Wildlife in winter

Birds, deer some of the animals best observed during long winter hours.
Reflections Wintertime Glenn Wolff

It’s an illusion, of course, but winter hours seem longer. In summer, when the days last from five in the morning until 10 at night, there’s not enough time to accomplish everything. But in winter, time languishes. You can work eight hours, plow the driveway, prepare dinner, eat, clean the kitchen, build a fire in the fireplace, read a book for an hour — and still have most of the evening ahead of you.

In the mornings, when I’m filling the bird feeders, a few black-capped chickadees converge before I’ve finished and land inches from my hands. Other species hide in the evergreens until I’ve gone inside. Only then can I stand in the window and watch finches, juncos and redpolls that are otherwise only distant, flitting glimpses in the trees. When they come to the feeders, they prove to be not indistinct small, gray shapes but vivid individuals brushed with color and detail. A bird is the very embodiment of wildness, and when it accepts our offerings of sunflower and suet, the space between us is filled.

Of course, birds aren’t the only wildlife we can watch in winter. Years ago, a few friends and I used to set off every winter on canoe and camping trips down rivers in northern Michigan. During those expeditions, we would see dozens, sometimes hundreds, of whitetail deer yarded in the cedar swamps, where they had packed the snow beneath the trees as thoroughly as cattle yards and trimmed the foliage to the precise height they could reach. 

Snow illustration

The deer were unaccustomed to seeing humans at that time of year, so they behaved as if unobserved, nuzzling one another, rising delicately on their hind legs to strip cedar boughs with their teeth. We often drifted within a few feet of them bedded on the banks, and as long as we made no sudden movements, they simply watched us, conserving their energy. 

Sometimes, otters swam near and raised themselves half out of the water for a look at us in our canoes. One January, we counted a dozen bald eagles during two days on the Au Sable River. We viewed them at close range, perched on pine branches above the river, eyeing us with interest as we drifted beneath. 

On bright winter days when I’ve had enough of staying indoors, I dress in a sweater and coat, pull on insulated boots, grab leather mittens and a wool hat and walk the woods and meadows near home to see what I can see. When I slow down to look, time seems to grow more tangible. I can almost weigh it in my hand — can almost see the bright moments falling like snowflakes around me.

Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City. His many books include: “The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes” and “A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame,” illustrated by Glenn Wolff. Learn more at jerrydennis.net and bigmaplepress.com.

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