Volume 12, Issue 5 ~ January 29-February 4, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

Snow’s Second Morning

And when the second morning shone.
We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Amid the glistening wonder bent …
—John Greenleaf Whittier: “Snowbound,” 1866

Up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County, we look upon a world unknown. All is white, of course, but the eight inches of snow has transformed everything in the side yard to images of fantasy.

As I scan the lawn, as Whittier wrote, “there is nothing we can call our own.” Only the birds look familiar.

The bird bath collected the eight inches of snow in an odd fashion. Underneath the steel basin, the white stuff clung tight and built into a cylinder, large diameter at the top, small at the bottom, which came almost to a point. In the bath itself, the snow piled high, rounded at the top. So what I have is a giant ice cream cone befitting a niche outside a Baskin Robbins shop.

The day after the snowfall, fine frozen particles of moisture have firmed up that image, as they have two-year-old granddaughter Grumpy’s small hard plastic slide, which now has the appearance of a Chinese pagoda.

The dozen birdhouses outside the house have different shapes, depending on their exposure to the wind during the snowfall. Only the five that are inhabited by winter birds can be distinguished for what they really are. Yet if I look hard enough, I see the entry/exit holes kept open by birds making short trips to the bird feeders, which also are of alien configuration though avian traffic has cleared the snow from the feeder holes and platforms.

With all the birdhouses, feeders and lawn ornaments capped with snow, a glance across the lawn lets me imagine the skyline of Russia’s old St. Petersburg, where I’m certain there is more snow and ice these days. The glider upon which I read the morning papers in better weather has the shape of a mountain tent. I can’t decide what the big hard plastic rocking chair looks like, though certainly not something to sit in.

The bicycle wheel I leaned against a post turned thick and white; now it looks like the water wheel of a grist mill. Too bad Grumpy is not here to see it; it’s one of her favorite playthings when she visits. We use it as a hoop, and as it rolls she screeches wheeeeeel.

Feeding the Hungry …
With binoculars, I look through the naked trees on Stoney Creek below the cliff on the east side of the house. Standing on the ice (which is more than skim) are some gulls and ducks. I’m not concerned about the former; it seems they can always find something to eat. But what can the mallards find for food? Shallow waters suitable for dabbling for vegetation are covered with ice; everything on the shoreline is beneath snow, and this is the second day since the storm — with a forecast for more of the same. Perhaps, later in the day, I’ll try to make it down to the shoreline and scatter some whole-kernel corn.

I know the fowl are not really in trouble, but why not make things easier and more convenient for them? I have an idea of what an empty stomach feels like.

Obviously, the songbirds of the houses on the lawn and those who visit regularly are eating well enough. But with trees with no leaves, I am concerned about their vulnerability to hawks, though I’ve not spotted one lately.

I do know that as the first of the snow started falling late Sunday night, the owl perched in a tree on the cliff stopped hooting. Several times I stepped outside last night and didn’t hear so much as a single hoot. Presumably, that silence poses no problem, seeing that the songbirds are hunkered down in their houses or the thick underbrush on the cliff before time for its nocturnal feeding.

It’s the afternoon of the second day following the snow, and still not a sight of a single squirrel, though the moisture that has fallen and frozen on the snow certainly poses no mobility problem. Nor have I seen any rabbits. I presume they are cuddled together to share body heat amidst the ornamental shrubbery on the south and west sides of the house.

By chance, daughter Turee, who lives in northern Rhode Island, opened her front door just before sunrise the other morning. There several feet in front of her eyeing the hedge in which her resident bunnies seek shelter in winter was a coyote. It shot away faster than anything she ever saw on legs, but now she fears that unwelcome predator might be aware of the presence of the cottontails — and will return.

She hopes the hedge is thick enough to at least make the rabbits alert to impending danger. If so, they are nimble enough to win a game of hide ’n’ seek within the maze of shrubbery with something as large and gangly as a coyote.

Life in the out-of-doors, even in vegetation against a house, can be harsh. We have no coyotes that I know of here in Riviera Beach, but we do have cats, so this evening I will scatter some rabbit pellets inside our hedge.

The songbirds hereabouts are not like the ruffed grouse of Western Maryland that can burrow or dive into snow for insulation. No, lesser birds must eat enough during short days to carry them through long nights of the kind of cold we’ve been experiencing of late. Chickadees go into a sort of stupor to conserve energy and body heat. Then they are among the first birds to arise in the morning in search of food. The colder it is, the more they must find.

Fills Heart and Belly
Hereabouts, they have an abundant supply of sunflower seeds. Seeing that squirrels have yet to make an appearance, other birds that normally don’t visit traditional feeders — mourning doves and sometimes cardinals and bluejays — can feast on a mix of sunflower seeds and cracked corn I scatter atop the crust of the frozen snow.

We have so many squirrels hereabouts, once they go on the hunt for food, they crowd the birds out — though I’ve seen jays and cardinals hold their own when bushytails attempt to take over. It’s cold enough that daily the finches empty a thistle sack and make a big dent in a tube feeder containing the same.

I prefer to mix my own seed; many inexpensive (well, not so inexpensive) seed mixes sold in supermarkets include wheat, rape seed, milo and such that are not in the diets of our resident songbirds, so much goes to waste. It’s difficult to think of a bird that frequents our lawn that doesn’t relish sunflower seeds, so I offer much of them, straight in feeders, and more mixed with cracked corn and safflower seeds (which squirrels don’t appreciate) on the snow or on platforms.

At times such as this, I occasionally spot a robin beneath a bird feeder along with other birds vying for seeds scattered by other feeding birds above. Eight inches of snow changes everything, and where else can a wintering-over robin find something to eat these days? Surely, there are no worms, grubs or other insects crawling atop the snow.

Though it’s cold (by Maryland standards) outside, this is the time when one who feeds wildlife is warm inside. Warmth comes within the heart when watching anything from chickadees to doves feasting on your offerings. I pity those who decline to brave the ice, snow and cold to replenish their feeders. Even more, I pity the birds that were eating their offerings until the storm struck and had become dependent, and now when they need nourishment most don’t have it.

People who stopped feeding don’t know what they’re missing, but the birds surely do. Enough said.

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Last updated January 29, 2004 @ 3:15am.