Snowed In

More than a month, now, sleeping in a La-Z-Boy recliner, and the winter doldrums have set in. I’ll get through it. Always have. So why dwell on it?
Which brings me to an interesting development brought by unexpected visitors. They left their tracks overnight Tuesday along the wide path my snowblower cleared to the backyard kennel and beyond, along frozen, snow-covered Hinsdale Brook’s elevated southern bank.

And to think I was committed to writing about extinct passenger pigeons and a beautifully illustrated Princeton University Press book I had read over vacation about the native bird whose massive, migrating flocks used to block out the sun for hours. But no, out of the clear, blue, sunny, Wednesday-morning sky, there they were to greet me: deer tracks, where the walking was easy and predator-free, smack-dab in my backyard between barn and cook-shed.

Just Tuesday afternoon I had noticed trails suggesting deer through the narrow line of trees on the opposite stream bank. Then, sure enough, confirmation appeared next morning on my side. I must be stuck in a holding pattern. Upon sitting down last week for this weekly chore, I had intended to write about deer. Then a wayward whim pushed me elsewhere. Now, just like that, again totally spontaneous, back to deer. Why not? The subject’s timely.

Anyway, what I had wanted to say last week was that I think it’s been a tough winter for deer, which are now entering their weakest, most vulnerable annual stage. I read that message loud and clear when, suddenly, following the storm that left our landscape dangerously icy more than a month ago, I hadn’t cut a deer track anywhere on my daily lowland travels. Before that storm, the deer sign was consistent; after it, gonzo. Spooked by the glare ice that swept me off my feet and cracked my right rib cage, and which can, with one unfortunate step, splay a deer helplessly out on its belly, the hoofed creatures knew it and took precautions.

Just like that, they disappeared from the flatlands, were out of Dodge, so to speak — not only due to treacherous walking, but also because they could no longer paw through the surface to eat grasses or nuts or low-clinging, leafy plants they dig for winter food. My guess was that they had fled to freshly logged terrain where they could devour tender, nutritious browse without having to work too hard or travel far. Either that or they had crossed the Green River and joined scores of deer in an impressive deer yard that accumulates annually above the Webb Farm on Leyden Road. If you have never been there to witness it in March when they’re breaking up and heading home, you ought to take a ride now that the covered bridge has reopened.

It was my kids who first alerted me to the late-winter herds of deer on and off the road there. Several times they entered the house excited and demanded I accompany them back to the site they had just passed. I heeded their call and was quite impressed, if not shocked, having never seen anything quite like it. In fact, I was so curious about the phenomenon that I reached out to a deer-biologist friend of mine for an explanation. Although unfamiliar with the site itself, the man understood precisely what I was describing. He informed me that such deer yards on selected southern exposures warmed by the sun and rich in winter foods annually attract deer from 20 and 30 miles away, maybe more. Then when spring breaks and the days lengthen, the yards break up and the deer return to their home ranges.

The three deer that used my backyard as overnight refuge Tuesday were not likely members of that bulging yard no more than two miles east of my place. No, these deer probably winter on the steep southern exposure just up the hill from me, feeding on whatever they can find in a given year, with browse, wild apples and residential evergreen landscaping bushes available in the neighborhood. My nighttime guests nipped at my blueberry bushes and raspberry canes and those of my abutting neighbor, and also appeared to sample buds on the same neighbor’s pruned dwarf fruit trees. They also took quince fruit from two bushes in my yard.

I find it interesting that just Tuesday afternoon I had a telephone conversation with a friend and neighbor who said that, judging from the backyard tracks behind his place, deer had probably checked out his neighbor’s Brussles sprouts — never tastier than when harvested during a winter thaw. Pungent indeed, the deer must have been attracted to the strong cabbage-like smell buried hard and deep. I doubt that they were able to mine the vegetables in this cold, but I’d bet they’ll be back when the earth thaws. They don’t forget such things.
Plus, I do expect I’ll soon see more sign of these deer, if not the deer themselves. They’ve ventured into their desperate winter feeding mode and will likely again be competing with Lily and Chubby for the quince fruit. Rock-hard in the fall, quince fruit softens by late winter, when my dogs eat it with glee.

Oooopps. Gotta go. Six plump bluebirds are feeding in the burning bush right out the window. They usually follow snowstorms into my yard, flittering from the wild-rose bush, to the burning bush to the row of mock orange for berries and seeds. Unlike deer, songbirds are not safe in my yard. In the past few weeks I have seen a sharp-shinned hawk and a barred owl snag birds in broad daylight within spitting distance of my inset porch. My wife even got a photo of that owl sitting on a low branch of the aging front-yard sugar maple a few days later and posted it on Facebook to much acclaim. I hate but accept it when nature’s mayhem occurs in my face, but it’s not nearly as bad or wasteful as what we did to the passenger pigeons I had intended to discuss today.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to that topic next week. Well, unless something better tickles my fickle fancy.

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One Response to Snowed In

  1. ryguy

    Since last may i have had two owls that seemed to have appeared to be living around the 5 achrs i live. I have never heard two owls make such a rawkus at night time. Possibly projecting mating calls to each other? Or possibly just some gib gab between two owls. Whatever it was, they would wake me over the summer while i try to sleep at night they were so loud. So, here we are with the heart of winter around us. Two weeks ago my father called me over to the back deck, overlooking the wide open backyard surrounded by woods. He pointed out a owl perched on a high branch on the woods line. what was to come was stunning. This owl jump off that branch to a dive and before i could comprehend what was happening, the owl swooped down 15 feet from my father and i and grabbed a mouse right outta the snow. The wing span was incredible, with power ta back that up. The owl flew up to the branch it was perched and placed the mouse on the branch, then jumped off that same branch once again…dove down to the same spot in front of my eyes, grabbed another mouse, flew back up, took the two mice and left. Have not seen any activity since. Well, back to organizing very very familiar vinyl i stumbled upon at the local record store some time ago:). What do ya make of these two owls chattering at each other all night every night last summer? Still to be around to this day

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