Winter months of respite and contemplation

Winter solstice was more than a week ago and already the early mornings are brightening. But during the day, the sun still sits low on the horizon and the shadows from trees and fences stretch long over the snow. The sun is welcome, having been a rare visitor - we’ve had a gloomy winter - but today is bright and windless, which makes it pleasant outside despite the cold (minus 11 Celsius this morning rising to minus 5).

The redpolls bicker on and around the feeder – they look like drab birds at first glance, but watch for the moment when the light catches the festive dab of red on top of their heads. Then you notice the soft white breast, lightly streaked in grey and splashed with red. These are little charmers, in residence this winter, but not necessarily every year. When they’re not around, there's a flock of goldfinches who stay year-round and really should have squatters' rights. But the redpolls are a little bigger, and scrappier than the goldfinches. I don’t know where the goldfinches go when the redpolls push them out, but I hope someone else has a well-filled feeder for them. There’s one pair of goldfinches that didn’t move on. These two, truly drab in their olive winter attire, are part of the our winter redpoll flock and appear to suffer no discrimination.
An Ontario winter gives us the leisure to observe such comings and goings. I caught a BBC gardening program yesterday. Well, they are busy over there, working away right through the winter, bareroot planting, weeding, clipping etcetera etcetera... I’m so glad that here, nature calls a halt and gives us these months of respite, for contemplation, for reading the snow, which offers a perfect record of who is sharing your space. 

Today I found the tracks of squirrels (no surprise), mice (kindly stay outside) and rabbits (generally out of sight, but clearly very busy when we’re not looking). Under a cedar, a criss-crossing of many little tracks left by a congregation of birds, perhaps the juncos that I have seen elsewhere, gleaning specks of nutrition off the snow. The shrubs are almost bare – chokecherry, highbush cranberry and dogwoods denuded of fruit - although a few berries still cling to the little chokeberry trees and the odd bright red haw hangs on the hawthorn. The brilliant red rosehips, however, are a cheerful sight against the snow, long and narrow fruit on the Rosa gaura, stubby and round on the Rosa virginiana. The twigs of red osier dogwood are a darker red, while blackberry canes cast a bluish, almost ghostly light against the snow.

A little wildlife highway stretches straight and purposeful through an evergreen windbreak, under a wire fence, under the boughs of one white spruce, out towards another, and there it ends. The rest of the field is smooth, a blank slate, as if no life is here, the snow a clean and brilliant white with desiccated seedheads poking through here and there – Queen Anne’s Lace, goldenrod and milkweed pods spilling silk and seed. I try to decipher the tracks, to figure out whose highway this is: squirrels, for sure, and rabbits, I think. The snow begins to fall again, blurring the delicate tracery of tiny footsteps.

Happy New Year.

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