Winter Thaw

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[The turkey] is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

     – Benjamin Franklin

February 2, 2014.  A midwinter thaw allows temperatures to rise to just above freezing. I lace up my leather boots, throw on a coat, and bring the family dog, Laila, along for a walk.

Many of the walks I take near Pittsburgh–where I was born and raised–are in South Park, a local park on the south side.  A long wedge of hills with a stream following through the middle and pockets of forest opening to grassy hillsides, the park’s terrain has plenty of good walking trails.  The park also offers a golf course, a game preserve–with American bison and a duck pond, red-roofed picnic pavilions, a skate park and BMX track, the old county fairgrounds, and a wave pool, among other things.  The western edge of the park features the most hills and largest expanses of forest.

Our walk starts on a stretch of road that is closed in the winter.  The snow-covered road is a winter highway for runners and dog walkers–and white-tailed deer. A path leads off the road.  I stop at its entrance and begin to plan my course for the day.  What do I want to see?  The first thing that comes to mind is turkeys.  And I think I know where to find them.

I haven’t seen turkeys in months.  Since the end of fall and the beginning of winter, turkeys become less active, not wandering out too far from a good roosting tree or feeding site.  In the fall, the park seems to be crawling with turkeys.  The gobblers must gain as much weight as they can in the fall, though their diet is certainly not limiting to them.  Throughout the summer their diet consists of insects, berries, seeds, nuts, and tubers.  The fall harvest of mast–acorns and other tree nuts and seeds–can bring a wealth of food, though some years are lean.  As leaves change colors, swelling caterpillars begin to pupate and feed turkeys, providing protein and fat.  Winter changes their diet once again.  With snow and ice, seeds and nuts within leaf litter and buried tubers of plants can be sealed off for days, or even weeks.  Kindhearted suburbanites that put out corn for deer and fill bird feeders with sunflower seed are most likely feeding the turkeys in the winter, as well as any other hungry forest creature.

The path I chose is a thickly forested walk around a tall hill with steep slopes. Large beech and red oak trees interspersed with younger beech, birch, red maple, and an occasional shagbark hickory cover this slope.  At the very top of the hill sits the wave pool, which is currently closed until Spring, so I might as well have a look.  Glancing across the snow-covered parking lot leaves me snow-blinded, but I see a fallen conifer.  It’s a spruce and it is not alone.  Two large piles of various conifers make up a neighborhood’s worth of last year’s Christmas trees.  I lean in and rub a spruce twig between my fingers.  The scent is enough to start me humming “White Christmas.”  As I inspect the piles of abandoned trees and tinsel I spot a familiar mark in the snow around them.  Turkey tracks!  The mounds of conifers and a few standing white pines–which have fat-rich seeds inside their cones–must have attracted the turkeys as they provide some hope for available food.

I follow the tracks to see if I can spot the turkeys.  The tracks rest on top of the snow for a while.  Then they sink a bit into the snow, cracking the thin ice from the tip of one toe to the other, leaving a round depression in the snow.  The tracks disappear into thick brush at the forest edge just beyond a guardrail, down a fairly steep slope.  The forest has much less snow and makes tracking the birds quite difficult.  They may have hopped down the hillside in short glides, flapping their noisy, large wings as they went.

~~~

I remember the first time I saw a turkey fly.  Before then, I didn’t believe it could happen.  There are, after all, flightless birds–turkeys could be North America’s ostrich or emu. I was young, and I was wrong.  I lived next to a public middle school featuring large lawns and flanked on one side by wooded railroad tracks and on the other by a strip of woods with thick undergrowth of grapevines and silverberry.  I spent a lot of time in the summer wandering here in my youth.  One late summer evening, a single wild turkey was browsing on the lawn.  I crept up through the neighbor’s yard to get closer.  I wanted to catch it.  I ran out and the turkey started to run away.  Just when I thought I was close enough– WHOOSH! –the turkey opened its large, square wings and took off.  Frozen in awe and shock, I watched it fly out beyond the suburbs, whooshing as it flapped its wings vigorously on the air.

~~~

The dog and I make our way back down the trail near some backyards with bird feeders–deer are browsing here.  The trail leads onto a snowy road that has not been traveled on and for good reason.  The wind pushing over the hill piled up deep snow here, about sixteen inches.  I take up the challenge.  Trying to step out of the holes I make with my boots instead of dragging my feet through the snow becomes tiring and I resort to oafishly trudging through the snow.  A layer of ice crumbles against my shins with every step.  Laila began this section of the walk bounding through the snow but now appears to be struggling as much as I am.  We crest the hill and are both decidedly glad that the snow is only a few inches deep here.  We just traveled roughly an eighth of a mile with an elevation gain of fifty feet through a foot of snow, but it felt like a half mile sprint.

