It's hard to believe, but the weather in the Kickapoo Valley continues to be...nice. I've been taking advantage of these dry, mild days, getting some outside jobs done. I figure as long as the weather stays nice, I might as well get some work out of the way.
For starters, there were some large, wild honeysuckle bushes I wanted to cut out with a bow saw. It's nice to be working with only a sweatshirt on. Then I girdled a couple of small (20 foot) Box elder trees that were growing too close to the shed. I was surprised to see sap running free from the wounds I left on the trunks. I wondered if the folks who do Maple syrup know that the maples are already running sap. (Box elder is actually a variety of maple.) These March-like temperatures—daytime highs in around 40 degrees and sunny, with nighttime temps around 20 and frosty. If the weather holds like this, the sap run may cause the trees to start budding already. But it's only mid-January, so why should it stay so warm?
I was busy tossing brush onto a pile, when I noticed something moving in the grass across the pasture. A beautiful Red fox walked right out into the open. He was about a hundred yards away and didn't see me at first. He stopped and faced me for a few seconds, checking the wind with his keen sense of smell, his ears standing straight up and turned to catch the slightest sound. Then, with a leaping about-face, he was gone in a flash.
Now, a fox is something you don't see every day. I'm lucky enough to see one a few times each year, and it's a rush of excitement every time. This is the time of year when foxes turn their attention more to the scent of love than the scent of food or danger. When the instinctive drive to reproduce is at its strongest, the fox may tend to let his guard down.
The snow, which a month ago covered the field of tall grass, is all but melted away. Now the grass lies flat on the ground, exposing hundreds of small, broken tunnels left by the mouse-like Meadow voles. In the winter they scurry about through these grassy tunnels, usually hidden by a blanket of snow. As I walk across the field, I glimpse a fat brown vole dashing from one tunnel to another. It's good to see this vole activity; they must be flourishing in their grassy environment. Their success means in turn that even on the coldest and snowiest of days, the fox will be able to find a mousie meal to satisfy his hunger.
The meadow vole is one of the most important links in the natural food chain. In the winter, they are a crucial food source for many animals, including raccoons, opossum, mink, weasels, and coyotes, as well as foxes. Many wintering birds of prey also depend heavily on voles for their sustenance, including the Red-tailed hawk, Rough-legged hawk, Marsh hawk, Kestrel, Screech and Barred owls, Saw-whet and Long-eared owls, Great horned, Great gray, and Hawk owls.
I've heard many reports from people who have seen Snowy owls in Wisconsin this winter. The largest of North American owls, Snowies live primarily on the Arctic Tundra, where they make their livings catching hares and lemmings in the treeless landscape. Food becomes scarce in early winter, so these great white owls migrate into the northern United States in search of Meadow voles.
If you happen to see a Snowy owl for the first time, it could very well be the first time the Snowy has seen a person, as it comes from remote tundra where there may be no people for hundreds of miles—only caribou and musk ox. It may be perched on a fence post or a single tree out in the open, in broad daylight. Hunting during the days is normal for these owls, as they come from a place where the sun may shine for 24 hours a day in summer months.
The Snowy may not show any fear on first sighting. I have actually walked right up under a tree where one was perched, and looked straight up at him while he looked down at me, totally unconcerned. So if you find yourself driving across a winter landscape, keep your eyes peeled. Watch the tops of power poles and fence posts, or a single tree out in a pasture. It may have a large, white owl perched upon it.
Until next time, get out and enjoy the spring. After all, how often does it come twice a year?
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