At midday a light snow began to fall; the white was a welcome sight. While parts of the country are shoveling out, we here in southwest Wisconsin have needed only a broom. The ground here has been bare most of the winter. It's been great for the farmers who try to get their corn and soybeans harvested before the snow flies.
By late afternoon there was an inch of new white snow on everything--the ground, trees, fence posts, bushes, everywhere. It was nice to see something bright. In Wisconsin, winter just doesn't seem like winter without some snow. I've been itching to slide down a hill on a sled, but I need at least three or four inches before it's soft enough to cushion these old bones. The birds at the birdfeeders seemed extra busy this morning. Blue jays called and flew off in several directions. A pair of cardinals flew by me as I stood in the snow. A gang of black crows sailed high overhead, calling out to me as they passed by.
I noticed a pair of jay-sized birds coming at me from the south and passing right over my head. There was no doubt they were robins. This was a nice treat, even though I saw them for only a few seconds. I think the birds knew there was snow on the way, and when they are busy, they tend to add more life at the start of a day. I broomed the snow off the woodpile and picked up three heavy chunks of split hickory. As I climbed the steps, I wondered where those two robins were headed and where they have been. I can't remember the last time I didn't see a robin in the winter, but it's been at least five years. Seeing the first return of a robin in the spring is not so shocking when you know a few are hanging around all winter. These winter robins are shy and rarely will come to the bird feeders. They prefer to fend for themselves, and they are good at it. They will gladly eat the nutritious berries of chokecherry, wild grapes, serviceberry, and highbush cranberry, but the winter robins' favorite food is the seed found in the dark red tops of the sumac.
Over the years I have shared many winter stories with my readers--stories of the tracks in the deep snow as the landscape turns white. For me it meant a chance to write about how the wildlife survives in a snowy world. So I, for one, am looking for more snow.
An Amish farmer told me the other day about seeing a large white bird on top of a fence post in a hayfield. This, of course, made me very curious, so I had to ask him some more questions. He said the bird was over a foot tall, but seemed to be huddled down over the top of the post. The bird was a hundred yards away, but it looked like there may have been some black spots on its white feathers. The farmer's excellent description was of the great white owl, also known as the snowy owl.
It's always a wonderful treat to see one of these magnificent birds from the far north. Life can be very harsh on the Canadian tundra, and the snowy owl is used to cold winter weather. In the spring and summer they raise their young on the treeless landscape. Food is plentiful and the owls catch voles, lemmings, and flightless young birds. When winter comes, their true hunting skills surface, and they look for hares and ptarmigan. If the hunting is bad, many of these large white owls migrate across the northern boundaries of the U.S. in search of food.
With their large, keen yellow eyes, snowy owls can spot their next meal at a great distance. On huge and silent white wings, they glide low to the ground and surprise their prey. The female great white owl is larger, and her feathers may be heavily barred with black, while the smaller male is lightly barred or pure white. When everything is covered with snow, the great white owl is perfectly camouflaged to blend with its surroundings. With no snow on the ground, though, the snowy owl stands out like a sore thumb. I've spotted them a mile away, sitting motionless in a tree or on top of a fence post. They truly are one of nature's most beautiful and mysterious winter birds.
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