On a chilly winter day, with several inches of snow still blanketing the woodland hills, those who spend winter on the wing are once again in search of food.
This eastern bluebird has located a well-stocked bird feeder, a veritable oasis in the sudden desert of cold and ice which was so recently a leafy forest floor, and has staked its claim to a perch nearby.
Survival is the name of the game, and as evidenced by their continued existence after the two harsh weeks of winter just past, these individuals have proven their mettle as foragers and hunters and food finders in general.
Like the bluebird, this hermit thrush has cast its lot with the bird feeder set, and perches in the cold gray light just a few feet from the observation platform near the feeding station. While these drab gray woods may soon resound with the thrush's glorious song of spring, today his silence sounds the call of cold and hungry.
Like so many of the small songbirds congregating at the feeder today, Carolina chickadee's metabolism demands a surprisingly large food intake for its tiny size; this individual has found a perch overlooking a healthy pile of sunflower seeds and is far more interested in monitoring the activity there than in smiling for the camera...
Not far away, northern cardinal offers a bold and striking profile from its perch in a young lichen-splotched hickory adjacent to the oasis, while a white-throated sparrow shares the frame until a perch opens up on the feeder.
With Carolina chickadee joining the ranks on the front lines at the foot of the feeder pole,
tufted titmouse arrives to occupy its vacant perch, but only for a moment's rest;
then, it too will return to the fray, taking full advantage of the oasis today in advance of an uncertain tomorrow.
Such is the life of those who spend winter on the wing...
A few hours later and a few miles away, in the warmth of an all too brief appearance by the sun, American robin dozes at the edge of a snow-covered meadow,
while one of its brethren takes pause from its worm-digging to savor the sun's life-giving warmth as well.
In the midst of yesterday's wintry wanderings in Chapel Hill, we glimpsed a tiny flash of motion amongst the leafless branches of a young winged elm.
Frozen in the lens for the briefest instant, behind a screen of tangled twigs,
we recognized our friend the golden-crowned kinglet, tiny denizen of the boreal forests, and sometimes winter resident in our little corner of the world.
In all our years of training lenses on avian targets, perhaps only the ruby-throated hummingbird has proven more elusive than this little flitter of a critter.
We exhausted a half-dozen of the camera's automatic pre-sets and opted in and out of auto-focus at least as many times before abandoning the camera altogether and simply enjoying the encounter with this frenetic, creeping, crawling, dangling flyer.
In a matter of minutes, this fellow had covered every square inch of trunk and branch and tiniest twig, leaving no bit of bark unexplored.
Clearly aware of our presence, but undeterred in its mission, this petite perpetual motion machine never ceased its surveying, pausing for the barest instant from time to time, offering an occasional tantalizing glimpse of its gold and orange headdress.
Then scurrying on along the limb, it resumed its foraging, inspecting every flake of loosened bark and hundreds of emergent buds for any sign of an edible arthropod.
Acrobat, contortionist or literal busybody, this guy simple could not be still.
One instant hanging from the tip of the slenderest branch like an upright bat,
the next conducting an aerial survey of the next branch over,
our hardy and intrepid little hunter gave quite an entertaining performance for the better part of ten minutes.
Then departed as suddenly as it had appeared, headed for happier hunting grounds
high in the mighty pines just across the way.
Sad as we were at our parting, those of us without roots in the Arctic
were just about ready to head inside for warmer climes.
Each year, Hoot Owl Karma celebrates the impending arrival of spring with a late winter walk in the woods to commune with the early-blooming wildflowers. One of our favorite and most reliable harbingers of spring is the trout lily, and as you can see in these posts from 2013 and 2014, its distinctive mottled green leaves typically emerge from the forest floor in mid to late February, with delicate golden blossoms appearing a day or so later.
With the wintry weather delaying the opening of school, and in keeping with tradition, we slipped into the forest yesterday for a quick visit, only to find things running at least a few days behind schedule.
Here on the margin of our little stream, leaves swept aside by the swollen waters of Thursday morning's icy downpour, a small gathering of lilies emerges to greet the chilly sunshine.
As though keenly aware of their tardiness, the spear-pointed leaves thrust inexorably sunward, piercing or thrusting asunder any and all impediments.
Poised on the very eve of March, no blossoms yet appear.
A quick scan of the surrounding slopes, however, does reveal a solitary bud, poised to lead the glorious anthem of spring which will soon burst forth from the decaying detritus of fall. Here's hoping we make it back in time for the chorus...
Yesterday, the deep freeze began a measured retreat from our little corner of the world. Reminders of its recent campaign were everywhere, however.
Sleet and snow, some melted and refrozen, clung to the leafy surfaces at the wood's edge and filled the shadowy interstices of the forest itself. The road scrapings, shoved coldly aside by the harsh steel blades, still clung to the shoulders in slowly diminishing dollops of cold.
