Two dark-eyed juncos at dusk fly up from dining on black sunflower seeds in the snow below a feeder hung from our roofline. Their flight is a shallow arcing trajectory abruptly interrupted.
A pygmy owl bursts from its own silence and barrels forward in a softball-sized blur of wings. The owl snatches one junco in its talons. It happened so fast.
When the owl flaps up from the snow with its prey, the doomed junco utters three slow, separated squeaks. In the aftermath, feathers filter across the surface of three-foot-deep drifts. We pick up a downy gray one and a stiff tail feather of black-on-white to bring inside and place on an altar of pebbles.
On Sunday morning, it’s 20 degrees. The juncos still peck away at seeds below feeders in back and front. Dougie–the name we give to all these bright-eyed, small native squirrels–wraps its tail around the feeder hanging from the aspen and eats a breakfast of mixed seeds. A second Douglas squirrel leaps onto our outdoor table under an eve and gives a kingfisher-like chatter that rises and falls in a laughing wave.
The pygmy owl drama punctuates the nature of nearby. Never grow complacent in the expected. Never become too acclimatized to the familiarity of the birds and our two species of squirrels—the Douglas and the western gray squirrels that are twice the size, with swashbuckling tails.
Pine siskins in bare-limbed trees emit flashes of sunshine yellow on wings and tails of streaked brown plumages. Their high-pitched seeeet…seeeeeeet rising calls are dreams filtering away with the daylight. Mountain chickadees–dapper in their black and white striped heads– jolly the day with their dee…dee..dees.
Like watching a parade, when the birds flounce, flap, and whirl in, their arrival is the drumroll. A few minutes later, they’re gone, until the next foray. You have to be on the alert. Our home list since the snowstorm includes Steller jays, ravens, northern flickers, hairy woodpeckers, mourning doves, house finches, collared doves, pygmy nuthatches, California quail, Townsend’s solitaires, and yesterday a spotted towhee–resplendent in orange, black, and white.
The wild snowstorm at the end of February and into early March brought many more birds close in to feed on offerings of seeds and to sip water from two heated bird baths. We know the birds are adapted to survive storms, but some will not make it—whether falling in a predator’s clutches or starving or freezing.
Meanwhile, the late winter storm dropped its deep powder joy to skiers, elation to children (four days of school closures), backaches to people shoveling, and the gift of high mountain snows that are so pivotal to late season flows of our rivers.
I do have a worry. Before the snowfall, a half dozen mule deer regularly joined the birds of our backyard of ponderosa pines underlaid with manzanitas, bitterbrush, and ceanothus. On occasion, we’d see bucks with multi-pronged antlers strut by. Young deer, scruffy in their thick winter brown coats, trailed their mothers.
Since the storm, not one mule deer has braved the chest-deep (for them) snow of our yard. I’m assuming they have found refuge where snow is less under trees, and pathways leading to food, yet many of the bushes they nibble on –like bitterbrush—appear only as ghostly white mounds. I see a few deer on the plowed neighborhood roads and driveways, easy for travel, but putting them squarely in the deadly path of cars.
We wait for the return of mule deer on the day when clocks spring forward. We add split wood to the stove, listen to the crack and spark, and feel the glowing heat on shoulders and legs. Outside, the icicles from a line of translucent stalactites from the roof, the mightiest extends down like Excalibur, as if to pierce the heart of snow until it will bleed in crystalline tears.
Nature of the nearby. A raven croaks from its sky flight encircling the pines. Upside down pygmy nuthatches clasp tree trunks and chisel for tucked away insects. We trace their flights to a pileated woodpecker-created hole high in a pine, and wonder at the entering and exiting of two birds. Could nesting be on their mind?
Juncos trill with or without memory of the gasping cries of the lone bird in the pygmy owl’s grip, and the feathers that still drift over the snow like ashes before the coming renewal.
The above photos (a bit blurred through the window) illustrate yet another reason to look closely at nature nearby. Not all northern flickers are alike!–the red-shafted to the left is the one we assume will be here, but every now and then–there’s the yellow-shafted (typical of east coast flickers) or some hybrid of the two.