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Savor being outdoors even when the weather is sour

Black-and-white warblers, such as this one, are common neotropical migrants in our area. Typical feeding behavior includes edging along tree bark in search of insects. In desperate times, however, earthworms are apparently not off limits. Keith Corliss

It was almost a month ago when, upon suffering a bad case of cabin fever, I ventured out for a walk in and around Armour Park in West Fargo. The first significant snow of the season had recently fallen, which made foot travel difficult but not impossible. So intent was I to simply get out of the house and do something, anything, that snow depth was almost meaningless.

Twenty minutes into my trek, I glanced ahead and saw an odd looking object at eye level in a leafless box elder tree 150 feet in front of me. The shape of this thing was interesting enough -- stout, blocky, stock-still -- to suggest that it might be a small owl.

Its coloration blended so evenly with its solemn gray surroundings that a person might easily overlook it. I nearly did. The cold northwest wind and stinging flurries made me hesitate somewhat. Was it worth trudging through fairly deep drifts to check this thing out?

After quickly weighing the pros and cons (I was getting rather tired at this point), one overriding factor influenced my decision. The object was clean and dry. You see, the upper surface of everything in the nearby landscape was white with newly fallen snow. Every leftover nest from last year, every tree branch even slightly horizontal, every piece of idle playground equipment, all showed a fluffy coating of snow on top. All, that is, except this thing. I knew from experience that a person can usually pick out a bird or other animal, often at great distances, simply by looking for things without a snowy cover.

Still, as I slogged through the heavy drifts and approached the curiosity, there remained considerable doubt. It didn’t move, it didn’t flinch, it didn’t flutter, and it didn’t fly. In fact, whatever this was was doing its best to resemble just another piece of drab inert nothingness that so often fools nearly every wildlife observer at various times.

It wasn’t until I got within perhaps 30 feet that the seemingly inanimate object turned its head and stared at me with wide yellow eyes. The small grayish lump had become an eastern screech owl.

What made this observation special was the fact I had never seen a screech owl perched out in the open during daylight hours, it being a fairly rigid adherent to its nocturnal ways. Every once in awhile I’ve been lucky enough to see one tentatively poke a head out of a nest hole, but to see one boldly exposed to the elements in midday was a first for me.

Some years ago a friend relayed the story of a cold snap during a late spring day. The neotropical birds that had made their way this far north during their annual migration from Central or South America were in obvious stress and in danger of succumbing to the unseasonal cold. Many such species depend upon protein-rich insects for food during this long energy-sapping journey, yet the bugs were all but shut down by the chilliness in the air.

Not shying from the miserable weather, my friend walked through a local park. A few birds were desperately trying to glean whatever invertebrate morsels they could find among the trees. On the ground in front of him, however, a curious scene unfolded. A black-and-white warbler was busily poking around in the leaf litter. At one point the bird tugged on an earthworm and began to devour it, not unlike a robin would do on our lawn. My friend had never seen this before and I certainly hadn’t heard of it either.

During every block of time spent outdoors there seems to be a moment that stands out. Whether it’s a short walk around the block with a dog or a 30-day canoe trip in Canada, something memorable inevitably occurs. It might not even be a “first ever” or a “never seen.” It may simply be the funny way a gray squirrel scolds you as you near its feeding tree, or the sweet wafting aroma of flowering honeysuckle vines, or maybe it’s hearing the haunting bleats of tundra swans passing overhead, unseen in the dark.

These are the singular memories we weave into the fabric of our lives. They enrich our personal narratives. They make the adventure, however small, worth the doing. One never knows what waits once the door is open to the outside and that first step is taken.