Today was another beautiful autumn day in the Kickapoo Valley. A good day for working outside, doing things that need to be done before the cold comes. I spent a half hour turning the compost heap with a pitchfork Ė a job Iíd been avoiding for much too long. I planted some tulip bulbs and dug the rest of the dahlias.
By late afternoon I was standing on a ladder, washing the outsides of my windows and looking forward to taking a break. I heard chattering and turned to notice several chickadees and nuthatches fluttering around the wood-duck house high in a tree behind me. The birds were jumping about the branches, sometimes landing on the box and peering inside. With their chatter they sent an alarm: they had found the hiding place of a tiny screech owl. I didnít see him, but I knew he was there; the birds told me so.
As the sun set I sat inside, looking out the window at the wood-duck house. The light was fading and the birds had all gone to roost, when a small red owlís face appeared in the hole of the nesting box. His tiny talons held him steady as his entire body filled the 3-1/2 inch hole. He peered around to make sure it was safe for him to go out, then flew to the branch of a nearby tree. His day had just begun; it was time for him to search for food under cover of darkness. I spent last weekend along the banks of the Rock River, near Dixon in north central Illinois. The Rock is a good-sized river that flows south from the great Horicon Marsh through the Wisconsin cities of Edgerton, Janesville, and Beloit, then through the Illinois cities of Rockford, Oregon, Dixon, Sterling, and Moline and Rock Island, where it empties into the Mississippi River.
Dixon is about 250 miles south of where I live in Wisconsin. What a difference those miles make! In Dixon there have only been a couple of light frosts, and the trees were just reaching their color peak. Flowers were still blooming in yards and gardens, and many of the birds that left Wisconsin weeks ago could still be found in Dixon. For two days, I kept a list of the birds I saw. I was surprised to note that barn swallows and tree swallows were still hunting for insects along the Rock River. I also saw phoebes and least flycatchers, nighthawks and catbirds. During a morning boat ride up the river, we saw 40 turkey vultures sunbathing in a large dead oak tree, and spotted sandpipers and killdeers running along the shoreline.
In the evening, at dusk, the colorful orange and yellow maple trees reflected their autumn beauty into the still black water of the river. Several flocks of snow geese flew by, their high-pitched honks echoing in the river bottoms. It reminded me of a time 30-40 years ago when these beautiful geese passed through my southern Wisconsin home. Now I rarely see them.
As darkness crept closer, many flocks of wild ducks passed over the treetops on their way downstream. There were mallards and fast-flying blue-winged and green-winged teal as well as bunches of wood ducks. I also saw several flocks of pintails, another species I rarely see at home.
All the ducks reminded me of the times I used to put out decoys and sit patiently in a duck blind, watching the gray skies for them to come. I spent many autumns hunting duck. For me, there was no better place to be than watching the skies for birds. Though I searched the horizon for ducks, I noticed and identified every bird that passed my binoculars. Often I wrote my sightings in a notebook I kept in my hunting coat. I enjoy going back and reading these field notes; they told little of ducks hunting, but described events such as a kettle of several hundred hawks migrating south, or large flocks of blackbirds and grackles passing overhead. Or a muskrat swimming through the decoys. Or the scent of skunk getting near, as a marsh wren scolds me from the reeds.
Itís been many years since I picked up a shotgun or hunting rifle, and I donít expect to again. But the time I spent in the duck blind was quality learning time, and my old notebooks are like study guides from a classroom. The things I learned helped me to see life in broader terms. Hunting ducks helped me to build a growing compassion for nature.
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