Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dead Coots

Over the past few weeks, as I cruise the streets, alleys, and parks in my lake hugging Northwestern Montana town, I notice an occasional large dead bird. They turn out to be coots.
American Coots, white beaked, black water fowl that I rarely notice the rest of the year. Yet in winter, they create massive flotillas on this end of the winter lake that seem to stretch for miles.

One year when the lake froze over during a sudden mercury plummet, hundreds of hapless coots became trapped in the ice. Later that day, a convention of
bald eagles converged on the spot right on Highway 93, near KwaTaqNuk. They settled on the ice to eat coots, leaving a good distance between themselves and neighboring diners. Also converging on the site of this quiet massacre were bird watchers with the longest telephoto lenses you've ever seen.

So back to the dead coots. This year word has gone out on the eagle telegraph and these massive birds of prey, symbol of our great land, have been spotted in treetops around the lake and river. Apparently, they are back to supplement their diet with more American Coot. My friend and avid bird photographer, Eugene says that the dead birds on the ground are the ones that the eagles couldn't manage to carry all the way to the treetops.

Think about the logistics of this. An American Bald Eagle weighs ten to fourteen pounds and a coot weighs in at about one pound. Add some ice and water clinging to feathers, a hundred pounds of survival instinct, and some disproportionately large, dragon-ugly feet aiming for your eyes, and coots suddenly don't look like such an easy lunch. Add to that an aerial, 'water pluck' with major eagle competition on your flight path and making it to a high branch still in possession of edibles becomes a real long shot. So much easier when they are stuck in the ice.

My other photographer friend, Janice Myers, took this photo a few Saturdays ago looking downriver from Riverside Park. Jan pursues photo ops from one end of the valley to the other, in her lemon meringue VW Bug. This magnificent American Bald Eagle might have just finished off an unlucky coot or be about to go find one.

When you venture outside into the byways of your little town, you just never know what you might run across. Who knew this high drama was taking place right under our noses.

Just this morning in Riverside Park, three or four plastic sled carcasses appeared. They could have been under the snow that just melted off, or were flung there when they couldn't cut the mustard any more. I imagine they gave their last polypropylene gasp on a heart bouncing race to the bottom. Now sliding days will be at a premium since the hard packed base coat has given way to greening grass blades and warmer weather. We're not fooled, though. We have lots of winter left for slip sliding down alleys and watching those clouds of waxwings and starlings that have been ravaging winter wild cherry and mountain ash trees.

If you happen to notice one of those dead coots on the ground near the river or lake, check out their legs and feet. Talk about weird!

Photo credit for American Coot: Peter S. Weber copywright

Happy Hunting, whatever it is you're after!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

SlipSliding down Winter Alleys

I was going to title this, Beware Winter Alleys, but what is there to say? Fall down, go boom...end of conversation. I was one of those youths who had a legion of well meaning folks ever cautioning me to avoid his or that. The conversation started with "Don't you dare... as I recall. I always did, dare that is. I snuck out my window and roamed at night as a pre-teen. From the same window, I hopped into friend's cars as a teeny bopper, which we then had to roll down the street with lights out to avoid detection. Later on, when the DO NOT list started with boys, I knew if I ignored that advice, there was something great awaiting me, and I was right. I biked 2500 miles alone across Canada one time, which was the topic of much advice. So now I'm more sensible and the temptation list is really short.

However, even I know I should heed my own advice and avoid winter alleys buffed to a high gloss. Alleys in spring are a salad buffet, in summer, the miniature countryside of fragrant foliage and good eating, in fall a comforting, quiet get away (mind the garbage bins, stray cats and back yard mechanics).

Winter is another story. It can be either a skating rink or a geography of icy ridges, lightly covered mounds of dog poo, light powder on glass, like sawdust on a dance floor. I have lucked out so far in that all my spills have been benign and I do keep meaning to buy those ice traction get ups for boots. I see the tracks in my neighborhood of the sensible walkers who stick to the main streets and wear metal cleats.

Speaking of tracks, one clear January day, I saw a distinctive running shoe track in the snow way over by the city dock and as my course took me back several blocks to my neighborhood, I picked up the exact track along 5th Ave. W, followed it through this alley and then let it go, since it was just curiosity pure and simple. I had figured out it was a woman based on shoe size and stride. When I lived on the edge of 10 miles of mixed deciduous, conifer forest in Canada, tracking was our winter fun! What creatures we 'spotted'-bobcat, mountain lion, bear, deer, rabbit, porcupine, moose, weasel, ferret- if only by their footprints.
As these photos show, there is not a bleaker landscape than a
winter alley, and yet because this is only one aspect, albeit an ugly one, I know better things are in store. Like your beloved in winter, who is a decent sort of guy or gal, but who is cranky and out of sorts at this season, the winter alley is just biding its time, seeds snoring softly under the frozen earth, thousands of buds lining the bowed branches, poised to bust open, just awaiting the wake up kiss of spring.

Happy Alley Sliding!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

February Under the Big Sky

Winter in Montana is not the time you would associate with alley grazing, though as you may have read in earlier posts, my friend Mary and I did dig collards out of the snow a couple winters ago. My morning and evening jaunt is more like alley crawling, stomping, slip/sliding or even skiing. Most winters, Polson doesn't have enough new powder to do anything except...sledding. That most ancient of winter pastimes happens with a vengance at our own Riverside Park, only four blocks (and one alley) from my home.
And that my friends, is a sight to behold. Grab your little red sled, toboggan, or old fashioned Red Flyer (remember, the one with runners) and the thickest coat you have, and head to the park. Riverside Park overlooks the swift running Flathead River, Polson Bridge clicking under a steady stream of cars, and in the water, Canada geese, coots ganged up in flotillas, maybe even a Bald Eagle or two. My friend Jan took this at the park last Saturday with an extremely long lens.

The slope from 1st Street down to the playground is steep enough that, with some new powder, and a little push to start your sled, you go like a blue streak, pushing your heart rate into triple digit arythmia. Little bumps engineered into the hill give your tail bone a thrill as well. However, the local snowboard set has upped the ante with a rock hard snow ramp ending in a picnic table that launches the erstwhile snowboarder into a free fall of about 8-10 feet. Yowza.
So from the bucolic peacefulness of early morning and late
evening alley strolling, I am but a few blocks from the break neck wildness and hilarity of Riverside Park. The few times my dog, Sam ever escaped during the summertime, I found him at Riverside, chest deep in the river, where he was invisible under a couple dozen hands caressing his waterlogged body. If a dog could purr, he would have. His favorite companions are the sun baked kids who swim away their days like otters. Even the dogs in town know where the fun lives.

photocredits: winter copywright

Fun is always just around the corner!