The Bright Side
My plan was to take a short hike in the woods today. The weatherman promised the day would be warmer. The temperature is suppose to reach the high 20s. Looking at the five inches or so of snow, I knew the going could get tricky, but I haven’t been back to the waterfalls in weeks. Around 7:00 a.m. I took the dog out. Snowflakes greeted me. Looking off to the south the blackness of the trees was muted by the gauzy curtain of snow. There was no wind, so the snow was falling gently, big flakes slowly piling up on the outstretched tree limbs. I noticed the bird feeder was almost empty, but decided I needed coffee and boots before I took on that chore.
Coffee in hand, I sat at the kitchen table and watched the snow for a bit. My small kitchen has windows on three sides. The west wall is all windows, which gives me a great view. Soon the snowflakes became smaller, falling at an angle; the gauzy curtain grew more dense. I began to question the wisdom of going for a hike today. I need one. I’ve been in town for a few days, taking care of someone. I am going back tonight. In town, curtains cover the windows preventing people from watching, but they also shutout the sun, the birds, everything. I get a little claustrophobic when I stay in town.
I busy myself with small tasks, balance my checkbook, address Valentine’s, read the mail. Reading the mail consists mostly of throwing out junk mail. How many times a week does that darn cable TV company need to send me an ad? I’m suppose to be on a no junk mail list.
Doereen and her baby come to visit. Last year’s baby is now a teenager. They are nosing around the bird feeder. Unfortunately, it is empty now. They aren’t too fond of sunflower seeds anyway, they prefer corn. Their tawny backs are collecting snow. They look fat; they have their fur fluffed out to trap air. Baby turns to look at me, she must sense I am looking at her. Her ears are up, but her tail is down. She is not alarmed by my stare, in fact, she stares back at me with big, soft eyes. Doereen ambles over to the compost pile to paw around. Sometimes she will eat something from the top of the pile, apple peels or old carrots most likely. This has been a tough year for wildlife. Bitter cold and deep snow make life hard for all of us.
Suddenly, the snow stops falling. Clouds still obscure the sun. The sky is as white as the ground. It is nearly 10:00 a.m. It is now or never for my hike. Even a short time outdoors appeals to me. The temperature isn’t too bad. So off I go.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “ Woods in Winter.” It begins:
“When winter winds are piercing chill,
“And through the hawthorn blows the gale,
“With solemn feet I tread the hill,
“That overbrows the lonely vale.”
The last stanza is:
“Chill airs and wintry winds! my ear
“Has grown familiar with your song
“I hear it in the opening year,
“I listen, and it cheers me long.”
Mid-February is well past the opening of the year, but the chill airs and wintry winds are still with us. I’m not so sure they cheer me, though. Cold as it was, my short hike was rewarding. As I trudged through the deep snow in my heavy boots, I spied a female rufous-sided towhee, (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). At first I thought it was a robin, the shape and size are similar: chunky body and long tail. The female is a rich brown with rufous sides. The male is very striking with bold black back and wings and deep rufous sides.
I have called that particular bird a rufous-sided towhee but the people who dole out names, changed the name to Eastern Towhee. Originally, the Eastern Towhee and the Spotted Towhee of the west were considered distinct species. Biologists later decided that these were simply two subspecies, of a single species, the Rufous-sided Towhee. Recently, they changed their minds. Current field guides again recognize the Eastern Towhee in the East and the Spotted Towhee in the West. For those of us who have older field guides or learned to recognize birds decades ago, this can be a problem. By any name it is a beautiful bird. Towhees belong to the sparrow family. Look for their thick, triangular, seedcracking bill as a tip-off they’re in the sparrow family. They are larger than most of their cousins.
The towhee is rather shy; I seldom see one and I’ve never seen one here on the Ridge in the winter. They live in the underbrush and dig in leaf litter for food. They also make their cup-like nest on the ground or near the ground in a shrub. Around here, they usually migrate south for the winter. Although sometimes in southern Indiana they do stay put for the winter.
The sun came out as I trudged back to the house. Lavender shadows of the trees crisscrossed the snow covered ground. The wind was still. Crows called to each other in the distance. The unmistakable track of an opossum crossed my path. I did not follow it.
‘til next time,
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