From the Archives: A Natural View: This Ruffed Grouse Has Me On Edge

Terry Sprague

This ruffed grouse waits for a chance to fly across the road. (Photo by Alix d'Entremont)

[This article ran in the February/March 2014 issue of The SCOOP.]

I have never killed a bird intentionally. However, there is one along the road I walk on every day whose days may be numbered.

The bird is a ruffed grouse that purposely waits for me in the branches of an ironwood tree every morning. It is very dark these mornings, so I can’t spot it in order to prepare myself. With an explosion of whirring wings, it flies directly in front of me to a maple on the other side of the road, missing me by inches. Sometimes there are two, strategically spaced, as though purposely, to produce the greatest effect.

I walk this road every day in the crispness of early morning and bask in the absolute stillness that accents this road most days. I started my walk thirty minutes early this morning, at 5:15 a.m., with the thought that I could pass the tree before the two ruffed grouse realize that I had arrived. But, they were waiting for me. This time I was sure that I could feel the wing tips grazing my coat as they ambushed me, yet again. In the darkness I could hear a faint chortle. Bird guides would have us believe that it is just one of several sounds that it makes from its somewhat primitive vocal apparatus; my interpretation is somewhat different.

Mornings are special along this road. Both the Big and Little Dippers hang suspended in the sky, their images extraordinarily sharp despite considerable illumination from the moon. Recent mornings have produced the deep booming hoots of the great horned owl. Incredibly, with snow still thick in the woods and frost tingeing the branches, the owls are now actively nesting. They must nest early as their eggs need to be incubated for more than a month, and the owlets don’t roam from the nest for another two months. By then, it will be May, and it could still be awhile before the owlets take flight.

Surprises like the grouse make the walk more interesting. Last year at this time, it was a screech owl whose descending whinny from a grove of poplars caught me my surprise. One morning, the LED beam of my headlamp affixed to my forehead revealed the image of a coyote as it crossed the road less than 10 metres in front of me. It had come from the ice on the Bay of Quinte and disappeared out of sight between two houses, barely giving me a second glance. It was a heart stopping moment, almost ethereal, as it was so unexpected. He was so quiet that my dog didn’t even notice him, as though he had been walking on a cushion of morning air.

The bay was uneventful this winter. I did not hear the usual rumbling associated with the ice rending itself in response to changing temperatures. There was no heaving, and no pressure cracks that I could see. Was this due to consistently cold overnight and daytime temperatures this winter? Only the bay has the answer. In a few short weeks, the relevancy of the mystery will have less importance as the ice turns black and begins its journey in a convoluted route to Lake Ontario.

What we have had this past winter was a somewhat new phenomenon known as frost quakes, aka cryoseism, miniature seismic events that resulted from the expansion of ice during a sudden cool down. And we experienced several of those this winter, sending home owners in their night attire out into the frigid temperatures to see what had hit the house. Miniature crevices appeared in the snow the length of farm fields as the ground rebelled from the sudden freezing of water-soaked surfaces and substrates. It was particularly unnerving when the frost quake occurred on the roof top because of the accumulated ice from the storm in late December. We also learned another new term - polar vortex, an Arctic air mass that brought us very cold temperatures. Interesting buzzwords that we have added to our vocabulary this winter. These were all weather extremes that I witnessed on my morning walks.

As I return home, a hint of daylight is appearing on the horizon. A male cardinal calls from deep within the red cedars. Mnemonics suggest the male is singing “cheer-cheer-cheer” as he establishes his territory. Is it anthropomorphic for us to imagine that he is simply singing because he’s happy? Happy that winter is on the wane and longer days, slightly warmer temperatures and a hint of greening on the conifers suggesting that another spring is about to arrive, perhaps in spurts as though unsure of its welcome.

Deeper in these same cedar woods, at least a half dozen robins are stirring. They were here all winter as I have bumped into them often during my morning walks. Lots of wild fruit is hanging on the trees for them this winter. Very soon, the first song sparrow of the season will erupt into its varied repertoire. Horned larks have been here for some weeks. An optimistic killdeer may show up in late February.

In the weeks to come, this same road will burst with song as towhees, savannah sparrows and flycatchers accent the air with their individual songs. No longer will I need to dash to one side as the snow plow approaches. Instead, it will be sidestepping puddles. The ruffed grouse hopefully will be nesting by then.

Terry Sprague lives in Prince Edward County and is a retired interpretive naturalist and hike leader. See his website at www.naturestuff.net. He can be reached at tsprague@xplornet.com.

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