The month of December has been very kind so far. I have certainly appreciated the mild weather, but I'll admit that I've been in the mood for a little of the white stuff lately. It got cold enough Tuesday night to put a thin layer of ice on the ponds, but it was gone in only a couple of days.
I'm still seeing a few wild mallard ducks in the valley. The drakes are so colorful this time of year. They wouldn't be here if there was no open water. There were ten ducks in the group I saw, and the drakes seemed to be a little aggressive toward each other.
Thursday morning I accomplished a chore I had planned to put off until spring: turning the compost pile. It's really not such a tough job, but it's kinda boring, so I usually put it off. But it was too nice a morning to be in the house, and I felt like getting something done. I took my time, forked for a while, then rested and looked around the valley to see what was going on. That's how I spotted some movement in the tall grass and shrubs at the edge of the woods about a hundred yards away. I crouched to pick up the camera and kept still while the buck moved slowly along with his nose to the ground. Occasionally, he would raise his head, prick his ears and flare his nostrils, casting for the scent trail left behind by does. He didn't see me, so I was able to watch him for about five minutes while he moved along the edge of the woods. Once he found the scent he was looking for, he was off at a steady trot up the valley. If I hadn't taken a break from forking, I probably would have missed him altogether. It's amazing how much he blended with the habitat.
The forking job was done in an hour and a half, and I headed to the house feeling pretty proud of myself for being so diligent. I propped the screen door open to make it a little easier to carry in a couple of armloads of wood. As I climbed the steps with my second armload, I noticed a small bird inside the screened porch. The little tufted titmouse didn't seem to be able to find the open door where he'd come in and flew up against the screen a couple of times before I grabbed him and turned him loose outside. There are always small birds close to the house, and sometimes their curiosity gets the best of them. If I don't need the door to be opened for chores like carrying in wood, I'm careful to hook it shut so it doesn't blow open in the breeze. It's not the first time that a bird found its way into the screen porch, and it probably won't be the last.
It's always fun to see a new bird at the feeders, especially in winter. Friday morning I saw what I thought was a blackbird picking up bits of cracked corn under the feeder. A closer look told me that the dark bird was not only a blackbird, but a pretty, rusty blackbird. It's been many years since I last saw a rusty blackbird here. They usually show up for a day or two in winter and then they are gone. They are about the same size as a red-winged blackbird. The bird I photographed is an adult male in winter plumage. He is jet black in summer and has a yellow eye, like a grackle, and his song sounds like a rusty hinge. Rusty blackbirds summer in northern Canada and winter in the Midwest and further south, all the way to the gulf. I've never gotten a decent photo of one of these blackbirds, and this one didn't stay around long. I was able to take only three quick pictures of him at abut 60 feet away. Only one of them was barely good enough to use. It's better than nothing, and who knows when I'll see another one. I'll surely keep my eyes open.
The snow started coming down around seven Sunday morning. It was wet and heavy and clung to everything, turning the valley into a winter wonderland. By mid-afternoon, the snow tapered off, and I spent an hour shoveling the driveway and under the birdfeeders, as well as a path to the spring and another from the house to the shed. There were only three and a half inches of the white stuff, but it was heavy and stuck to the shovel. Earlier in the week I'd wished for a little snow. I guess I got what I wished for. It'll be fun to see what kind of tracks I'll find in the morning. I remarked last week how much quieter the valley is in winter. The insulating snow has made it even quieter. The silence beckons me to search within and reflect on what winter really means to me.
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Thank you for the encouragement, Barb. Always good to know that folks like the photos. I hope the coming year is good to you.
I want to thank you for the thoughtful letter. Iím so glad my column has piqued your curiosity. Iíve been writing a weekly story since 1972 and I still enjoy doing it, although itís getting harder to duck the technology. Since I was a boy, Iíve known that I am a part of the Natural world. Hopefully, we will all come to realize that we are all Natureís children.
Take care, Alexandra.
Thank you so much for reminding me not to take my snowy winter landscape for granted. Iíve lived in Wisconsin most all my life, and I canít imagine what it would be like to have a winter without snow. Sounds like you have fond memories of what that was like.
Itís always fun to talk about butterflies in December. Itís a beautiful distraction from these short, cold winter days. Like all wildlife populations, the butterfly numbers grow over several year cycles, peaking after several years, and then ebbing for a few years. Itís Natureís way of sustaining them. I recall a summer here in the Kickapoo Valley in the early 1990s when what seemed to be all the butterfly species peaked at once. The sky was filled with butterflies every day through the summer. So many I could pick up a shopping bag full along the road in a couple of hours. Iíd never seen that before and doubt I ever will again. We had a very good butterfly year this year, and it sounds like you did, as well. It was a special treat, indeed, and I was thankful for it. I wish I could say the same for every summer to come.
Certainly appreciate your nice letter, Jeanie.
It sounds like your winters are like our early autumns and the woodstove feels just as good then. Rainy winter days are always harder to take than snowy ones. Iím guessing that you already know that!
Thanks much for the holiday greetings, and right back at you, Elaine. By the way, Elaine, if you would be so kind as to do something for me, please. Take a walk on the beach soon on a sunny day and let me know how it was. I usually need something to perk me up in January. Iíll look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for writing, Elaine. Take care.
Thank you for sharing your winter reflections, Jan. Hope the new year is healthy, happy and prosperous for you and yours. Take care.
So good to hear from you, Karen. Thank you so much for taking the time to get in touch. Iím guessing youíre getting some of the winter weather that passed through Wisconsin. Weíve had about 12 inches of snow in the past week, and itís colder, too, but itís beautiful.
Hope your holidays were happy ones, and that 2013 will bring health and happiness.
Itís been a long time since Iíve been to Kingman. Your letter took me back there for a while in my mind. Thanks. Yes, all the things I write about bring back memories of what life was like living on the farm, especially when youíre a kid.
Hope winter has been kind to you so far, Dottie. I know that the weather can be hard there at times. So very nice to hear from you.
Good to hear from a reader who enjoys a walk down Natureís trail from Eugene. Never been to Eugene, but hope to get there some day. Iíve heard itís a very nice place to live. Your chances of seeing a rusty blackbird west of the Rockies arenít very good, Iím afraid, but then you never know. Theyíre pretty, arenít they?
Hope winter is kind to you, Marilee. Thanks for writing. Think spring!
So glad to know you liked the pictures from southwest Wisconsin. The landscape in Texas is a lot different than here. I like to give folks like you a chance to see how beautiful the Kickapoo Valley is, even in winter. Youíre not the first one of my readers who said theyíd like to live here.
Thank you for the nice compliment. Hope you join me each week for a walk down Natureís trail.