Saturday, October 20, 2018

Getting Out

Weathering winter: Animals of all sorts must be tough to survive the chill of this time of year

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    A chattering red squirrel is one of the small animals that braves the challenging conditions of a Wisconsin winter.

    Photos by Bill Thornley

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SPOONER — The Dead of Winter is upon us, even though officially, winter has just begun. 

Just look outside. Old Man Winter is here, and he is in a foul mood!

Yet if we are able to slow down and look around us, to take the time to listen and observe, Mother Nature in winter is far from dead. In fact, life abounds during a Wisconsin winter, even as the harshness of the season makes survival a constant challenge.

January will bring a new year, snow and cold. It can be a brutal month. If the snow arrives early and deep, even the largest whitetail buck will struggle.

On a clear, dark night the aurora borealis, or northern lights, dance across the sky, wave after wave of color — whites, purples, reds, pinks, greens, blues — pulsating and glowing as if almost alive. They are almost hypnotic as they fill the darkness with color. Even on the coldest night they offer an awe inspiring show.

In nature, winter is a time of survival. It can also be a time of beauty. Look quickly — a weasel scampers across a frozen pond, his fur as white as the snow, only the black tip of his tail giving him away. He is there for an instant, then he is gone, his tiny tracks in the snow giving the only evidence that he ever was there at all.

Other tracks on a remote gravel back road tell the story of a flock of wild turkeys passing by. Snow is brushed away in several spots where the birds gobbled up some gravel. Their tracks lead into a stand of pines where they will likely roost.

Tracks in the snow. Records of creatures that have passed before.

The black bear is smart. She has long since retreated to a den to sit out winter in a kind of pseudo-hibernation. Cold, mild, it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t have to deal with any of it. And in the blackness of the den she will give birth to a new generation, tiny cubs which will sleep with her until spring arrives once more.

Tiny heroes

The tiny chickadee is my hero. In winter chickadees flit about here and there, traveling from bush to bush, greedily munching on life-sustaining seeds and dried berries. 

How do these tiny bundles of energy survive the frigid nights with but a few feathers to protect them from sub-zero nights, nights so cold that unprotected human ears, cheeks and lips ache after only a few moments exposure? The chickadee is a survivor and an inspiration.

Late afternoon brings filtered yellow light and deep-blue shadows of impending nightfall. A small woodpecker works one final hole, his rat-a-tat-tat-tat reverberating through the stillness of the twilight forest. Skeletons of aspen trees once loaded with leaves stand naked against the horizon as the final light fades.

The haunting call of an owl echoes across the hills. I can think of few sounds in nature that sound so lonely or cold. When I hear the owl at this time of the year, I know that the night is near and the temperatures are going to drop rapidly.

The yipping and chattering of nearby coyotes hunting along the Yellow River is another sound that makes me feel cold. Any deer unlucky enough to get surrounded by the pack will not live to see a new day. Coyotes are efficient at what they do.

Surviving the cold

Night brings a full moon and the temperature does indeed plummet. On some nights it gets so cold that trees pop and thick breath forms frost on the face of the red fox huddled under a blown-down cedar. She is hungry. She found no fat cottontail rabbits or deer mice to feed on. Perhaps tomorrow.

Morning eventually arrives, and life continues in the Dead of Winter.

The chickadee breaks into a happy chirping song, despite the numbing chill that can accompany the arrival of the end of December. What makes the tiny bird so happy on such a cold day? 

Perhaps it is the feeling that it has survived another night and is privileged to live another day in the wild — one more chance to find berries, or eat seeds and lard from the feeder of a kind-hearted resident.

Such feeders keep countless birds going through a hard winter, as well as such species as squirrels and rabbits. In nature, life itself is reason to celebrate. During winter the celebration is day-to-day.

On a bitter winter day one might observe a bluejay as it puffs itself up against the cold. Nearby, a noisy red squirrel chatters, its tail bobbing as it chews on a small seed. A coal-black raven sits high atop a tall oak, giving it a commanding view of all that passes below. It is also hungry, having not found a meal in two days.

As winter progresses, the days are heavy and dark. Redpoles and grosbeaks shiver against the wind. Deer move little, conserving their energy. 

A porcupine nibbles on tree bark high in the branches of a sugar maple. Canada geese can be heard as they swim in an open stretch of river water. If their refuge freezes over, they’ll have to move on.

Winter changes

Sometimes Old Man Winter can be angry, harsh as a biting winter wind roaring across a northern clearing, lashing out at all who dare to look him in the face. His breath stings the flesh. He can be as fierce as a blizzard, with snow blowing sideways as his breath passes right through you, no matter how warmly you dress.

Yet his moods are easily changed. There can be beauty after the storm. When the wind dies down the harsh land is transformed, blanketed in a soft whiteness. When the winter sun shines, the sky turns a glorious blue and diamonds of sunlight dance as the snow crystals drift on the air.

And it is quiet. The wilderness is bathed in silence, catching its breath as the storm passes. 

Life cycle

Sometimes a winter morning breaks with a thick coating of white hoarfrost covering the landscape. The sun breaks through, shining brightly, but it offers no warmth.

It was on such a morning that I had the hair stand up on my neck when I heard a pack of wolves in full chorus in a nearby swamp. The young ones started, sounding like high-pitched coyotes. Then the older animals joined in, deep, guttural and loud. There was no mistaking the sound for anything other than a pack of wolves. And then silence. 

I imagined that they had probably taken down a deer. As winter progresses, many deer have used much of the fat reserves they entered the season with. 

This is the time when the Dead of Winter may actually live up to its name. Some will not make it to spring. If it isn’t the wolves or coyotes, the harshness of the season may take them.

As they wander along their way, a whitetail doe and her fawn pass the carcass of one of their own, an old buck too used up by the rut to survive another hard winter. He laid down his heavy head last night, and closed his eyes for the final time. 

Yet in his passing, the raven will find another meal and survive. So will the porcupine and the mouse who will soon consume his nutritious antlers. The coyote, fox and fisher will dine on his flesh. In many ways, death is life in nature.

And the cycle will continue, season to season, year to year. 

Life goes on, even during the Dead of Winter.

Thornley is the outdoors editor at the Spooner Advocate newspaper.


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