Earth and Beyond host and producer Robin Song tells about the sudden coming of winter, a couple of birdy surprises, and daily winter life at the ranch.
Winter arrived on November ninth with a big ol’ snowstorm. Snow began falling in the morning and continued on throughout the day and into the night. By the next morning fifteen inches had fallen on the ranch. There had been two or three snowfalls prior to this storm, but they had only dropped an inch or so and grass was still in evidence. The big storm transformed the world into instant winter.
I needed to make a run into Talkeetna the afternoon of the ninth, and as I passed the pond opposite Fish Lake, I glanced over, as I always do. I did a double take. A pair of Trumpeter Swans was in the pond! I pulled over and watched them. They seemed dream-like, two large white birds floating in the dark water with snowflakes falling around them. Why they were in this area this late in the year was a mystery.
Another mystery greeted me the morning of the tenth. I had hung my bird feeders up a couple of weeks before, and added suet feeders for the woodpeckers, and everyone else who wanted it. Now that I was certain the bears had gone to den, I added more feeders. The tenth dawned clear and sunny, turning the new snow into a winter wonderland. I watched chickadees, gray jays, two pairs of nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and pine grosbeaks, visiting my feeders. Then a flash of gray and white caught my eye. It flew from the edge of the forest and disappeared under the porch. My brain told me what it was, but I couldn’t quite believe it. I waited. In awhile the bird flew out from under the porch, where it had been eating seed which had fallen through the spaces between the floorboards. It landed in the May Day tree, where I got a good look at it. Sure enough- I was staring at a male Dark-eyed Junco. Wow! The last junco had migrated out of the area several weeks ago. What was this guy doing here? Did the storm bring it in- but from where?
I have a pair of parakeets and a pair of doves, and I went and got some of their seed and sprinkled it under the porch and also on the floor of the porch for the junco. Whatever had brought the bird to my cabin was a mystery, but I wanted to make sure the bird was well fed. How long the bird will stay, I do not know. As of November twenty-fifth, it was still coming to my feeders, eating alongside the pine grosbeaks. A few years ago another junco had elected to stay for part of the winter, and then had left that January. And one winter a Golden-crowned Sparrow had taken up residence in the barn and stayed until well into March. Why some birds wind up staying behind when others of their kind migrate is perplexing.
After the snowstorm, the temperature began to drop. Each night was colder until the lowest temperature reached twenty below. Daytime highs still got up to fifteen to twenty above, at the ranch. I know it was colder in other locales. The ranch is high enough in elevation that it is perpetually warmer than, say, downtown Talkeetna. But it is also closer to the Talkeetna Mountains, so the ranch tends to get deeper snowfalls. The morning after the minus twenty night, the resident pair of ravens arrived for their morning feeding on top of the barn roof with white rings of frost around their eyes. The eight magpies darting in to grab the dog food kibbles also sported frost rings. When they tucked their beaks into their back feathers to sleep the night before, their breath had come up around their eyes and frozen into the rings in the cold temperature. A few of the chickadees at the porch feeders also sported frost rings.
The flying squirrels did not come to get their food treats during the coldest nights of the cold snap. I was surprised to find the food on their two plates untouched, the morning of the eighteenth, when it had reached minus twenty the night before, and again on the morning of the twenty second, when the temperature had dropped to minus fifteen the night before. Then I recalled reading that flying squirrels will go into torpor – a short-term hibernation – during cold snaps, electing to sleep the night away in their dray instead of venturing out for food. By the twenty third the night time temperature was back up to ten above and the flying squirrels were again devouring their peanuts, and other treats.
My dogs, Lyra and puppy Darby, were thrilled with the snow. I took them out into the hay fields and Lyra leaped through the drifts, breaking trail for us. Darby explored her new white world, and when she veered out of Lyra’s trail, she plunged through the snow and virtually disappeared from view. Undaunted, she popped up again, spraying snow as she leaped after Lyra. The dogs romped in the snow until they were coated- the snow clumping into balls on Darby’s black puppy fur. Back at the cabin I toweled the dogs off and they were soon stretched out asleep by the oil stove.
With another winter underway, I turned to my tasks of shoveling roofs and clearing trails. Being retired and living alone, my schedule is my own, so I take my time with the chores. I space out the shoveling so my back isn’t a total wreck. During breaks, I watch the birds at the feeders. This is the first winter I’ve had two pairs of nuthatches, and on the morning of November fourteenth – which happened to be my Birth-Day – a nuthatch gave me the gift of eating peanut butter from my finger- for the first time, ever.
By the way, if you ever wondered if a horse could have a “senior moment”, I offer the following: Jody the mare gets snowballs in her hooves every winter, so we have a routine worked out. Twice a day, when I put her grain and vitamins in her bucket, she comes into her stall and while she’s eating I run my hand down the back of her leg and this is her cue to lift that leg so I can support it while I whack the snowball out of the hoof with the claw of the hammer. One recent morning I stood at her right shoulder and ran my hand down the back of her right front leg, as I have done countless times before. She dutifully shifted her weight and lifted her left leg off the stall floor, holding it up for me to take it into my hand. “Um, Jody,” I said, “Other leg, old girl- other leg!” When it dawned on her what leg my hand was on, she shifted her weight over and picked up her right leg. I smiled, thinking that not only was that the first time she’d ever done that, but also I was somewhat relieved to know that I’m not alone in experiencing “senior moments”!
Happy winter, everyone!
By Robin Song