The extreme cold has certainly limited our time outdoors. And if you’re anything like me the amount you are reading has increased. One of the many books from our library I’ve been enjoying is a book of essays and articles by Helen Macdonald called “Vesper Flights”. All the pieces are about nature; and in one article, “What Animals Taught Me”, she stopped me with this sentence: “These days I take emotional solace from knowing that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all.” Oh yes! The “emotional solace” I get from being outside or looking out on the sky, plants, animals, whatever, is incalculable. So if you’re like me and are spending most of your time indoors, I hope you’re enjoying some time watching birds.
The birds that are attracted to my feeders provide me with so much: interest, beauty, amusement, puzzlement. Their comings and goings enrich and reward me in many ways. One family of birds, the woodpeckers, have been especially numerous and have been a huge source of interest this winter.
Here in Millbrook we are lucky enough to have 5 species of woodpecker: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Pileated and Flicker. (Another species, the Red-headed, is reportedly in our area but they are rare. For me it’s the stuff of dreams!) The Pileated is our largest woodpecker, being about the size of a crow, while our smallest, the Downy, is more the size of a sparrow. The Pileated is impressive not only because of size; it boasts a flaming red crest and large feet worthy of some dinosaur. To see it up close is wonderful; but mostly it is seen flying and landing high up on a tree. The flash of white on its wings draws the eye; but it is the odd, laughing call that usually attracts attention.
The Common Flicker is extremely attractive and “common” is off the mark. Instead of the usual black and white, the flicker is beautiful shades of brown patterned with black. It is our only woodpecker usually seen on the ground as it hunts for ants in the summer. They usually migrate south for the winter; and this winter and last are the first times I have had them show up at my feeders.
We know that our climate is changing. And with those changes wildlife are adapting their behaviour as well. 50 years ago we would never have seen a Red-bellied Woodpecker: they only existed south of the Great Lakes. Now they are common here.
Everyone who watches birds at feeders will have some awareness of the “pecking order”. This applies within species and between species. One bird will dominate and will be first at a food source. Within a species the signals of dominance are very subtle. Between species it is usually size that matters. The other day I saw a Pileated swoop in for a meal, displacing a Red-bellied without hesitation on either side.
Finally off the topic of birds and onto trails: before the last huge snowfall, the trails were extremely icy. Without some kind of cleats for your boots it was very treacherous. The deep snow has covered the ice with a thick enough layer that the ice is no longer a problem. The deep snow also gives you a different perspective now when you’re out walking. All the minor variations in the ground are covered and the overall topography of the land is highlighted. If you are out and near the mill take a look at the dam: the ice and snow there will impress you!
With the pandemic continuing, we all need things to take our mind off it. Nature can provide us with that gift. The same author I started this column with was watching a bird fly overhead and she experienced this: “…all my self-absorbed anxiety vanished….” Get out or look out! And enjoy!
GET OUT! by Glen Spurrell