The temperature dropped to around zero last week, and we all became believers in winter. When it gets that cold, the old woodstove eats firewood like it's trying to gain weight. It also means more trips to the wood pile, and more time spent cleaning ashes out of the stove. To stay warm the stove makes more drying heat, which means the water containers on top of the stove need to be filled more often, which means I'm carrying couple more pails of water from the spring. There's always a little more work to be done when the weather gets real cold.
The wild birds and animals also feel the bite of the cold. They spend every waking hour foraging for food, which will help them stay warm. They know they can save energy and use less fat if they sleep, slowing their heartbeat which in turn slows their metabolism. It can be a long night for, say, a tiny chickadee, who falls asleep with his head tucked under his wing. He's asleep by 4:30 pm and goes without food for 13 hours in below-zero weather. The little chickadee weighs only a couple of ounces at best, but he's tough enough to endure the long cold nights. It's quite remarkable, and just one reason that the little Black-capped chickadee has my unwavering respect.
The cardinals are always the first birds to arrive at the feeder at first light in the morning. They are very quiet feeders, unlike some downy woodpeckers I know, who can pull me out of a morning dream faster than an alarm clock with their tapping.
A lone kingfisher sits on a high line that passes over the frozen stream. His feathers are all fluffed up and he is crouched down over his feet, which are grasping the cold wire. His fishing spots have been frozen over, so he watches for a minnow where the water ripples over the rocks. It's a little harder to catch his early morning breakfast here, but life goes on and he will do his best. When it gets cold, the wild birds and animals take each day as it comes. They have no choice but to search for food; it's the first thing on their minds.
The stretch of the Mississippi River just west of here is where thousands of Tundra swans ("Whistling swans") have been gathering. They gather in large flocks where the river is wide and shallow, and they feel safe in large numbers. When the freezing cold comes, their favorite places on the river freeze over and that gives the swans a good reason to fly south. These huge, white birds fly in scans of 50 to 300 and are quite a sight when spotted against a bright blue sky.
I've been lucky enough to have seen a dozen of these flocks of swans passing over this past week. Most often I hear them before I see them. Their soft, mewing calls always get my attention, even when I'm in the house. If they were geese calling, I'd just smile and go back to work. But when I hear swans coming, I grab the binoculars and head outside to get a good look at the beautiful white birds passing by.
The swans' destination is their winter area along the Carolina coast. They have spent the summer on the northern tundras where they raise their cygnets (young). The young swans won't have the all-white plumage of a mature adult for a couple of years, so they appear light-creamy brown in color.
In March, the Tundra swans will return, following the same path which passes over my house. I'll be watching and listening for them.
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