Autumn – Winter Day

An early season snowstorm moved north a couple of nights ago, blanketing the ground and the trees with heavy wet snow. The next morning, we felt quite cozy indoors, enjoying our morning cup of tea and looking out at falling snow, until we were startled by the sound of three loud explosions coming from outside, accompanied by three flashes of light. Then the power went off. A quick, chilly, investigation outdoors revealed that the top of an oak tree had broken off and fallen onto the power line.

Out in the yard, all the seed bearing plants were bent down under the weight of the snow, making their seeds inaccessible to the birds. We hoped that the birds, who have been scarce at our feeder the past few weeks, might finally come looking for our seeds, but as the morning wore on the only bird who showed up for a snack was a tufted titmouse. We are always happy to see this little gray bird, that is only about six-and-a-half-inches long, with a crest on top of its head. Its back is a medium gray color, the breast and belly are a very soft gray, and the lower part of the side, the flank, can show a variety of buff colors. The eyes are dark and there is a little patch of black on the forehead. Often, we have heard the titmouse’s cheerful song, a loud, persistently whistled peter peter peter, and sometimes a variety of other sounds, including a harsh scolding call. Like the chickadee, the titmouse is an active and acrobatic forager who easily hangs upside down to pick at the undersides of branches and twigs. In warm weather, it eats whatever little insects or critters it finds on the trees, and in winter adds acorns, berries, and seeds to the diet.

The tufted titmouse is so common it’s easy to forget it was originally a more southern bird. Until the 1950s, they were seldom seen north of New Jersey, and were considered very rare in Maine. In 1957, a pair was found nesting in Massachusetts, and since then tufted titmice have expanded their range northward. Now, they live year round in Maine, as well as in most of the United States east of the Great Plains. The titmouse is closely related to the chickadee. According to David Allen Sibley’s Sibley Guide to Birds, they both have strong legs and strong short bills, they nest in cavities, are fairly social and inquisitive, and feed on insects and seeds, which they glean from bark and twigs. Folks who have traveled in other parts of North America may have seen bridled, oak, juniper, or black-crested titmice. They also may have seen Carolina, mountain, gray-headed, Mexican, or chestnut-backed chickadees, and in northern Maine may have seen boreal chickadees. All the titmice in North America have a crest, and would be easily recognizable as titmice. Chickadees have no crest, and most folks would have little difficulty recognizing the various species as chickadees.

By late afternoon yesterday, the snowstorm had moved on and the sun had come out. A dozen mallards swam around in the cove, and a female common merganser curled up on top of a rock for a nap, with her head tucked under a wing. We were among the lucky ones that day. Electric power was restored to the neighborhood after a few hours, the snow ended, and no damage was done by the storm.

Today, less than 24 hours after the storm, I walked across our snowy back yard to the lake and slipped my little yellow kayak into the water. It was delightful to be out paddling, surrounded by colorful fall foliage against a backdrop of white snow, and with snow covered mountains to the north. Five loons in winter plumage ignored me as they fished and bathed. Later in the afternoon, back up at the house, I watched the sun hang low in the western sky, blazing a brilliant path of gold across the surface of the lake. Sunlight reflected off the water, glancing upward into the forest and illuminating the remaining snow and the colorful leaves. It was a magnificent sight on this rare autumn-winter day.

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