Any animal trying to survive the winter would do well to avoid overexertion and freezing temperatures in such deep snow, many use the trails of larger animals faithfully.  Some animals are light enough to walk on the ice layer over snow, but not strong enough to break through to get to buried food.  The red fox can do both.  The fox’s large ears listen for the sounds of small rodents under the ice.  Small rodents travel under the snow, making tunnels which are visible as the snow melts.  The fox can hear them under the snow and, when the moment is right, she pounces into the snow headfirst and comes out with a treat (or, luckily for the mouse, she may come out empty-handed.)  

Expending that much energy warmed me up.  The high temperature for the day is in the low 50’s.  I unzip my coat and continue down the road.  We walk across and then to the top of a second hill where a small playground structure marks the highest point around, looking down over the slopes.  I stand at the top of the slide for a short break.

I was enjoying the view for only two minutes when I hear a noise.  It’s not a bird.  In fact, it’s not a wild animal at all.  A man walks along the same snow-covered road below and his dog, off-leash, trots before him.  The man is singing loudly and unintelligibly and I lose my sense of solitude in that moment.  Perhaps it’s my personality, but I seem to find a lot of pleasure in enjoying a calm walk in the woods.  The issues of the modern world–money, politics, celebrity scandals, violence, etc.–shed away with every step forward into the forest.  It is all too easy to forget other people and forget civilization altogether.  Perhaps, also, that is why in the usually infrequent instance that I come across another person in the forest, I don’t linger in their company.  I share a brief greeting and continue on my way, though at times I may make a remark about a pleasant bit of nature ahead (once I stopped a biker and we stared at a fox for a few minutes, it was a rare moment when two strangers could enjoy a random experience together and then we parted ways without a word.)  I try not to let others bother me when I am on the trail and I try not to bother them as well.  But, it is easy to lose your sense of place on the trail and I can’t say that I have never broken into song when walking in the woods on a sunny day.  Not wanting to listen to the man’s incessant honking, I head back into the woods.

After tracing deer tracks through thick brambles and hopping over fallen trees, I still had not seen any wild turkeys–or much wildlife at all except a few squirrels.  I did spot fox tracks and feral cat tracks, but not what I hoped to see.  The sun is already making its descent and clouds on the horizon mean a sooner loss of daylight.  It’s time to head back.

We follow roads back to where the playground sat at the top of the hill.  I glance downhill across a fence to see if the bison are out and then I see what I had looked for.  Turkeys are flocking in the bison enclosure at the game preserve.  I should have known.  The enclosure is also an exclosure.  Deer are kept out of the bison’s double-fenced pen, so the food is more abundant and the bison break up the ice, snow, and ground as they walk, allowing the turkeys easy access to buried grubs, tubers, and seeds which are normally difficult to reach.  In addition to their natural diet, offerings of apples and ears of corn are often tossed over the fence for the already fed bison. The enclosure also features trees that are tall and sturdy enough to provide adequate roosting sites at night.

I watched the bison and turkeys from the road above.  The relationship that the turkeys have with the bison is not unique, many other creatures have relationships with bison both directly and indirectly.  Bison are considered ecosystem engineers–key organisms that maintain a habitat for many species in an ecosystem.  The effect of bison on grasslands is well-known–mostly because of their near-extinction from the habitat–but the benefits they may provide for woodland habitats could be similar.  Providing access to buried food for other animals in the winter, and transporting seeds and fertilizing as they travel.

The sun is tucked behind a veil of clouds on the horizon and a greyness is darkening as I head back to the car.  The winter thaw allowed me to enjoy the woods for a few short hours What I saw was a harsh environment with remnants of a recent abundant past.  I also found signs of the coming Spring in the waiting leaf and flower buds on trees and in the seemingly aberrant chime of birdsong–perhaps a Song Sparrow delighting in the brief warmth.  But colder temperatures and more snow will come, conditions that will reestablish the perils of winter for wildlife.

Fox hunting in snow:
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/photo-contest/2012/entries/192953/view/

Sources:

“Bison bison.”  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.  Web.  Feb, 2014.
<http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/2815/0>

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