Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy (warm) new year!

I'm a cold weather man. Winter days and nights possess an obscure magic that buoys my spirit and heartens my constitution. I'm particularly sensitive to this variety of dark enchantment when I'm alone in winter woods. We humans have grown complacent in our throne atop the food chain, and I enjoy my body's reaction to harsh conditions as I also appreciate occasional haunting by the specter of predation. Both are humbling, gratifying reminders of what we've come from, and of what we are.

But this winter has been unseasonably warm. As always, I traveled south to Virginia to visit my parents. The temperature on the morning of my birthday, December 29th, was 52 degrees Fahrenheit; by late afternoon, it was over 60. Yet still the talking heads on the local news speak of global warming as if it may be a fiction! Skepticism serves its purpose in science, and shouldn't be dismissed offhand, but whether we're attributing warming to human activity or to natural fluctuations, an examination of the data shows that the general trend is all too apparent.

Snow Geese Beyond Morning Trees
A flock of about 800 snows departs the estuary in search of morning food

Because of the warm temperatures, the travels of migratory species are unusual this year. Last Thanksgiving, I watched four or five thousand snow geese (Chen caerulescens) pitch into the salt water estuary alongside my parents' house. The birds arrive in last light to roost, and they depart just after dawn, moving on to feed in the fields of winter wheat.

This year, by contrast, the late December roosts were limited to one thousand birds, give or take a couple hundred. The weather is warm enough that the geese, heading south from their Arctic breeding grounds, don't need to fly so far to find food and refuge. The spectacular flocks that I watched in the fall of 2005 probably took up winter residence this year in Delaware and New Jersey, or points farther north.


Great Blue Heron Feet Bound 2
Photo of the heron's feet; monofilament already cut away

Walking my Virginia prpoerty two days before my birthday, my father and I came upon the decapitated body of a great blue heron (Ardea herodias). The beheading was likely the work of a fox or raccoon, but the predator was not responsible for the bird's death. The heron's legs and feet were knotted with monofilament fishing line. Two "toes" on the right foot were tied together. More serious was the mass of line that bound the left leg to the knot on the right foot. The bird had eked out a living by hop hunting. This is handicap enough for any animal, but, for a heron, a creature that specializes in water stalking, hopping surely cost the bird a great many meals.

Apparently this individual was tough. Just as a tree grows around a collar left on too long, so had the heron's flesh swollen around the fishing line as the bird continued to grow. I'm not knowledgeable enough to estimate the heron's age with any accuracy, but, by the looks of it, the line had bound the bird for at least a year. My father cut the monofilament away and we placed the heron's body in the middle of a trail, hoping that the vultures already circling above would descend once the two humans moved on.

Oddly, when I returned to check on the progress the following afternoon, the heron's body remained untouched. No raccoon or fox had returned to finish what they began, and the vultures had apprently elected to pass up this meal in favor of more filling options. (This winter's warm weather has left scavengers at ease and relatively heavy-bellied. As a result, they are less thorough in their clean-up efforts.)

Great Blue Heron Foot w/ My Hand
Photo of heron's left foot w/ my hand, for scale

I examined the heron again, this time photographing the bird's marvelous feet. As far as I'm concerned, anyone familiar with both reptiles and birds must accept their common ancestry. The great blue's long toes and legs share much with those of some lizard species. As a friend remarked upon seeing the bird, "It reminds me of an alligator." Indeed. Ain't evolution wondrous?

Great Blue Heron
Photo of heron's left foot w/ my hand, for scale

Photo credits: all by Hungry Hyaena

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