It's the second week of January and winter hasn't made much of a threat yet. The weather has been mild but strange. Today was sunny with a high of 53 degrees. The forecast for the next three days calls for highs in the 20s and lows around zero.
The dry brown marsh grass covers a mile long area along the Kickapoo River. There has been enough snow to lay it down and a male harrier (marsh hawk) glides low over the top of the tall grass. His long gray wings give way to a light underside and long barred tail. The primary feathers on the ends of his wings are tipped with black. As I watch him, he slowly moves further away as he zigzags across the marsh. Most of his kind migrated south for the winter. This lone harrier stayed, maybe because the hunting is good and lack of snow makes it easier. At any rate, it's always nice to see one of these beautiful and graceful hawks.
The farmers in the area have got their corn harvested and the crows and turkeys have had it pretty easy finding a meal. A single kestrel sits on the highline along the road. She stands on one foot while the other is tucked up under her warm breast feathers. She pays no attention to me as the car passes by, intently staring at the corn stubble below. Then minutes later, on the way back from town, the little hawk was still sitting in the same place but now she was standing on a fat vole. If she's lucky she'll catch another one and that is about as much as she can eat for a day.
Even a drive to town and back, a distance of about 3 miles, can be an adventure. You never know what you might see if you keep your eyes open.
A late afternoon walk took me up the valley and along the pasture bordered by a picked cornfield. Ahead of me, I noticed several large walnut trees surrounded by a dozen smaller box elders. There was a cob of corn wedged between a branch and the trunk of one of the box elder trees. It was about five feet off the ground and every kernel was stripped from the cob. Just then, a fox squirrel scampered up the same tree with a nice walnut firmly held in his teeth. He sat on a limb about six feet up and began chewing on the hard shell of the walnut. A big squirrel like this one would have no trouble carrying an ear of corn up a tree to his favorite perch.
A large male fox squirrel may be nearly twice as large as a gray squirrel. They’re more commonly seen in broken woodland areas or the open prairie savannah areas in the Midwest. They will, if need be, travel several miles over open country to find food.
There was a surprise visitor at the bird feeder today. The startled calls of the blue jays told me that their alarm could mean danger. I got up from my drawing table and walked over to the kitchen window. All the birds were gone but standing on the top of the brush-pile was a fine sharp-shinned hawk.
I reached down and grabbed the binoculars for a better look. She kindly stood peering down between the branches of the woodpile for nearly a minute before dashing off through the woods in a blur of blue-gray wings. How magnificent she was with her blue-gray coat and blush-striped breast. Her long yellow legs and beak and blood red eyes are all geared to catch little birds.
A female sharp-shinned hawk is a little larger than a blue jay but much larger in stature. They are the fastest things on wings around here in the winter. Their long tails and short powerful wings help them maneuver through thick cover at high speeds. They dine on most any bird smaller than themselves and have little trouble catching up to them in a chase.
When I saw her standing on the woodpile, I knew she had missed and all the juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, titmice and jays were hiding in the pile of sticks that had saved their lives. Besides, if it weren't for that old brush pile, I wouldn't have gotten such a good look at a beautiful sharp-shinned hawk.
These days I’m just taking winter as it comes, as mother nature brings it to me and dreaming of the warm breezes of the south that will bring the promise of spring.
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