After two weeks of Seattle-like weather we finally got snow again. Granted, it is very wet, heavy snow that is probably more typical of the Pacific Northwest than Wisconsin, but fresh snow is beautiful. I wanted to go to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy at least once this month but I was putting off my visit until it snowed. Part of my reasoning was that I wanted to visit the springs. They look more gorgeous in the winter when the flowing water contrasts with snow. They are also an area birds like to congregate this time of year.
I saw few birds yesterday, even at the springs. My species list was very short and there was nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year. I did, however, enjoy the walk. The precipitation was a bit hybrid, not quite warm enough to be freezing rain, but not quite typical snow either. It stung my face a little, but the main discomfort was from getting my hair all wet. Rather than making me miserable, this made me appreciate being outside. The weather made it an experience I had to earn.
I think forests are the most beautiful spaces in winter but yesterday I spent most of my time in prairie/savanna and near marsh. I made a game of trying to identify the withered plants. The tall one was cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum)- some of the unmistakable leaves were still intact. I also recognized round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata). The scattered trees were beautiful with the snow adorning their deep brown limbs. The bright branches of red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) in the marsh brought color to a landscape that was otherwise low in it.
My favorite part of the walk was the sound of falling snow. I could hear it while walking but whenever I paused I was stunned by how overpowering its quiet sound could be in the middle of the prairie. The snow was my one constant companion while walking through the winter wonderland.
The winter solstice was a few weeks ago and the days are getting longer but even with that in my awareness I find myself aching for spring. I think the winter blues are not just a response to less daylight but also a reaction to winter in general. The season looks and feels so desolate when compared to spring and summer. White and brown are not colors that feel supportive when you know there could be verdant green.
Perhaps ironically, some of the treatment I’m prescribing myself is to get outside more and enjoy nature. A week ago I embraced a burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in my parents’ yard. It may look lifeless this time of year but I know there is life in the tree; it is just waiting for spring to come before it puts out new leaves. I leaned in with the bark against my face for a few minutes, imagining the life beneath the surface. This is the same oak I have known for my whole life and for many seasons. Winter does not make it any less of my oak.
Today I went for a short walk at the UW Arboretum. The only green was from the stands of pines and the occasional patch of exposed grass. A small flock of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flew overhead when I first arrived. A few minutes later a pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) flew by almost at eye level, followed shorty by two crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) chasing them out. The forbs and grasses all looked dead but underground they store potential for new stalks come spring. There are also seeds waiting to become mature plants after the thaw. Later, when I passed by the pine woods, I heard a flock of black-capped chickadees chatting in their sweet tones.
Winter is not as dead as it appears on the surface. There is life, even though some of it is dormant or hibernating. The trick to finding it is to go outside and bring an understanding of natural cycles with you.
Unlike with my herping post last week, I can’t write about and post pictures of all the birds I saw in 2016. That would take too long. Picking a highlight from last year is not difficult. It would have to be my experience seeing my first ever white-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi). This medium-sized wetland bird is usually found on the western half of the gulf coast and the interior west, but it is not unusual to have a few sightings of them in Wisconsin each year.
On May 11th my mom told me I could find one at the Nine Springs E-Way in southeast Madison though she told me there were no guarantees it would still be there when I showed up. I arrived on the scene to not find many birders. Not a good sign. I asked a guy who was leaving if he saw it and he said he hadn’t. I looked in the ditch my mom saw it in and it was not there. Not one to give up, I walked a tiny bit farther. That’s not an understatement because the bird was in the next pond I came to.
Either the other birder somehow passed it unawares or he was weirdly competitive because the ibis was just minding its business and was totally exposed on the water. This being a special occasion, I spent most of my time near the ibis though I did walk around a bit more. A few more birders showed up throughout the next hour and a half and I directed them toward it. The crowd never got large and the bird hung around undisturbed.
Bonus: I saw my only black-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) of the year on the same outing. I took what will probably be my best picture of this shy species for years to come. If anything else, it’s a good picture to show how to identify one of them when they’re partially hidden (as they often are).
Happy New Year to all! May it be filled with nature.