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Life in desolate woods

By Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve

After the big snow, schools were closed. Country roads were not safely passable for school buses. Previously the ground was mostly bare of snow and spring seemed upon us. Sandhill Cranes arrived with a throat-gargling prehistoric sound. The first Red-winged Blackbird sang from a tree at cattail marsh. It was early for arrival. I normally expect them between March 3-10 but sometimes it is later and uncommonly earlier. This year the male blackbird arrived locally on February 26 but I saw one closer to Lake Michigan a week earlier.

The snowstorm returned winter’s desolation as March arrived “Like A Lion.” We walked through 6 inches of unblemished snow in Big Field and Big Woods. Upon entering the Big Woods, a Great Horned Owl hooted in the distance. I listened and watched for it to fly as we penetrated the wood’s depth. As we exited the woods and crossed Little Cedar Creek, the owl called from the woods north of the power line clearing. A concealed owl quieted but it saw us and flew. It flew south into the larger section of Big Woods.

It was the only bird we had encountered between 5:45 and 6:15 p.m. The sun was above the horizon at our start but was now hidden creating a golden glow on clouds.

The Owl disappeared into the woods we would soon reenter. Suddenly a Black-capped Chickadee appeared from nowhere and disappeared into nowhere. We completed our walk at 6:30 with one more bird gobbling in the big woods when a lone Wild Turkey sounded its presence. Food must be fairly scarce and birds no doubt are more anxious for spring than we are.

Mammals provided track evidence. Cottontail rabbits, Gray Squirrels, Red Squirrels, White-footed Deermice, Meadow Voles, White-tailed Deer broke the snow surface with fresh tracks. A Coyote and Red Fox visit on occasion but not tonight. Turkey tracks and unidentifiable small bird tracks announced they were recently here searching.

The woods and field appear desolate following the late winter storm but signs of life abound. Trees and shrubs captured our attention as stationary denizens in nature niches. They provide insects with places to hide all winter and produce buds that sustain animals of forest and field. Seeds produced last summer found their way to the ground. Rodents dug through snow to salvage meals. It is not obvious where birds and small mammals find insects during winter but survivors are successful.

We can each help birds survive the lean times by keeping a bird feeder full. Regularly Mourning Doves, Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and American Goldfinches are at the feeder. Occasionally a Cooper’s Hawk seeks a bird for lunch near the feeders. Great Horned and Barred Owls bring life to the night with calls starting in earnest during January. Crows are abundant daily and Pileated Woodpeckers are occasional. Canada Geese become more frequent as spring nears. Wild Turkeys are regular. Red-tailed hawks watch the field from forest edge.

Horned Larks stay in farm fields surrounding Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. A couple European Starlings rarely come for suet but it does not disappoint me that they are rarely here. Unusual visitors are American Tree Sparrows, Brown Creeper, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Abundant birds leave the feeders and disappear into surrounding habitats late in the day. Most had already left the feeders during our walk. Where do they hide in the desolate forest and field?

The desolation will soon be changed by song, dance, and early nesting birds as they push winter northward and drag spring with them on their way to claim breeding habitats.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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