Saturday, January 24, 2015

Something to do in winter

One gloomy drizzly day after another. And then finally a very cold but at least clear sunny day. That was a week or so ago. It was what we were waiting for: With that good light, maybe we could go look for raptors and try to take some pictures of them. I put the long lens on my camera, we packed the cooler with peanut-butter sandwiches, filled our thermos cups with coffee, and drove southeast from Jonesboro to Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge, near the Mississippi River.

It was totally empty of people, a big wildlife refuge just for us. Constant flights of geese were going over, white-fronted, snows, Ross's, heading for the lake in the center of the refuge. We headed there too and walked out onto a long fishing pier. There were thousands of ducks out there, almost all mallards (we had read that mallards had a very good breeding year on the prairie potholes this past summer). We must have made them nervous as they quietly moved off to another part of the lake, revealing as they did so the huge raft of geese out in the center of the lake, and stretching the length of the lake. Here were tens of thousands of birds.

Their murmuring and yammering was constant, and then suddenly it went up several decibels and the geese burst into the air like the explosion of an atomic bomb filled with confetti (clearly going beyond my ability to form a metaphor). Maybe I should just settle for saying it was one of the great sights in nature, equal I think to the courtship flights of flamingos in African soda lakes, or the autumn flights of shearwaters along the Pacific coast,  or the blackbirds flying from every point of the compass into multimillion-bird winter roosts.

When the air cleared a bit, we saw the culprits who had caused it, a couple of "white-belly" (second year) bald eagles had flown directly overhead. Here's a not very good snapshot of one of them.

Before we left the pier I happened to look down in the water close to us, still thinly frozen over, and was surprised to see two predacious diving beetles swimming under the ice. There were also a couple of water boatmen (the little bugs that are like backswimmers right-side-up). Don't ask me what they were doing there, but when I got home and read up on it, it turns out it was not unusual behavior, at least for the beetles (Brian Baldwin tells me they have been seen active under a foot of ice).

And when we walked over frozen leaf litter, tiny wolf spiders were racing along ahead of us. Is there no time of year when they are not active?

Now we began driving the levee road down one of the refuge's canals, the sun behind us. Cheryl drove slowly while I sat in the passenger seat, window open, camera pointed down into the canal. The car makes a good blind, and birds pretty much ignore it as long as you keep moving. The moment the car stops and you point that big eye directly at them, they take off. We drove along hoping to find a bird that would remain behind for at least a moment, to give us a chance for some reasonably close shots. We got lucky with some hooded mergansers, birds in equal parts handsome and comical, especially the females with their Marge Simpson hairdos.

There were a few red-shouldered hawks beginning to call, the initial signs of courtship, that premonition that spring was somewhere in the offing. One handsome bird flew out of the woods and landed on a tree over the canal. Cheryl eased to a stop, cut the engine, and the bird, which had been facing us, turned to the side, leaned out, and took off. But by good luck it hung poised just long enough for me to get a desperate snap.

Then gloomy winter closed in again. But we had a feeling its back was broken. The trees were beginning to flower, the bald cypress had their long tassels, bees were finding the first flowers sheltered in among last year's fallen leaves.