, as I always seem to do, I woke up again at 8 o’clock. The darkness of night had given way to the gloom of a snowy morning, but it was now time to get up. I was curious to see just how much snow had fallen during the night and I was sure that the birds would be waiting for breakfast.

I looked out my bedroom window, but I really couldn’t tell how much snow had accumulated. I didn’t mow the tall grasses in the field, so I always see their seed-filled stems sticking up out of the snow early in the season. When I went into the kitchen and peeked out onto the porch, however, I was immediately impressed by the accumulation. We got about a foot.

The next thing I did was check the temperature on the thermometer by the phone. The digital display indicated 18 degrees, which was fantastic. The snow was deep, but at that temperature it would be dry and fluffy; a wonderful quality for the guy who has to clear it away! But at 8 o’clock, it was still snowing, so the chore of snow removal could wait for a while.

What couldn’t wait was breakfast. The birds were all cued up and looked impatient to me. You never really know who your friends are until times get tough. A foot of snow can definitely be a game changer and with many of their options taken away from them, the locals were all suddenly quite eager to pay me a visit. They certainly are my “fowl weather friends.” Sorry about that, but I had to do it.

When the shoveling, sweeping and filling of feeders had finally been accomplished, I took my seat by the kitchen window and started counting. The continuous snowfall meant that seed was slowly being covered, but the majority of the seed was consumed before the snow had any effect on it. The birds initially seemed to give up on the food, but when they realized that someone was actually home and constantly replenishing the supply, they found their second wind … and some recruits!

By the end of the day, I had tallied goldfinches at 30, but I’m quite certain that there were more than that. In addition there were 15 juncos, seven tree sparrows, six blue jays, six house finches, three white-throated sparrows, two chickadees, one downy woodpecker, one titmouse and one cardinal. And, man, did they eat! I must have made six or seven trips out to the porch railings to freshen up the seed and they always needed more.

But most of my time was spent next to one window or another and watching the drama unfold. There would be moments when every clear space seemed to be occupied by birds, followed by other moments when there wasn’t a bird in sight. That sort of sudden disappearance is explained only by the sudden arrival of a predator of some kind and at, one point, I caught sight of a beautiful Cooper’s hawk zipping down the tree line to the west of my house. It didn’t stay long and the birds soon returned.

The most exciting event of the day occurred just after 10 o’clock. For some reason I was looking out just the right window when a sudden explosion of panicked birds resulted in one goldfinch flying directly into the glass. I saw the bird hit, I saw it fall and I am convinced that is the only reason it is still alive. I hurried out onto the porch and found my worst fears confirmed; the bird was upside-down and head first into the soft snow.

I gently retrieved the bird and was greatly relieved to find that it was still alive. It was, however, completely stunned from its encounter with the window and I am certain that it would have died of hypothermia if I hadn’t intervened. What a horrible way to go that would have been.

Window strikes are very dangerous for birds and there are usually only two outcomes. The best outcome is a recovery paired with a bit of a headache. The alternative is death. A songbird with a broken wing is as good as dead, so it’s much better if the bird dies of its injuries quickly. This particular goldfinch showed signs that it might do just that. It seemed to struggle for every breath with an open beak and one eye was closed. All I could do was wait.

I rested the bird in the palm of my left hand and gently wrapped my fingers around it for warmth. I also wanted to make sure it didn’t manage to get loose in the house in the event that it recovered quickly. As time passed, the labor of every breath abated and the hurt eye opened. Encouraged, I returned to the kitchen window and my little friend kept me company while I took some pictures.

By the time 20 minutes had passed, the bird’s condition had improved greatly. The fogginess was completely gone from its eyes and the bird was tracking the events occurring outside with unmistakable interest. When I finally stepped out onto the porch and opened my hand, the little bird lingered for just a moment. Even though it had a close brush with death, it had been warm and completely safe for a short while. When it flew off it seemed to do so reluctantly, as one would feel if one actually had to get out of bed at 5 o’clock on a Sunday.

I spent another hour or so taking photos and it was exactly at 11:27 and 56 seconds that I finally managed to capture an image that had been on my mind all morning. I loved the idea of getting a bird perched atop a pile of the fresh snow. The railing that would most easily accommodate this shot is about 14 feet from my window, which meant that I could sit in comfort and keep trying as much as I liked, but it ended up taking over three hours.

Little birds have a habit of pausing just long enough to allow you to swing a lens in their direction, but not quite long enough to focus on them. The juncos cooperated, as did the goldfinches, but I wanted a photo of an American tree sparrow in the snow. Again and again the photos came out blurry, but finally I managed to get a clear shot with a little action in it. After that, I switched gears and made omelets for brunch.

Winter is here! Have a Merry Christmas!

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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