Friday, January 14, 2011

The Flaming Owl

Rural Ohio in January

It was cold.
From where I sat, impatiently idling in the deserted intersection beneath a single swaying red light, I looked across to an illuminated bank sign at the corner of Rt. 36 that confirmed it—1:42 p.m., 13 degrees.
Although I was heavily dressed in layers of fleece and tightly tucked into my warmest of woolen socks, my toes still held the chill they had gotten in my brief walk to the car, though its heater had been sending a steady blast of warm air past them for the last 2 hours.
Crossing Ohio just to the north of Dayton, driving east along the wind-buffeted route that took me past sprawling farms, their wide fields white and quiet, I would soon arrive at Big Island Wildlife Area, 35 miles to the north of Columbus. For the most part, the travel was easy. Only as the clusters of homes and small villages stretched further and further apart to become barren flatland, did drifts and icing-over become a concern.
Already, everything about this place, everything about this day made it a perfect one for winter birding.

Months before, this drive would have been a very different one. In May or June, I might have seen an oriole or a tanager flitting through the branches of a big, old tree in town, indigo buntings singing from the top of the tallest corn stalk beside the road, woodcocks displaying in the evening light above the grassy fields. Missing them and many others who have flown south to warmer climes, I forget that in their place, others have arrived for just a brief stay.
For those to our north, this is the south.
And a winter’s day can show them at their finest.

Field in Snow

The sunshine of the morning blew past. Left in its place was a dark sky that dropped swirls of snow dancing onto the shoulder of the road before spilling over and filling the ditch. I turned carefully from the highway onto a gravel county road, where several cars had passed ahead of me leaving just 2 narrow tracks to follow. Over the field beside me, a northern harrier floated low, tipping and turning, looking and listening for small prey scurrying just feet beneath him in the grass. This expanse at Big Island, a combination of wet prairie, grassland and cropland, is the perfect habitat for both the small rodents and the predators like this hawk whose diets they compose. The harrier continued his course, scouring the tall grasses for mice and meadow voles. On the opposite side of the road, a northern shrike watched for the same from a perch on the tip of a small brushy tree.

Milkweed Pod in Snow

I parked the car and walked back through the grassy field toward the tree line, staying within the shelter of one of the dikes containing a small pond. The wind had picked up its pace. Flurries filled the air until the trees ahead of me almost disappeared into the whiteout. My fingers ached within the heavy gloves and my eyes teared with the sting of the cold wind, fogging my binoculars as soon as I brought them to my face. Something was flying in the distance though, with long flappy wings that showed white from below, and a head short and dark. It was an owl.

Short-eared Owl, Asio flammeus

Short-eared owls, similar in size to barn owls, breed to the north in Canada and Alaska and winter in open grasslands to the south where milder temperatures and abundant rodent populations provide a steady food supply. Unlike other owls, Asio flammeus, Latin for flaming or the color of fire, rests on the ground, roosting in trees only when snow cover is extreme. Hidden within the tall stems of golden grasses or standing still in a field of cut corn dusted with white snow, their buffy breasts and tawny tones make them almost invisible.

Grass in Snow

In the distance, the owl had dropped down. His keen eyes and acute hearing so vital to his skill as a hunter would mean I could not approach without his first seeing me and flying off. There is no sneaking up on an owl.

Short-eared Owl at Sunset

Just beyond the grassy field, as the afternoon sun re-emerged from the snow clouds for the last moment of warmth before evening, 5 birds lifted from a cornfield and circled overhead as I sat nearby on the snow. Catching the light on their richly brown backs, broad, round faces glowing in the fleeting light of evening, they turned again and again, flying above me for the last minutes of the day, then settled hidden again into the grassy field.

The ride home seemed somewhat warmer, though in passing the bank, the sign still registered only 13 degrees.
Perhaps it was winter's cold that was slowly lifting.
Or maybe it was the afterglow of watching the flaming owl.

