Outdoors North

Wildlife decorates winter white

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Some quiet evening, I sit by your side and we’re lost in a world of our own.” — Ben Raleigh and Sherman Edwards

It was that instant mashed potato flake kind of snow, soft and fluffy, and it was piling up high as the nighttime moved slowly past.

I was looking out the upstairs window of the room at the end of the hall, the place where I do a lot of my writing and reading.

The night looked so still and quiet. The cars had long since stopped passing along the county road. The blue shadows of twilight were gone, yielding their time to the darker tones that fell silently over the snow, under the tall pines, along the front drive.

It looked like the snow had stopped, but in the glow from a street lamp I could still see the flakes sift down. No stars tonight.

At first, it didn’t seem like anything at all was awake and moving, besides me. I love this time of day. The stillness and the refreshing quiet give me time and space to think, to exhale and relax.

The house is dark. There are no voices. No telephones ringing. No television or radio news, not even any music. There’s just the deep, satisfying silence.

I was almost ready to pull away from the window, where my forearms always find the sill, when I saw a shadow out of place. It was underneath the cedar trees that stand along the west edge of the drive.

The dark outline was that of a deer, a doe that was tugging at the cedar boughs while standing below the branches. Nearby, under the row of trees, there was another shadow, and then another, and another.

These were smaller forms cast by yearling deer. The deepening snow helped them reach the green cedar needles they were eating. Still, there was one young deer that stood on its back legs to reach the branches.

This little deer seemed to be standing on its hoof tips to reach the tree, then grabbing a branch with its mouth and tugging side to side, like a puppy that won’t leg go of the corner of a blanket.

I pushed the window locks open and slid the window up. Through the screen I talked to the deer. “Hello, you babies.” They have become used to my voice and they don’t run off when they hear me talking.

They do give me strange looks sometimes, as if they are saying, “You realize we’re deer, right? We’re not your babies.”

Still, they keep coming back.

At the side of the house, the chokecherry trees that hold the bird feeders are sagging a little more each day. Weighted down with the frost and ice from a recent storm, and now, more and more snow.

The feeders, whose hooks were almost too high to reach, were now hanging only a few feet off the ground. This scene was caused by the combination of the branches sagging and the snow piling up.

As I watched, a small deer ducked its head under the snow-covered branches and looked around at the bird feeders.

The deer moved its head, in a slow and sideways cow-like fashion, toward a wooden feeder whose inch-wide holes were filled with chunky peanut butter.

The deer took a lick, and then a few more. I spoke to the deer through the glass of the window. “Hey, that’s not for you.” The deer bowed back out from under the trees and loped away through the high snow.

So many of the trees crippled by the ice storm are now leaning over even farther toward the ground. I wonder if some of them will ever stand tall again.

Will these trees be cursed with their ice and frost castings until springtime? The winds have broken some of the ice as the branches clink together, but there’s still plenty of jingle jangle sound out there everywhere.

I think about chipmunks buried in their underground winter lairs. It seems like it would be cozy, but claustrophobic to be down there under feet of piled snow.

I wonder if they worry about eating too much and not being able to fit through their tunnel to the outside world, once the glories of spring arrive.

I recently saw the tunneling trail of a mouse or a vole in the front yard. It was looped around and around in a seemingly haphazard fashion. I also saw the footprints of a mouse out along the bricks outside the back door.

I followed the tracks toward the bird feeders and found that the mouse had stopped to crouch between two pasty-sized rocks in the garden to get out of the wind and the cold.

Meanwhile, the seasonal movements of birds continue to captivate and delight me.

There has been a lone visitor from the high latitudes in the yard for several days now, a snow bunting in beautiful wintry white plumage. It has been feeding in the snow under the bird feeders and digging for seeds out where I drop corn for the deer.

It seems to like to dig holes in the snow to sit in. It also sprays up the snow in its search for food by quickly moving its beak back and forth in the snow.

These birds make their way to this part of the world each winter. They are usually found around farms and fields or along roadsides. When cars pass, they fly up in groups of a dozen or more in one tremendous flurry of black and white.

This is what intrigues me about the recent visitor to my yard – the bird is alone and has been for several days. I can’t remember seeing a snow bunting all by itself before.

Meanwhile, the purple martins continue their flight north for spring. The last I heard they had reached Florida.

Sometime after 3 a.m., I begin to fall asleep. I look outside one last time. The deer are still out under the cedar trees. At the back of the house, there’s a dark form low to the ground that I can’t make out without a closer look.

I go downstairs to the kitchen window and I get the flashlight. When I shine the beam out toward the shape, I see deer eyes looking back. The deer was lying down under an apple tree.

With the light in its eyes, it raised its head. I moved the light away and the deer put its head back down, presumably to sleep. I take up the same notion myself.

The next morning, the instant mashed potato flake snow was piled higher than the weatherman suggested. The flakes glistened in sunlight that was shining dimly through a bank of gray flat clouds.

If I was able to stand on the top of the snow without sinking, the clothesline out back would run across my legs just over my knee caps. The roofs I’d raked days ago were again covered with a thick blanket of snow.

I imagine when Mother Nature adds some heat and precipitation to the scene, the fluffy flakes will turn into something very much like instant mashed potatoes.

In those days, the half-melted brown gravy slurry from the sanded county road will be splashed by passing cars up over the snowbanks. I’ll be there trying to dig it out, one shovel spoonful at a time.

For now, the sunshine has broken through the clouds, revealing a crackling azure blue sky. The tops of the maple trees, still encrusted with ice, are sparkling like tremendous jewels.

They decorate this wintry world here inside my snow globe where I wait and watch for signs of spring. I am content knowing nature is in control, turning the clock and the seasons, all in good time.

I feel so fortunate to be able to witness it all.

I think about a cup of hot chocolate. I stretch and stand and make my way from the writing room at the end of the hall downstairs to the kitchen.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.