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Lull in season no reason to stay indoors

Hairy woodpeckers are year-round residents of this area, making them one of the expected species, even in winter.

It may have happened to me before but I can't recall. Certainly it's rarely experienced even during this season. But happen it did.

Late last week, I found myself taking a stroll in the cold and light snow in a wooded area along the Red River. All told, I probably walked a mile through the trees and weedy overgrowth. A half hour later I returned to my car somewhat stunned. During the entire excursion I had not seen nor heard a single bird. Not a woodpecker, not a chickadee, not a crow, nothing. For a few weeks in May a person could reasonably find 100 species in this same area. The contrast is rather startling.

Among birders, this time of year is widely recognized as the nadir of the season, the low point on the birding calendar when all of the summer resident species are gone, along with the lion's share of migrants. Even the expected winter visitors are scarce it being so early into the season. Not quite cold enough or snowy enough, a lot of birds are still feeding in more northerly areas on their natural food sources. As a result, very few winged beasts are currently present.

This is nothing new to us residents of the northern plains, of course. The first pioneers certainly knew the shutting down of the landscape. Trees are bare and braced for a few months of freezing temperatures. All of the aboveground growth of grasses and forbs has withered to a bland blend of tans and grays, leaving the only spark of life in them beneath the soil line. The animal world has taken steps to withstand the coming months as well; the bold having put on layers of fat and fur, others slumbering away in hibernacula or other makeshift quarters.

Most birders use this time of year to catch up on to-dos largely ignored during the busy summer. They try to make some sense of their records, most having been hurriedly scribbled on stray pieces of paper. They may take the time to clean dusty optics long neglected. Some are likely looking at the fresh crop of books, CDs, or other resource material with which to add to their personal collection. All are sleeping longer hours, the dawn chorus having fallen silent.

Sunday morning was different though, there were birds. This time it was a one-hour, three-mile walk around Fargo's Edgewood Golf Course. Temperatures were in the teens while the dawning sun was muted by a low cloud layer. A quiet snow was falling in large parachute like flakes with no wind.

Hairy woodpeckers were busy chiseling away bark in search of boring insects. Black-capped chickadees busied themselves with whatever it is that keeps them busy. Two purple finches were singing from the top of a mature elm. There were even a couple of brown creepers sneaking silently along the trunks of the larger trees. A total of four bald eagles were perched prominently and regally on branches overhanging the ice-festooned Red River. There was time in the not-too-distant past when a bald eagle sighting was considered a rare event. Thankfully this is no longer the case.

In all, 11 species were noted. Quite a paltry sum in contrast to summer but it was something. Taken at face value, Sunday morning might be considered a failure, at the very least a weak outing. How wrong that is.

Despite the seeming lack of wildlife activity there is still a personal desire - maybe even a calling - to get outside. If I've learned anything in 50 years it's the fact that the end result is often not where treasure lies. It's found in the journey along the way.

Had I not gone out that day I would have missed the bald eagles, the fox squirrels hustling along the path, the silent beauty of falling snow, and the ice sheets shushing along the river. Most people will still mostly shun this winter season, instead waiting for the returning spring before becoming active again. But if there is a season begging to be savored for its silence and humble inspiration, it is now. Take advantage of it.