The short-eared owls of Big Island Wildlife Area

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas Mouse

A great horned owl calls into the cold and clear predawn air.
I know that on a morning like this I will find a brittle layer of ice left atop the water bucket in the barn.
The ground is frozen firm.
We are in the dead of winter.

While the house is dark and still, I slip downstairs and through the kitchen to the laundry room, gently sliding the door aside and peeking tentatively inside. Separate from the hustle bustle of the household and warmed by the water heater within, this small, quiet space has become a sanctuary for our newest resident.

If I am lucky, as my day slowly begins, I will catch her in her last hour of wakefulness, watch her as she wraps up her nighttime routine snacking on walnuts and scurrying about inside the small plastic box on top of the dryer.
She was the first gift of Christmas—a little Christmas mouse.

At the height of holiday preparations, with just 2 days till Christmas and relatives soon to appear, I discovered while cleaning, that the smallest of house guests had already arrived. Tucked behind boxes of decorations still waiting to be spread across an empty tree and cowering in the corner of the back staircase, she was almost entirely overlooked—her small, brown form barely the size of the tip of my thumb. Defenseless and with her eyes still sealed firmly shut, she made no attempt to run from the advances of the vacuum. In fact, aside from a constant tremble, the tiny mouse scarcely moved at all.

Hoping that this inconvenience would magically disappear from my workspace as mysteriously as it had appeared moments before, I went on about the business of Christmas. After all, there were beds to be changed upstairs, groceries to be brought in from the car, presents to be wrapped and festooned with bows…and what of the dozens of cookies? There was simply no time in all this for a mouse—especially a mouse that was missing its mother.

When I returned an hour later and found her unmoved and still trembling in the spot that I had left her, the human guests now enroute from the airport, relocating her seemed the only option. But to where? White-footed Deer Mice live in the woods and fields all around our old house and often seek shelter inside as the weather turns cold each fall. To turn her out now would be uncharitable, at the very least. More likely, to one so young, a certain and frosty death.

I nudged her gently with one finger. She rolled onto her side on the hardwood floor and curled into a ball, quivering and listing with any attempt to walk. Realizing it had probably already been too long since she’d had nourishment and warmth, I scooped her up. Her tiny white feet were icy cold, and she wriggled into the warmth of my hand as I closed my fingers around her. At the very least, she needed heat. But, there would be no heroic measures. There simply was no time for a mouse.

Christmas Mouse

White-footed Deer Mouse, Peromyscus leucopus

From the over-stuffed laundry basket, I retrieved a warm and wooly orphan sock--one long-awaiting its mate and unlikely to ever find it buried beneath a pile of clothes. Snipping off all but the toe and folding it back to make a cuff, I soon had the perfect cozy, dark sleeping sack, which she immediately disappeared into.

bed on beanbag for warmth

The offer of a nice fluffy wad of blue and green dryer lint pleased her immensely, and she fussed furiously at it, pushing and pulling it into a thick blanket stuffed snuggly within the sock. Only for the aroma of peanut butter and oatmeal on the tip of a toothpick did she emerge, her tiny whiskered snout sniffing and lapping at the tasty treat. With the strength to take food, she might make it through the night. I fed her as much as she would take, left her with a small wedge of apple and some ground walnuts and tucked her into the woolen bed with a warmed beanbag beneath it. Beyond the dark and quiet of the laundry room we would have our Christmas.

lining her bed with flannel lint

"Not a creature was stirring..."

Christmas morning, she devoured a juicy blackberry, and by noon 2 bright, black eyes had opened to greet my frequent visits.

The boxes filled with Christmas have been packed away.
The busy rooms are quiet once more.
The house guests have gone to their homes, except one--
a little Christmas mouse.

I am waiting for the ground to warm, for the path to the woods to soften.
For I know the perfect place where she can be just a mouse, again—
beneath an old apple tree, where the ground is littered with black walnuts, and the field is filled with blackberries.
It will feel like home.


Stumble Upon Toolbar