When asked what the winter weather will be like, I usually shrug and say, ďOnly a fool would try to predict the weather these days.Ē
Nevertheless, Iíll play the fool and venture to say that I sense a mild winter in store. Thereíll be less snow and fewer long periods of sub-zero cold. Iím not asking you to take that as fact. Itís just a personal prediction, for what itís worth.
I always have a tough time filling the void left behind when the summer birds migrate south. Only a fraction of the wild birds can be seen here on the brown winter landscape. A flock of crows perches in the branches of an oak tree. In the summer, they would have been hidden by the thick, green foliage of the tree. Now, they stick out like sore thumbs. I can see them clearly from a couple of hundred yards away.
I enjoy scanning the winter countryside for birds while driving along the Kickapoo Valley roads. There arenít so many birds perched on the power lines in the winter because there arenít as many birds around. The Red-winged blackbirds are gone, but a dozen starlings are lined up on a power line. The meadowlarks have left, but a kestrel may use the line for its perch all winter. It may be the only bird I see on a power line for miles. The kingfisher may also spend the winter here, and often one may be seen looking down into the river from his highline perch.
A large flock of turkeys forage for leavings in a harvested cornfield. There is no place for them to hide but they find safety in size and numbers, not unlike a flock of Canada geese. As long as the snow doesnít get too deep, they will have plenty to eat all winter.
About the size of a robin, the Northern shrike is another bird that perches alone on the power lines in winter. The shrikeís upper body is gray with a black band through the eye, while its wings and tail are marked with black and white that flashes when they fly. Like the Red-tailed hawk, a shrikeís white breast feathers give it away against a dark background. Shrikes are true loners and often are seen perched motionless on the topmost twig of a tree, bush, power pole, fence post or high line. They tend to prefer broken to open landscape in the winter, and, like the little kestrel and the Red-tailed hawk, they are hunting for Meadow voles. These interesting birds are a unique combination of a songbird with hawk-like behavior and a hooked beak to go with it. It isnít rare to see a shrike here in the winter, but it may be a while between sightings. Iíve spotted three different shrikes the past two days and have yet to get a very good photo of one. They are very shy and donít sit still while I take their picture. They could easily be mistaken for a mockingbird, but Iíve never seen a mockingbird here in the winter.
Some of the hillsides in the Valley are covered with groves of cedar trees, a favorite place for the Cedar waxwings to hang out. The dark green coniferous cedars are covered with dark blue cedar berries, and the waxwings canít resist them. Traveling in flocks of a dozen or more, these cheery little birds always seem to be on the move, flying to wherever the cedar trees are. Although these little seed eaters never seem to stop searching for food in the winter, they donít come to the birdfeeders for a free handout. In the summer, they are very good at catching flying insects, but have adapted to eating other food sources in the winter.
Iím lucky to have four Tufted titmice visiting the bird feeders. They are very much like their smaller cousins the Black-capped chickadees that hold a sunflower seed in their feet while pecking it open. Like the chickadees, titmice are very busy and always seem happy. I donít see too much of them in the summer, although I can often hear their cheery whistles in the distance: peter, peter, peter!
The weather usually turns colder around the second week of December, especially at night. This is when it gets cold enough to freeze the ground, 10 degrees or less. The little chickadees will be very hungry in the morning, hungry enough to fly to my hand for their sunflower seeds. It doesnít take them very long to trust me, but the titmouse is very shy and rarely visits my hand. Iím hoping that at least one of the four is brave enough to come close and show the others that they can trust me.
For me, Thanksgiving is Natureís holiday. No fireworks, no loud music, no bright lights, and no exchange of material gifts. Just a gathering of loved ones who simply do what comes naturally. Communication becomes basic once again. We see each other, face to face, look into each otherís eyes and give thanks the Natural way.
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