My winter morning wandering takes me up a narrow valley that nobody lives in. A lazy gravel road and a stream small enough to step across come down from the north. A farmhouse and barn once stood at the end of the valley but now all that remains is the old springhouse. This is where the farmer kept his cans of milk, cooled by the chilling fresh water of the tiny stream that flowed underneath.
The weather warmed to 20° today and felt almost balmy compared to last week’s extra cold temps and I wasn’t the only one who thought it felt warmer. Looking up ahead of me I noticed a gray animal walking along ahead of me, an opossum. He was so busy looking for something to eat that he didn’t notice me and I slowly got up next to him. He’s been asleep in a warm den for over a month but the minute it warms up a bit, his stomach tells him to wake up and go find something to eat. The opossum is a true survivor and traditionally was only found in the southern states but he’s moved further and further north. Nowadays I wouldn’t be surprised to see a possum anywhere in Wisconsin since they were first seen here in the 1940s.
This particular fellow looked like he just woke up but looked in pretty good shape except for being a little thin. I couldn’t get him to smile for the camera so I let him go on about his business.
Up on the gravel road I couldn’t help but notice the tracks of an animal that led back down the very middle of the road. I followed tracks north to see where they started and found where the otter had climbed up a snowy bank from the creek next to the road. I turned and curiously followed his tracks back down the middle of the road for nearly a half a mile before they lead back into a different stream that came from the east. Boy, this guy sure gets around! An old trapper once told me that a single male otter would swim up every stream within his territory in search for food. His territory could cover a hundred miles and he could swim every stream, creek and river in his lifetime. These large members of the Weasel family are rarely seen and it was fun to see the tracks in the snow. My guess is that the otter swam up the stream searching for small fish and when he didn’t find many, he ran down the road to the next stream instead of swimming back, saving time. It would be fun to be able to follow an otter for the day. I’ll bet you’d be surprised where you would end up.
A Prairie Fox squirrel likes this little valley too and a large one sat in a nearby tree and scolded me as I passed by. He snapped his busy tail and chattered like he had never seen such a sight as me. Then I realized it may not have been me he was mad at but a Grey squirrel who took his place on the tree limb, hidden on the back side of the tree trunk.
Yesterday, I spotted a black figure of what I thought was a crow in a large patch of red sumac. He was quite a long ways off and it wasn’t unusual to see a crow eating sumac berries in the winter. When I got closer the large black bird flew and there was no mistaking the Pileated woodpecker. Of course I didn’t have the camera ready and I missed my chance to get a picture of him. As the winter wears on more and more birds will be turning to sumac berries for food.
The tiny nutritious seeds of the sumac are eaten by all the wild birds in late winter, with the exception of the raptors (hawks, owls, eagles). I can’t think of a bird I haven’t seen at a sumac bush in the late winter: robins, sparrows, bluebirds, blackbirds, jays, cardinals, chickadees and all the woodpeckers—to name a few. Even the little juncos and tree sparrows pick up the scraps under the brush. The Pileated woodpecker is the largest of the northern woodpeckers, about the size of a crow. He makes his living hammering apart dead tree trunks in search of beetle larvae and boy is he good at it. His sharp chisel beak can hammer a hole in any tree, dead or alive. He lands on the tree trunk and listens for the sounds of the larvae chewing at the decayed wood inside. Clinging to the tree with his sharp talons he begins to pinpoint his meal with his beak, while supporting himself with his long stiff feathered tail. The wood chips fly left and right and in no time he finds his meal. If there are lots of beetle larvae in the tree, he may totally destroy the tree to get them. He helps to recycle the dead tree.
Pileated woodpeckers are usually rather shy and getting a picture of one takes some luck. But, as luck would have it, I got an even better look at one of these magnificent birds. He was high on the trunk of a large, dead poplar tree and was having so much fun pecking away at the tree that he didn’t mind me watching him.
The wildlife in the valley all do their own thing in the winter. The hawk and owl catch voles, the fox and coyote chase rabbits, songbirds find seeds and the woodpeckers peck holes. Yet, they all work from the same natural cause, their future as a whole.
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