When the "cold freeze" finally snapped yesterday, temperatures of 15 to 20 degrees felt pretty darn good. Normally, 20 degrees isn't much to write home about, but it felt almost warm after living with 10-20 degrees below zero for nearly two weeks. This morning I wore a heavy sweater with no jacket to shovel away the 2 1/2 inches of fluffy new snow that fell during the night. Only two days ago, I would have had trouble keeping warm, but today I easily worked up a sweat doing the shoveling job.
At dusk, I saw something I'd never seen in February. As I stood watching a deer from a window inside the house, a little brown bat flew by against the skyline. I could hardly believe what I saw, since the thermometer out on the porch read 19 degrees. I'm thinking that something must have disturbed him where he was sleeping, and he was looking for another place to hide. The thing is, there are no insects to eat this time of the year, because of the cold. The bat should have been in a deep hibernative sleep, not even able to fly. Yet there he was, flying across the yard just like it was summer.
Almost every week someone tells me they saw a robin or a bluebird. That's something I'm still having trouble getting used to. Last week, on a day when it was 15 degrees below zero, I saw a bluebird along a fence row, and this morning while I was shoveling snow, a fat Robin red breast landed in a tree above me and chirped at me for five minutes. The song of a robin or bluebird is something I had never heard in the dead of winter until a few yeas ago, and it always seems out of place.
The Kickapoo River, which winds through these hills for many miles, has been completely covered with ice since the cold came. It's almost like there isn't a river at all, not being able to see the dark water that flows along under the ice. When the river is more open, it is alive with steady movement. Now, it seems to be asleep.
Yesterday at dawn, the little chickadees and nuthatches got my attention when I heard their scolding chatter, from high in a box elder tree near the house. It's the same tree where there is an owl box about 20 feet up the main trunk. There was something sitting in the hole of the nesting box that the birds were excited about. In the dim light it looked like a squirrel, but my binoculars gave me a good look at a beautiful little red screech owl who was peering out at the new day. He sat there for about ten minutes, with the birds scolding him, then ducked back into his house for the day and the chickadees and nuthatches went on about their business.
In late fall, there are some lingering signs of the summer's past—a few live plants with a touch of green, maybe some flowers of Purple asters that hang on until the big freeze comes. There are even a few hardy insects and a bat or two that may be seen in the early evenings of late October. There may be some summer birds still hanging around—bluebirds, a Marsh hawk, maybe a Great Blue heron and some Sandhill cranes. The transition from summer to winter is a slow one for some. I enjoy watching the life around me as these seasonal changes pass, subtle as they are.
On the other side of winter, the signs of spring are few, but they too are there—the earliest signs of the slow transition from winter back to summer. By the second week of February, the Horned owls are keeping their eggs warm in a large stick nest, high in an oak tree. The foxes have mated and the vixen is with kits. A week from now there should be new baby gray squirrels being born, and the first migrating robins and woodcocks return to Wisconsin. The Prairie horned larks will be paired off, and will build a small grass nest where the snow has melted in a pasture. The white-tailed bucks may start shedding their antlers. If the temperature nears 40 degrees, the maple trees will start running sap, and their buds will soon follow. Even though it may seem like these are the darkest and coldest days of the year, there are already signs that the earth is beginning to wake up into spring.
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