No matter what time of year it is, the Kickapoo Valley is always beautiful. To me, these coulees are equally beautiful summer or winter, although it's very hard to choose between spring and autumn. There is no concealing the natural beauty of this southwest Wisconsin landscape.
From the ridgetop where I can see for miles, it seems there are no signs of spring for as far as I can see. But wait. Interrupting my thoughts as though on cue, I hear the familiar chirps of robins just inside the woods. I only caught a brief glimpse of them as they moved through the thick, low branches. There were maybe a dozen or so, the first migrant robins of spring. All of a sudden the winter landscape took on a whole new look. Signs of spring are definitely out there, and they will become known to us if we're open to them. It's a fun time of year to pay attention, to watch and listen for the coming of spring.
A red-tailed hawk has a good perch low in the branches of an elm tree. He watches for any movement below in the deep snow. The grass here is tall and thick, good cover habitat for meadow voles, because the deep snow has covered most of it. It's an hour before dark and a hungry hawk is still hunting. He hasn't caught enough voles to last through the night. I've been seeing a lot of red-tails still hunting in the late afternoon. This adult male has many years of hunting experience. He's been through hard times before, and he knows what it takes to survive. It's the older, seasoned hawks that know how to spend the winter here, while the first year hawks move farther south for the winter.
A small gray squirrel pauses for a while halfway up the box elder tree. There hasn't been much gray squirrel activity in the yard the past few days but for a couple of young males who are glad there's no competition for the birdseed on the ground. The females are nestled in their leaf-lined nests tucked deep into a hollow limb or tree trunk. Some of them will have recently given birth to four to six tiny, sightless young squirrels that are very vulnerable to the cold and hungry all the time. The females curl up around them to keep them warm and won't leave them alone for many days. Spring has brought new life and new beginnings to the community of gray squirrels. They ask for only what mother earth has to offer them and, in return, they receive a sustainable future.
Making friends with blue jays is almost impossible. They are the most wary of all the birds that come around the yard and are on constant watch for anything that could mean danger. They stick together in the winter and watch out for each other at all times. Hoarding food is one of their favorite pastimes, and they are very good at it. I figure a third to half of all the seed I put out for birds is taken by jays. I learned many years ago to take blue jays in stride and not be critical of them because they appear to be thieves. They have taught me much about basic survival in its many forms. They do what they do to assure their survival and with no malicious intent.
It's been a fairly normal winter bordering on mild, but not as mild as last winter. Starlings will spend the winter here as long as there is a good food source and it doesn't get too cold. At night, a flock of starlings will find a place to sleep that's out of the wind, like a barn loft, machine shed or silo. During the day, they stay close together for safety and they're usually not far from a cow yard, feedlot, or grain elevator. I've noticed there seem to be more of these wintering flocks of starlings the past few years. If it weren't for the farms in the area, they probably wouldn't have a reason to be here in the winter.
Something moves in the deep snow out in the marsh, something crow-sized but white and quite a ways away. Through binoculars I make out the large, white head of a bald eagle sticking up out of the snow while the rest of him is out of sight below the snow line. He was feeding on the partially hidden carcass of a deer. It was a little strange watching an eagle whose head is all you can see of him. Bald eagles are expert fishermen, but they are extremely good at scavenging. What they find to eat is usually good for them unless it contains lead shot. If an eagle eats a piece of lead that is hidden in the meat they eat, it can be fatal. It is a real problem, one that can only be changed by hunters. Eagles will always be opportunists.
Crows may be the champion of opportunists, always on the lookout for an easy meal. I spotted this one pecking at what was left of another dead deer. Coyotes had dug the deer out of the snow during the night. Whatever is left by morning is breakfast for crows. The deer is recycled by others, including skunks, opossum, raccoons, jays and chickadees. They all become part of the deer. All is one. One is all.
I got lucky this morning and got another look at that little male Cooper's hawk that occasionally pays a visit to the bird feeders. He is truly no less beautiful than the little songbirds he tries to catch and eat, and no less a part of the landscape than they are. Their way of making a living is as legitimate as the songbirds, and they all live their lives as intended.
On a cold and frosty Friday morning, a rooster pheasant was already out and about at first light. He was pretty as a picture standing there in the snow, seeming not to care how cold it was. Spring is in the air, and he doesn't want to waste a minute of it. He lets out a loud double crow Ė kock-kock Ė then beats his wings, which make a whirring sound. This is his song on an early morning spring day.
The day ended with a special sunset, one that I had to drive up on the ridge to see, but boy was it worth it. I'm always envious of those who live in a place where they can watch a sunset simply by looking out the window. Maybe I won't be a valley person forever. Life is full of options.
All art ©2013 Organic Valley
Dear B and G,
The pleasure is all mine. I couldnít imagine living in such a beautiful place without speaking out for it. My true pleasure comes from hearing from folks like you around the country. Thank you so much for the support.
I always feel blessed to be able to live in a place where life is a little slower, a place where Nature sets my pace. Hope you continue to join me each week for a walk down Natureís trail. Take care, Annie. I-L-B-C-N-U
The cardinal in my column that week was one that had flown into the car window while it was parked in the driveway. The ongoing problem with bird-window collisions is one that has been a curse for wild birds ever since glass windows were invented. There is no cure for this problem short of getting rid of the windows.
There are some things you can do to help, especially if you feed the birds. You didnít say whether or not you do. One thing you can do is place your feeders at angles to the windows; never place them straight out from where you watch them. A bird that strikes the glass at a glancing blow will stand a much better chance of surviving the impact than a bird that strikes it head on. I like to use platform feeders on the window sill. I attach a few branches for birds to land on. If a bird does hit the window from only a few inches away there is little chance of injury. The problem with window glass is that it casts a reflection of the Natural area around it. Birds see the reflection of a blue sky and trees in the window and think itís a good place to fly to. Far too often, this is a fatal mistake and a dirty trick that Nature would never play on them. Countless millions of birds die each year so that we can enjoy the view from our windows. Just add it to the endless list of the unnatural way we humans live our lives in conflict with Nature.
About all you can do is try some of the many precautions suggested by available sources. Screens on the windows help if you donít mind the obstructed view.
I share your compassion for the fate of innocent wild birds, problems that cause heart ache are always the hardest to resolve. Thank you for your heartfelt letter, Myrna. Maybe by sharing our thoughts we may someday come up with more viable solutions.