There were only a couple of frosty mornings this week. At sunup, the ground was covered with white frost, and the low ground by the river was covered with thick, white fog. I love early morning landscapes. No two sunrises ever look the same. Just a couple of degrees change in temperature means the difference between fog or frost.
A pair of bald eagles stand together on their favorite early morning perch and survey the valley below. The larger female may be several pounds heavier than the male, a trait found in most all birds of prey. These two adults no longer have to find extra food to feed their young. Now they only need to fend for themselves.
Many of the areaís turkey vultures decided to follow the prevailing winds further to the south this week. The weather has been pleasant and mild, but the vultures left anyway. Maybe they donít care for those frosty mornings. After all, they donít have much for feathers on their heads. From now on, if I see a large soaring bird in the sky, Iím probably looking at an eagle.
The carrion berries are deep blue and form tight, round bunches on a long, vine-like stem. The dark berry clusters stand out in a grassy fence row at the side of the road. Just across the fence, a beautiful pair of sandhill cranes stalks the short grass pasture in search of crickets. I watch them for a while from a distance, knowing that their season in the Kickapoo Valley is nearly over, and they will be flying south for the winter.
A couple of dozen Canada geese bask in the sunshine and enjoy the safety of the marsh pond. The muskrats are busy building their winter lodges. Some of these muddy, grassy structures seem to be much larger than usual. The muskrat houses stick out like sore thumbs in the open water of the pond. A pair of geese often uses one for a perch.
Thursday I watched the fat woodchuck as he gathered dry leaves and carried each mouthful back to the large brush pile. He will use them to line his winter bed in a hole in the ground under the brush pile. The leaves will help keep him warm through the long winter months. I wonít see him until the ground thaws next spring. Woodchucks (a.k.a. groundhogs) are the largest members of the squirrel family and prefer to eat leafy green plants and stay close to home.
Thereís no shortage of squirrels in the area, especially gray squirrels that seem to be everywhere. I never tire of watching their antics. Chasing each other through the treetops is one of their favorite games. They are the true masters of climbing and maneuvering through the trees. Even jungle monkeys, as graceful and agile as they are, canít do the things that gray squirrels can do.
A single black squirrel showed up the other day but kept to himself. The gray squirrels interacted with each other, but not with the black squirrel. I sprinkled some black sunflower seeds in the grass, which the black squirrel searched out one at a time. It gave me the chance to get a good look at this unusual squirrel. His jet black fur has splotches of white hair on his back and shoulders. He is what is known as a piebald squirrel: a black gray squirrel with albino traits, a rare character indeed. If he decides to spend the winter here, Iíll watch to see how he gets along with the other squirrels.
There are other squirrels that come to the yard and bird feeders each day. Prairie fox squirrels, which are noticeably larger than gray squirrels, are named for their beautiful, fox-colored fur and their habit of wandering the countryside. One particularly large fox squirrel has grown accustomed to me watching him and shows little fear. He sits each day at the window feeder with only the glass between us. I call him Fred.
At night, when the other squirrels are sleeping in safe, warm places, little flying squirrels come out to play. Under the cover of darkness, they glide from tree to tree, scurry up and down trunks and across tree limbs. Last night I counted five of them at the window feeder. Only two of them stood still long enough to photograph. They are the smallest members of the squirrel family and can move nearly as fast as mice. Their fur is the softest of all the squirrels and feels like silk. Their large, round black eyes give them the cute look of a pixie.
Thereís never a dull moment with squirrels around. They are a reminder of how much fun life can be.
All art ©2013 Organic Valley
Iím so sorry, Julie, but I canít tell why I didnít receive your letter. I always respond to everyone who writes to me. Must be the ghost in the machine. The good news is that this letter got throughóthank you very much. Chicago is a world of difference from La Crosse. Iím sure life is much faster-paced in your setting.
Red-tailed hawks rarely ever get the opportunity to eat small birds. They simply arenít fast enough to catch them. There must be some other reasons why you arenít seeing songbirds where you live.
Itís good to know you enjoy my columns, and I hope you continue to join me each week for a walk Down Natureís Trail.
Thanks for the nice letter, Julie.
Yes, I like squirrels, too, but far too often they get a bad rap, especially if they find a way to get into the house. Itís been a month or two since I sent along a picture of a flying squirrel with my article. Iíll see what I can do, but the squirrels need to cooperate a little. They are creatures of the night, and are extremely fast and donít sit still long enough for me to get many good pictures. They will come to a platform bird feeder that is placed on a windowsill, but you have to be there at night to see them. Hope you were able to get those flying squirrels outside without harming them.
Thanks for getting in touch, Yanicka.
There are some 63 species of squirrels and chipmunks in North America, and a dozen or so live in California. Most all squirrels are eager to take your handouts, and they can become very friendly and fun to have around. Iím not sure what kind of squirrels you have in L.A., but itís good to know youíve made friends with them.
Good to hear from you, Michelle. Take care.
I have also seen a couple of ďoff colorĒ fox squirrels over the years. Itís hard to say why they have lighter or darker areas on their bodies, but it makes it easier to identify them. No two squirrels are exactly the same. You will always see subtle differences if you look very closely.
The word ďhummingbirdĒ isnít even in our winter vocabulary here in Wisconsin. How lucky you are to have seen one. They wonít return here until May, and by then Iíll be ready to see one, for sure.
Always good to hear from you, Jan.