The lake's vast shallows had succumbed to the arctic intruder as well, leaving flocks of bewildered gulls huddled on its surprisingly solid surface, and every little pond was sealed tight by a perfectly fitted frozen lid.
During an ordinary Carolina cold snap, this icy covering could have presented a problem for our friend the heron, trying as it might to access the tasty minnows suspended in the frigid shallows.
This, however, was no ordinary Carolina cold snap.
No, this bitter, bone-chilling blast had frozen the great blue hunter itself!
Head alertly cocked, eyes wide open, leg raised mid-stride, toes curled against the chill, even its magnificent mantle of feathers was rendered rigid and motionless in a state of perfectly suspended animation.
Hoot Owl Karma has brought us many astonishing and wonderful encounters with nature over the years, but this ranks right up there with the most bizarre. We've heard tales of amphibians possessed of a natural antifreeze which allows their bodies' tissues to freeze during the winter, only to revive unharmed with the spring thaw;
perhaps some similar mystery of nature is at work in this instance...
We wander on, wondering as always at the power and mystery of mighty nature;
oblivious in our parting to the almost imperceptible alteration in the attitude of the stalker,
unfrozen for an instant,
now frozen again,
but having advanced one stealthy stride closer to the tiny fish-shaped shadows drifting under the thinnest frozen film at the margin of the ice-covered pool.
Credit to Jay Randolph for the super slow motion images of the great blue heron...
Old Man Winter dozed off for a while this past weekend, so we took off our coats and wandered outside into the sun.
That's when we saw the birds.
The crows were everywhere.
Foraging among the litter in the student parking lot, digging for worms and beetles in the fallow cotton fields, gathered around an opossum on Tramway road, and cawing the alarm from any number of interesting perches.
Northern cardinal sang lustily from the willow oaks bordering the lot,
and seemingly every shrub in sight bore the obligatory berry-munching mockingbird.
Loggerhead shrike bounded about its barbed butcher's rack,
certain that the sunshine would lure a mouse or lizard into view.
A pair of ravens cavorted high above the fields in the cloudless blue, soaring and swooping like a couple of teenage daredevils taunting their younger siblings, while the suddenly smaller crows picked among the stubble of soybeans far below.
Cousin Danny showed up a little after noon with his nifty new camera gear, and we headed up to the lake to see if any eagles were about. As we exited the highway, red-shouldered hawk coolly surveyed our passing, and we paused for a moment to admire this noble raptor.
"Buzzards" abounded in the vicinity of the lake; this majestic turkey vulture was one of dozens rising on the thermals below the dam.
And as soon as we lowered our eyes to the opposite bank, we were greeted by the sight of a most magnificent bird, the American bald eagle.
Placidly perched in the bright afternoon sun, this adult hung around for a full ten minutes until another adult noisily roused it from its reverie and accompanied it down the river and out of sight.
Over the course of the next hour or so, we watched the two adults and two younger eagles alternately playing low along the river and soaring clear out of sight in the deep blue sky.
Just across the way, these black vultures seemed content to while away the hours in the company of like-minded companions, high in the leafless boughs of the oaks.
Cousin Danny and I heartily seconded that sentiment, basking in the warm winter sun from our perch on the grass below.
What a joy it was to be outside, enjoying the beauty and diversity of these winged wonders.
Whether the common backyard variety, old friends recovering from near-extinction, or relative newcomers to our region, each avian encounter made us more mindful of the amazing biodiversity we enjoy here in the heart of Carolina.
Thanks for the respite, Old Man Winter!
Special thanks to Hunter for sharing the most excellent mockingbird and raven shots...
January of '15 will be remembered in the annals of Hoot Owl Karma for its paucity of posts.
Generally speaking, one must venture outside to experience the wild, and January's hectic work schedule conspired with cold and flu season, the high school exam schedule, and a few particularly inopportune days of rain to severely limit our time outside.
And, on the few occasions when we encountered the wild with camera in hand,
things seldom went according to plan.
This handsome juvenile red-tailed hawk had just left a meal of road-killed white-tailed deer when we rolled up.
Rather than pose patiently for a blog shot, it lurched awkwardly against the tree trunk,
then launched and wheeled and disappeared into the dense cover beyond the tree-line.
A few days and a few miles later,
our friend, belted kingfisher, perched high against a perfect sky of blue,
but, alas, this perfect post was not to be...
Yet another fine day found us approaching a hunting red-shouldered hawk along the shoulder of a rural byway...
a hunting red-shouldered hawk with no time to spare for gawkers, that is.
We are nothing at Hoot Owl Karma if not optimistic, however,
and January's near misses will give us an even greater appreciation of whatever we encounter tomorrow...
Perhaps we'll stumble upon a bare-limbed shrub, retaining but a few old dead leaves from the year just past, yet covered in spectacular, bright yellow blossoms which appear to be growing from the flesh of the limbs themselves. We're familiar with the tales and lore associated with "witch hazel," and have even shared a photo or two in the past, but this is by far the most spectacular example we've encountered.