Friday, December 26, 2008

Pecking Order

It’s a week now, more actually that we’ve had snow on the ground. That’s a stretch for us here in the rainy northwest and the strain is beginning to show. People are stuck, either in the median or in their minds, and are suffering the consequences.

At first there wasn't much.

But the there was more:
And it just kept coming.
In the ditch:
I think it was yesterday as I sat here in the office typing away, I heard that siren song of winter in the PNW: zzzZZZ, zzzZZZZZ! ZZZZZ,ZZZZZ, ZZZZ!!!! From my office I can look down the lane to Elma Gate Road and there, three houses down was Ron’s shiny red Toyota 4 wheel drive PU, nose in the ditch, ass in the air and a rooster tail of snow and grit arcing gracefully across the road. Standing by, leaning idly on shovels, Jason and Norbert waited hopefully.
Meanwhile the e-waives bring blog posts and chatlist cat fights suggesting that randonneurs handle cabin fever about as well as the general population. Rants run on endlessly about arcane bike characteristics. Randonneurs actually pray for warm rain. Careful what you wish for there; even if it were not personal for me, rain on snow events have a long history of creating havoc in our neck of the woods. There is enough snow on the ground that a rapid thaw could easily
produce not just overflowing rivers but urban flooding as well. Really, how bad is a problem if it can be resolved simply by waiting? I realize that now, more than ever, time is money, and that some things can’t wait but for most of us, time spent marching in place is a matter of inconvenience, while for others, winter is a matter of life or death.
Along the fields:
Two days ago I saved a life. As I bumped along a snowy back road up towards the Black river I noticed a small hawk hover and then dive. A meadow lark flushed, his lime yellow belly flashing brilliant against the stark white field. He veered directly at the car and then flew just a foot or so ahead and level with the hood. I was fearful that I might hit him so I slowed a bit and … he slowed to maintain his pace just ahead of the silver Subaru. We passed a barred owl, also hunting the field and a quarter mile or so down the road he flitted into a dense copse of brush and weeds along the fence. Against the stark white background of a field covered in fresh snow, a meadowlark stands out like a cigar butt stuck in mashed potatoes, but against the backdrop of a dirty silver car, the meadow lark blends amazingly well. For a bird that lives on insects and weed seeds, a prolonged heavy snow and freezing temps is life threatening.

At the Feeder:
There has been nonstop frenetic activity out at the feeder in the back yard.

One of my morning rituals is to take a bucket of seed out to the feed tray I mounted on the fence rail. The ‘feed tray’ is piece of scrap plywood I screwed to the top fence rail, low tech but functional. The first birds in are the Stellar’s Jays. They are noisy, showy and bold with their flaring top knot and iridescent blue coats. And there are often a dozen or more of them so they draw attention. With their erratic movments and wing flashes they do a decent job of dominating the feed tray. There is also a solitary red shafted flicker that comes to the feed tray, he’s more interested in the suet cake than anything. When he alights the Jays give him room, and he pays them no mind.

There are two pair of scrub jays that come daily. Here in Oakville we are at the northern edge of their range. They make a direct and dramatic approach to the feed tray. Whenever they alight, the other birds give way. They are all business.
There are a few mourning doves that spend the winter. They wait their turn at the feed tray, and when things get too hectic, they drop to the snow below and feed on the spill. They have that incredibly graceful approach to the feeder, but on the ground, that pigeon walk spoils the picture.

On the Ground:
There are lots of ground feeders; juncos, finches, wrens, and siskins. Their frenetic activity makes me wonder that they can eat enough to stay alive. Chairman is always on the prowl for these little friends. In the summer, a white cat stands out against green lawn; but change grass to snow and a white cat blends, like a lark and a car, and again a life and death situation, … if you are a bird in winter.
Predator and Prey:
This morning, there was a very different dynamic at the feeder. As I was making coffee I noticed all the jays scatter from the feeder into the adjacent oaks. There was a flash of blue and tan and then it was still. Up at the top of the tallest oak sat a sharp shinned-hawk.

His efforts were in vain. So long as the song birds and ground feeders escaped to the thick crowns of the oak stand, his fleet skills did him no good.

We had not seen him at the feeder before but apparently this hunting small prey at a feeder in winter is not uncommon. Apparently he’s feeling the crush of the conditions, like the lark, the cat, and the rest of us.

So, when you get antsy looking out the window, frustrated because you can’t ride you bike for a day, or a week don’t despair, it’s not life or death, it will pass.