Like a woodcut picture, the prairie fills in its color with hash marks, individual stalks of yellow that suggest a particular shade of landscape. More snow means fewer stalks are visible, so the whole scene lightens. But until you look at the larger trees or the depth of sharp deer tracks, the actual depth of the snow must only be inferred by the color of the landscape.
Luckily for us, enough of the 8″ of snow that fell last week was still around by Saturday. As were plenty of deer tracks and coyote trac
ks and lots of small mammals. Many of the mouse and vole tracks led to holes in the snow, access to their subnivean tunnels. Other tracks would disappear and reappear in the snow, likely due to the very light animals walking across snow of which even a slight variation in softness would make a difference in depth, or even discernible presence, of the footprints. We heard a few bird calls that sounded like overgrown baritone crickets, most likely the crows we saw flying near the area. Also the call of a robin, of which I have seen several over this winter so far (I’ve shifted to watching for bluebirds as the true sign of spring). The cattails-and-sandstone gully was softened by white pillows and there were obvious signs of coyote communication via yellow snow around a few shrubs.
The biggest event of the day was when we startled a medium-sized gray bird. Or, rather, it startled us, getting rather close before we noticed. It was flopping across the snow with a broken-wing gait similar to the one performed by a mourning dove protecting its nest we found last summer. It let us get very close and was moving slowly but was crossing our path instead of “running away.” But this bird was clearly not a mourning dove, and the first week of January is surely not the time to nest. We later identified the bird as a Townsend’s Solitaire (note gray color and white ring around its eye). I followed the unique tracks in the snow left by the feet and wings until they disappeared. Just beyond was a big juniper bush. A quick survey of the bush didn’t show anything interesting, though I didn’t have time to look very closely. Solitaires do eat juniper berries, th
ough, and are known to defend their food sources in the winter. If the bird was actually protecting something (which I hope was the case), I suspect that it was connected with that bush, though I’m not sure why we may have been a threat, and why that was the defense action taken.
Quite the adventure. If anyone has any insight on this, let me know.