The Natural Enquirer: A colorful winter’s day
It’s Christmas time and the grandkids, John and Ashley, have come over the hills and through the woods to grandma’s house. There is hustle and bustle on this Christmas Eve as grandma and daughter Cindy prepare for the “morrow”. John, 12, and Ashley, 10, are looking for something to do and I remembered an article I read years ago and suggested that we go outside and look for “The Color Red”, those bits of color that can brighten even a winter day. They look out the window at the white and black landscape against a blue sky and voice their opinion that we won’t find much, so I suggest that we should set a goal of 15. We let the others know where we are going, dress up warm, take the lunch grandma has packed for us and we’re off.
We pause outside to check the feeders and count the first red in the purple finches and pine grosbeaks that visit the feeders each day. We are struck by the beauty of these winter finches all fluffed out and perched by a snow-covered feeder. The small red spot on the back of the heads of downy and hairy woodpeckers denote the males and both are regular visitors to our suet feeders and count as two more reds.
As we walk along the gravel Helen Creek Road, next to the bog, we use our binoculars to scan the tops of the black spruce and are able to find both the red and the white winged crossbills feeding on the heavy cone crop. We also record a small group of redpolls feeding on weed seeds and probably fine gravel to help grind up the seeds.
We are awed when we see the beautiful pileated woodpecker, hear its loud rattle in the woods, and find dead trees they have almost destroyed in their search for insects. Both sexes have red on their heads, and their size makes them unmistakable.
Our walk takes us along Helen Creek, where we find thickets of red osier dogwood highlighted against the white snow. The shrub provides cover for cottontails, snowshoe hares, and several small rodents. If you look closely, you may find small bird nests supported by the thin stalks. We see where stems are gnawed by hungry rabbits. Next spring, we can measure the snow depth by looking for the rabbits’ gnaw line. We also find the bright red fruits of the winter berry growing in a depression by the trail. This four to five foot high shrub has only a few berries left, this plant likes to grow with its feet wet.
As we leave the creek and climb to an old meadow, we follow the tracks of a hunting red fox. They lead us to a small grove of smooth sumac and we are able to pick some of the hairy red seeds. Long ago when I led groups of scouts and school children we would make Indian lemonade from the crushed berries. Now they are dried out and the only bird I know that eats them is the bluejay. However, judging by the tracks in the snow, deer mice and voles might enjoy them as well.
It is nearing lunch time as we enter a small stand of mixed evergreens, red, and white pine, balsam fir and white spruce. We are greeted by the scolding of the red squirrel. This perky fellow, “chickeree” he is sometimes called, is now intent on plucking an unopened cone. Returning to his favorite branch, he opens the cone scales to extract the nutritious seeds, then discards the inedible parts in an ever-growing mound on the ground called a “midden”.
We decide to rest here in the uplands, in the woods out of the winter breeze and enjoy our snack. We find a fallen log, brush off the snow, sit and start to eat. While sitting and talking, we notice several holes in the snow, and I explain that these are made by voles, and as we discuss voles, one sticks its head out, it is a red-backed vole, one of our two species and it jumps out of the hole about six feet from where we sit and starts to run across the snow. I am just mentioning this non-typical behavior when an ermine (the white, winter stage of the least weasel in this case) comes flying out of the hole after it and the short chase in on. A vole has almost no chance if it is caught on the surface of the snow and the ermine catches it quickly kills it and carries it off. John and Ashley are saddened; however, I explain that this is all part of nature. Looking closely where the ermine caught the vole, we find a few drops of red blood to add to our list.
Grandma has packed a sandwich for each of us, mine is an old favorite I remember from Christmas Bird Counts of long ago, a cold red hot dog sandwich. She has also packed some chips and a cored, sliced, red delicious apple. I remembered passing through here in the late summer and seeing wintergreen, so we found an old branch and swept away the snow and finally found some still holding on to their red berries.
Grandma had asked us to stop by our neighbors to get some eggs, and it was next on our list. They graciously parted with a dozen brown eggs and looking at them, I remembered they came from Rhode Island Red chickens so we went for a quick look and decided we should not count the wattles or combs.
Leaving their home, we spied a high bush cranberry bush. It is suggested as a shrub to attract birds. However, few, if any, eat them in the fall. The berries are sometimes eaten on the northerly spring migration, when little other food is available, though by then they posses a quite high alcohol content and inebriated birds are sometimes found.
After lunch, we continued following the fox trail which led past a patch of wild roses and after careful searching we found three old rose hips on the prickly stems still with enough red to count.
As we start downhill toward the lake we find a basswood or American linden and pause to sample its red buds, they have a taste similar to garden peas. Looking up near the shore, we see the dark red buds of red maples.
We decide to walk the ice along the lake shore back to our home and notice a small red flag waving in the breeze out on the ice tended by a fisherman sitting on a bucket and we decide to venture out to see if he caught anything. Sure enough there on the ice are a few perch, bluegills and two pumpkinseed sunfish with the scarlet spot on the opercula (the edge of the gill cover) and one medium rock bass with its red eye. We talk for a while and notice the sun is setting and we should be getting back. Ashley hollers “look” and points to a tree. There is a red and white fish bobber caught on a branch.
The setting sun is now close to the horizon, and we enjoy a magnificent red sunset while remembering the rhyme “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”
As we leave the lake, there in a wind blown patch of ice, we see the still red maple leaves frozen in ice awaiting the spring thaw. At the shoreline find a few red granite boulders that have lichens of various colors growing on their surface, some of them deep red. Our cheeks are red from exposure to the chilly temperatures as day slips into evening. With the glorious sunset disappearing behind us, we pause on a ridge along Cty. B, and the red tailights of passing cars are added to our list. We also count the red flag on our mailbox.
As we turn toward the door, we hear the lonesome wail of an ambulance, and see the flashing red lights as they head toward town. I am prompted by a memory of long, long ago, when the third grade nun at my grammar school made us bow our heads and say a short prayer for the poor soul that is or soon will be riding in the ambulance. John and Ashley think this is a good idea, and join me in a short prayer.
We open the door and face the warm, glowing red fire. Winter isn’t so cold and colorless after all. We counted, and we had found 40 “red” things on our winter search for the “Color Red”.
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. Questions or comments for Dring can be sent to [email protected].